6 steps to build rapport with clients (in a hybrid world)
Signing a new client is one of the ever great feelings as a consultant. Regardless of your field or level of expertise, it’s always gratifying to welcome a new organization into the fold. Yet, this period isn’t without its stresses—or its questions.
- How do I ensure a healthy client relationship in a world where health is on everyone’s minds?
- What obstacles should I look out for as we navigate a hybrid world?
- How can I demonstrate my expertise (and provide value) in the weeks and months to come?
Relationship building is a mindset, not a milestone. If client acquisition doesn’t translate to client retention, you’re doing yourself—and those you consult—a disservice. So, while winning new business is certainly worth celebrating, remember it’s just one leg of a long marathon.
As with any marathon, you’ll need to train for it before you can ace it. In this guide, you’ll learn how to build rapport with clients in six important, but manageable, stages:
- Make introductions.
- Gain understanding as a team.
- Get alignment and buy-in.
- Check in regularly (and be responsive).
- Be flexible (and proactive).
- Show results.
On your mark. Get set. Let’s go.
1. Make introductions.
Introductions are such a common courtesy that we often take them for granted. And yet, the intro can be a powerful art when leveraged with care and purpose.
The first thing you should do, following any client signing, is properly greet the people you’ll be working with. Whether you’re consulting onsite or remotely, you’ll want to send an initial email or Slack message introducing yourself to the team. Ask your primary point of contact whether you can reach out, or if they’d prefer to make introductions. Provide some details about yourself, your firm, and the experience you’re bringing to the project.
A common pitfall is that the introduction comes across as stuffy—or, worse, wildly casual. Take some time to review your communications up until now with your client. What was the tone like? What level of formality did they display? When in doubt, use your main contact as a baseline for how to interact with their peers.
Depending on the engagement, this greeting may double as a team kickoff. So, take advantage of the opportunity to make a good first impression. If you specialize in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) research, create a client dashboard or onboarding resource to brief the team on relevant terminology and metrics. If you’re a graphic designer, build a presentation deck to show your expertise, and get clients excited about the creative value you bring to the table.
You don’t need to overthink the introduction. Just make sure you don’t underthink it. Above all else, make sure you’re greeting those close to you on the project, and that you’re leaving them with something memorable or actionable (or both).
2. Gain understanding as a team.
Another critical juncture in the consultant-client journey is your first meeting as a team. Even if you already kicked off the project (via email, Slack, etc.), this meeting provides an opportunity to interact face-to-face with key stakeholders. This can help you learn more about the personalities in the room—and, by extension, the dynamics of your new team.
Think about who’s leading the discussion. If you’re running the meeting, set aside the first five to 15 minutes to learn more about the team, its people, and the problems they’re facing. Consider asking the following questions:
- What are your team’s top priorities this quarter?
- How are you measuring success for each initiative?
- Likewise, what are your expectations for our relationship?
- Are there any gaps or roadblocks we should account for?
You’ll also want to probe for the behavioral drives of those you’re working with. For example, you could ask the group:
- Who tends to drive the conversation forward, and who tends to listen?
- Do you prefer to talk through ideas as a group, or think them through independently?
- What’s the best way to share information? A detailed email? A casual phone call?
Compare these findings to your own workplace behavior. By understanding how different people are wired, you can determine where you fit within this collective team. In some areas, you may amplify existing behaviors, whereas in others, you may bring a unique perspective. These insights are especially critical in a hybrid world, where you can have 10 in the room and 10 on the Zoom any given day.
This is a lot of ground to cover in a short meeting. If you’re tight on time, make yourself an action item to follow up with team members individually. Or, if you’re a talent optimization consultant, you can streamline this meeting by having each team member first complete the PI Behavioral Assessment. Come to the group armed with individualized data, so you can share where everyone’s strengths lie, and identify areas for improved balance as a team.
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3. Get alignment and buy-in.
By this step of the process, you’ve developed a feel for your new team, and perhaps have made some early recommendations. Yet, ideas don’t always result in action unless everyone buys into those ideas—and commits to see them through.
Commitment starts with alignment. As you build out a meeting cadence with your client team, account for each stakeholder, their department, and the people they represent. Which teams have a stake in the project? What exactly are those stakes, and how high (or low) do they go?
Once you’ve gathered information on these stakeholders and their individual interests, consider the following for each party:
- Where is my expertise best applied?
- Where might my recommendations cause friction?
- Are there opportunities to enhance efficiency between departments?
- What concessions must be made to reach common ground?
