Managing clients is a key component of successful academic consultancy. In the first of two posts this week, our very own experienced consultant Andrew Clappison sets out a number of pointers to help you avoid common pitfalls on managing new client relationships. Avoiding such pitfalls will save you time and face, and ensure the relationships you are forming now have a good chance of thriving and growing into the future.Your first break into the consultancy world may have seen clients approach you, come about through you promoting yourself, or indeed a combination of both. The piirus.ac.uk blog has some excellent advice on putting yourself in a good position to sell yourself in our guide, ‘Preparing for academic consultancy‘. If a client comes to you then you can be in a stronger position to shape the initial discussions, but beware! Your prospective client may well be initially speaking to several people.
When a client first contacts you, they will often not be absolutely clear on what the work involves and what they are asking for. This is not usually the time to negotiate your rates! First, it’s a good idea to indicate how busy you are and whether the work interests you. Second, ask them to send you a project brief or terms of reference (TOR) so you can see clearly what the work involves and how well developed their thinking is.
If you’re not interested (no time/ it’s not your favourite type of work!) then you can say no, but it’s a good idea to try and keep the client interested for the future: you never know when you might need to take on a project that is not your preferred kind of work. It’s not always easy to say ‘no’, but the following post by Jenny Delasalle might just help you: ‘How do you say “no”? 11 approaches you can try!’
If you are interested, then you need to find a way to talk further with your client: you might hear nothing from them for a while, and if you really want the work then it’s OK to send a gentle nudge to say that you are indeed interested in talking with them and taking things forward.
What do you NEED to know?
At this stage there are a number of key things you need to know anddo to help secure the work:
- Be clear on the project brief: What is the work? How do they describe it? Is there a TOR? Is their own description of the work and the TOR the same? If not, you need to raise this and make sure the brief is consistent. Sometimes clients are a bit vague, because they don’t know enough about what they are asking you to do!
- When do they imagine the work beginning – and ending? Be honest, and make sure you have plenty of time to complete the work between these dates. If those dates don’t work for you, you could ask how flexible might they be around those dates. It’s also useful to explain how flexible you are prepared to be.
- Can they afford to pay you? Mention your usual daily rate at some point: see if they find this acceptable. It can be hard to get this part right. Ask too much and you risk looking greedy and pricing yourself out of the job, ask too little and you may lose some credibility and find yourself working for nothing! If you are unsure where to start, speak to colleagues and academic support services to get an idea of how much you should charge per day.
- How many days does the client expect the work to take? A client will often expect you to quote for a number of days and its incredibly easy to get this wrong! If you do, you may find yourself working very hard for very little return so be cautious and realistic. In my experience most consultancy projects take roughly twice as long as you initially predict! Ahhhhh! A detailed proposal or plan is a useful tool when trying to predict the number of days required. It also useful to understand expectations and to get an idea of what the client is thinking here.
- Demonstrate that you know lots and suggest how they might approach the work. You might want to describe different possible approaches, depending on their timescales/expectations, etc. This way you can help your client to be clearer, and help yourself by getting a sense of which approach your client may prefer. Sometimes the person to whom you are speaking might need to confer and come back to you!
These are just the initial steps for managing your client, and part two of this great blog series will be followed up on Thursday, where we look at what you might expect after these initial discussions including how to handle the most common scenarios.