Change Takes Time
We are well aware of the challenges of change when working with clients. Eighteen months ago, I wrote about our phased consulting process, which inevitably creates some tension to produce positive results. From our perspective as marketing and management consultants, the ability to work with owners and operators to effect positive change is exhilarating. We know and trust our process, so it is easier for us to see the medium- to longer-term benefit and not be paused by the shorter-term challenges. So we are sure to let prospective clients know that it tends to get tougher before it gets better (hopefully, much better).
This is much easier said than heard -- the longer client businesses have been operating in one pattern, the tougher it is to weave another. I've recently been thinking a lot about change from the client perspective, and what our process experience must be like for those we serve. The researcher in me has decided that this very topic will be our next client survey. In the meantime, I'm going to share a few thoughts from my perspective.
Our first phase is entry -- in this phase we are gathering the information necessary to write a proposal. From our perspective, we need to identify areas of opportunity and assess fit for both parties as not every prospective client is a match. When we determine a likely great fit, it is exciting and a little nervous because we of course want to work with 100% of great fits, even though we know it's not an achievable goal.
For clients, however, this phase must come with excitement when imagining future possibilities and challenge given our questions, which are detailed. Even though we explain that confidentiality is critical and sign NDAs for prospective clients, for some -- especially those newer to the industry, sharing this information must also be at least a little bit uncomfortable.
In our research phase, once we are officially hired, we continue to gather information in the form of more interviewing, surveys and client data. Then we go about analyzing everything to present an initial recommendations report. For clients, this can be a tough phase because it involves opening up parts of their business that even they may not have examined in years. Our intention is to prepare teams to think differently and begin to view their roles with the aid of a different perspective. When we present that initial report, there are always strengths to celebrate and challenges to navigate. It's the "moment of truth" and is usually a big turning point in our projects. When I see a client come away both inflated and deflated, I know our process is working, and I respect that it is often very tough. (I used to feel very similar when coaching first time triathletes for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program. Many of my team members had never run a 5k and therefore a triathlon must have felt like climbing a mountain. I loved cheering them on and seeing each of the incremental results along the way; yet I knew the training could be grueling. "Just think how amazing you're going to feel crossing the finish line" helped people swim, bike and run a little bit harder and probably gave many people a good snicker as they were rolling their eyes at me.)
Our action planning phase may just be the toughest part for clients. We have just created that turning point, and now need to focus on the "quiet" time of the engagement, while they are usually ready to see the results. Communicating why we need this period and how it will benefit our clients is very important. I'm quite sure that it must feel like we have shown a path with light and then shut the door, asking them to wait a few weeks more. I've heard that seeing our plans is the first time many clients believe the change can actually be effected. I've also heard that it can be overwhelming.
The implementation phase for many is the fun part. The toughest work is done and as long as we follow the plan, results will come. Our ability to project manage and use timelines helps ensure everything is kept on track. This is typically when I hear a first "thank you so much" or "this is really working", or even, "I wasn't so sure at first but this process has been more helpful than I imagined". It always delights me because I respect how difficult it is to bring in an outside perspective and fully open your business to change. It is also a time when I ask clients for feedback -- not just positive, because we are continually working to improve our process.
Finally, the transition phase is either the time where we are wrapping everything up or discussing our next engagement. By this time, the working relationship has been solidified, both parties have learned a lot, and we express our gratitude as well as desire to remain a valuable resource. My goal is for clients to feel and see a tremendous amount of value in the process and most importantly, positive change in their business -- both quantitative and qualitative.