Say you’re a tech consultant who has been brought on to audit a firm’s cybersecurity, and identify potential risks. You may work largely with the company’s IT department, but other stakeholders could include sales, finance, and other departments privy to sensitive data. If you recommend the company migrate its data to a new system, IT may see the value-add immediately; other departments, however, may push back on account of potential friction.
If your main touchpoint is IT, you may not have the means to influence these interdepartmental dynamics. Instead, where possible, look for overlapping interests among stakeholders. Perhaps the system migration will make it easier for finance to work with vendors concerned about their data. Likewise, sales could tout the integrity of the company’s data as part of its talk track.
If you must make concessions, make sure the team’s comfortable with the “why.” Share the research behind your recommendations. Find an advocate within the team who understands the value of these recommendations and can help bring others on board. Create an environment of shared buy-in, so you can all commit to the work ahead.
4. Be flexible (and responsive).
Empathy has always been a valuable skill to consultants. Now, as companies adjust to hybrid work, it has become a superpower—a real differentiator. By showing your ability to think from your client’s perspective, you put yourself in the best position to respond to (and ultimately address) any pain points.
Being responsive hinges upon clear, candid communication. If you haven’t yet, set up a regular stream of check-ins with the team. Depending on the scope of the project, a weekly sync may suffice. But if there are a lot of moving parts, you may choose to up that cadence, or even supplement it with 1-on-1 meetings with key stakeholders.
Each meeting is an opportunity to align not just on goals, but on sentiment. Seize those opportunities, as they only serve to bolster your relationship with your client. Consider starting off check-ins with the following questions:
- How’s the team feeling about the work being done?
- What are some recent successes?
- What are some nagging concerns?
- What’s the energy level of different departments?
- Are people engaged?
Whether you’re a management consultant, an executive coach, or an entirely different role, these questions apply to you. At a time when burnout is rampant and employees are quitting en masse, every consultant has a responsibility to their clients to lead with empathy and carry themselves with grace.
Doing so is more than just a classy move. It’s a powerful way to demonstrate your commitment to your client—and inspire confidence in your relationship.
5. Be creative (and proactive).
If being responsive helps you build good will, being proactive is how you can cash in those chips by taking thoughtful action for your client.
As a consultant, you ultimately serve to guide. Sometimes guiding means lending an ear, following rules or directives, or playing support for the benefit of the project. Other times, guiding calls for a far more active role—and the ability to go big and bold.
Creativity is a delicate art in the consulting world. On one hand, you never want to overstep a boundary between you and your client. On the other hand, you always want to do what you feel is best for their organization and people. The key lies in respecting the line between tradition and innovation, and knowing when to cross from one arena to the other.
Don’t be afraid to be nimble, and certainly don’t shy away from being prescriptive when you have suggestions based on your natural expertise. You’re there to guide, yes—but you’re also there to provide exceptional service. The exception almost never lies with what’s been done before, but rather what lies ahead of the curve. After all, clients don’t hire consultants to help them navigate established playbooks. They could do that themselves.
Get ahead of that curve. Are you an IT consultant who specializes in data security? Build a sleek training curriculum that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. Do you provide website branding? Experiment with forward-looking color schemes and layouts.
Innovation doesn’t always mean reinventing the wheel. But by leaning into your art, whatever that may be, your final product—and its value—will speak for itself.
6. Show results.
At the end of the day (or project), nothing speaks louder than results. So, be sure to celebrate your wins, both big and small.
Make a habit of showing your client how the work being done ties back to the goals you’ve set as a team. If you’re heading up the work, that might mean tracking your own key performance indicators (“KPIs”) and backing up your recommendations with data.
If the project is more collaborative in nature, and involves contributions from many stakeholders, show them where their work is making a difference. From a closed won opportunity that will generate “X” dollars in revenue, to a logo redesign that furthers the brand, leave no major milestone unturned.
Of course, when measuring results, the good often comes with the bad. Rather than shy away from a misstep, own it. Use the moment as a learning experience. Better yet, use it as an opportunity to build rapport with your client—and set them up for a future win.
Your relationship with your client is built on a foundation of candor and trust. Leaning into the losses isn’t a sign of weakness, or even wrongdoing. It shows confidence in yourself, and commitment to the health and success of the project.
Growing a consulting business takes work—especially in a hybrid world. As prospects and clients struggle with burnout and turnover, they’re focusing their efforts toward their people like never before. Priorities have shifted. Office layouts have changed. And leaders everywhere are reevaluating the meanings of inclusion, safety, and belonging.
The nature of engagements may never look the same. Yet, with these shifts come opportunities. By helping prospects and clients navigate this daunting period of change management, you can establish yourself as a trusted advisor for months and years to come.
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