How to Master the Art of Listening to Your Consulting Clients
If you’re lucky, you have a friend who can make you feel better just by spending time together. Maybe you’ve put your finger on what it is that “works” in your friendship, or maybe you haven’t. But think about it for a minute—what is it about your interactions that lift your spirits? What is it about the person that makes you feel better, happier, calmer, or more whole? Why do you come away from interactions with that person feeling better in general?
Chances are that there are a few things about that person or about your friendship that make you feel this way. And chances are that one of these things is that your friend listens to you, really hears you, and responds to you and your ideas, thoughts, and concerns in ways that make you know that you have been heard and seen. They may not always solve whatever problem you have, but more than likely, you walk away feeling like you have an ally, someone who gets what you’re going through and who can help you with solutions.
Your consulting clients want the same thing.
When I first became a consultant, I was pretty inexperienced. As a result, I was perhaps a bit insecure about making sure prospective or existing clients knew that I had smarts, knowledge, and skills to offer. I spent a lot of time talking about what I knew, what I had done in the past, and what I could do to help them. The truth is that I did that too much.
Those things are important. A client needs to know that a consultant is smart, knows their stuff, and has the skills and experience to get the job done well.
But, just as important, a client needs to know that they are being heard and seen and that they have an ally who will work shoulder to shoulder with them to solve their problems. This was the part I didn’t know how to convey as well as I could convey what was on my resume.
This was the part that I had to learn over time. I had to learn that being a great consultant isn’t only about the skills you have to offer, it’s also about your ability to listen and understand what your client really needs.
I’ve seen consultants (and, sadly, have been that consultant) who talked too much and didn’t listen enough, and the result was typically either solving the wrong problem, solving the right problem in the wrong way (i.e., the solution was too costly, would take too long, or wasn’t sustainable over the long haul), or possibly solving the right problem the right way but without building a relationship that would last beyond the project.
Early in my career, I saw a stark example of how critical it is to listen to your clients, and what can happen when you do listen and when you don’t. I was part of a team that was sent to Kenya and Tanzania to research sustainable solutions for drinking water and sanitation for some of the poorest communities in those countries. After decades of failed “first-world solutions” that were often contingent on having access to technology, infrastructure, and replacement parts or tools that folks could not get, projects had to go back to square one and develop solutions that worked for the people who needed the solutions and in the context in which they lived. In this case, the clients were the women (and sometimes children) who were responsible for collecting water and everyone in the community who would benefit from a functioning latrine. We, the consultants, were sent into these communities to do one thing: listen. Listen to what people said they needed, what solutions they thought they could support, and what barriers they faced in their day-to-day lives. Our job was to share this information with people who could build those solutions.
What resulted were simple wells and simple latrines, situated in locations that made sense and that were sustainable (i.e., could be fixed easily when they broke).
This lesson has stayed with me. I don’t always do it perfectly, of course. I get busy and want to move things along. Sometimes, I don’t listen because I think that I know better than the client, that I’ve seen their situation before, and that I know just the solution.
Most of the time, I’m wrong about that. When I slow down (for a minute, or a month—whatever it takes) and engage again in really listening, I realize I can’t create a solution with the client without fully hearing them.
So how do you do this, practically speaking? It’s one thing to listen to a friend who wants ideas and suggestions or who just needs to be heard. It’s another to listen to a client in order to solve a practical problem in a professional setting. Below are a few tips to be a better understand your clients’ needs through better listening. Each conversation will be different so the most important things is to listen to their answers and ask follow-up questions that are responsive to what they said. Not only does this show that you are listening, but it will also help you dig more deeply into their needs and concerns. No matter what, stay engaged in what the client is saying rather than just thinking about what you want to say next. Just like with our friends, we want clients to have the experience of having our full attention.
Also, listen for not just what they say but how they say it. If they say something and have some type of emotional charge in their voice (like worry, irritation, or doubt), that is a signal for you dig a little deeper to find out what is causing that reaction. You may hear something that can make or break the project’s success.
Although some of these tips may seem obvious, I know few consultants, including myself, who haven’t forgotten or neglected to do some of these or who practice all of these regularly.
Before Client Meetings
Do your homework first. Don’t ask your client questions you could answer on your own. You don’t want them to feel like you don’t value their time or that you aren’t a consultant who prepares. As consultants, our job is to make our clients’ lives easier. Showing up prepared is a critical step in doing that.
Before you first meet with your client—whether for the first time ever or the first time for a project—prepare questions that you can’t answer on your own and that you have to know the answers to in order to identify and understand their needs, concerns, and contexts and solve their problems.
During Client Meetings
During the meeting, ask them what their ultimate goals and objectives are for the project. Ask them to describe what success looks like at the end of the project and get enough details of their visions so you can develop precise solutions. For example, if they say, “I want to increase our revenue,” ask them more questions to get to a precise objective. In this example, you want to know how much they want to increase their revenue for what product or service lines over what period of time. If you don’t get those details, you may deliver an outcome that doesn’t match what they truly wanted. If you listen to them and it is clear that they don’t know what they want, that will help you understand that helping them clarify their goals and objectives may need to be part of your project.
Ask questions about what they think is necessary to achieve their goals and objectives. You can ask if they think these goals and objectives are achievable and what they think is essential to achieving them.
Ask them what has been done already to achieve goals and objectives and what the outcomes was. Try to get enough information to leverage what has worked and to avoid replicating what has not worked.
Ask them who else you should talk with to get a better understanding of the project and the context for the project. Ask them if there are any folks with particularly helpful insights or project champions or nay-sayers who you should talk to before you start or throughout the process.
If and when they are ready for suggestions and solutions, offer those. If you aren’t sure whether they are ready, ask them if they want to hear some options.
Ask what they want most in your interactions with them. Ask how they like to communicate and how often they want to check in or get updates. A consultant I know also asks new clients what their or their organization’s pet peeves are! That has helped her avoid some awkward moments.
After Client Meetings
Follow up your meetings with emails that summarize what you heard in addition to your action plans and other follow up items. That not only shows a client that you heard them and are clear about what to do, but it gives you documentation of key issues and decisions in case there is any confusion or disagreement later.
Schedule regular in-person or phone check-in meetings based on what they told you they want. During those check-in meetings, ask them to respond to what you are telling them or provide you with any new information that is critical to the project’s success. The key is to create opportunities for you to keep listening to them, find out what has changed, what is on their mind, and, importantly, how they are feeling.
After the Project
At the end of a project, talk to your client about what they liked best about working with you. Also, ask if they have anything they’d like for you to do differently next time.
Talk to the client about anything else they might want some assistance with and then, again, listen for what they want. Perhaps it is something you talked with them about during the project or something you saw that you know they care about and you may be able to help them with. The goal is not to try to push for another project. The goal is to listen to them and identify if there is any other value you can provide them with or problems you can help them solve.
Check in with your past clients periodically and ask them how things are going. Listen to what they tell you and offer to help them if you can or point them to where they can get help if they need it.
Mastering the art of truly listening to your clients and then asking responsive questions so you can discover more is what can separate good consultants from great consultants. It can ensure that your clients know that you understand and care about them and what they want and can make your projects much more successful. It also can keep your clients coming back to you again and again!