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April 20, 2014

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What Do Clients Really Need?

I was recently asked my thoughts on how a consultant could best help his clients to determine what they need from him. While I could name several things that would help, I believe that developing strong and open communications with clients is the most important thing a consultant can do to serve them best.

Clients are just like you and me. They have a general understanding of what they need--but this understanding is based on their previous experiences or biases about your profession. If a client has had a good experience in the past with someone from your profession, your discussion will be easy. If not, this discussion will be more difficult. For instance, for years I have heard that many people believe that architects do not do a good job of managing a budget for their clients. This couldn’t be further from the truth for ninety percent of all architecture firms. Sure, there are those who don’t manage budgets well, and those are the cases that are publicized, forming the perspective of many clients. Through developing a strong working relationship with a client, one can dispel the myths and biases that a client may have believed to be true while getting closer to the heart of what a client needs. Following are some suggestions on how to open up communications with your clients.

Stop talking in code. Every industry has its jargon. When you speak using jargon, most clients have no idea what you are saying. I had a discussion the other day with a computer technology consultant. He may have been speaking English, but it was not the English I know. I sat for ten minutes without a clue as to what he was telling me. I had to ask him to put it in eighth grade language (although I should have asked for sixth grade) so I could understand what he was trying to tell me. Although he may be the best technology consultant in town, working with him is very difficult for me because he doesn’t explain things to me in a way that I can understand.

Even with within my own profession, there is not agreement on common terminology. Does anyone really know the difference between conceptual design, preliminary design, and schematic design? I’m not completely sure myself and I’ve practiced in the profession for over twenty-five years. Terms such as these only serve to confuse matters. Use plain language with your clients. It is always better to explain what your services will do for the client rather than to get caught up in what these services are called.

Understand your client’s desired outcome. I suggest starting a conversation with your client by finding out what he hopes your services will accomplish for him. Ask questions. Ask questions until you are sure that you clearly understand, and then repeat your understanding to the client for clarification. Focusing on the outcomes of your services will help you frame what the client really needs from you. It will also help you identify the best ways to help him meet the outcomes.

Discuss alternative approaches. Another great way of identifying how best to help a client is through developing alternative approaches to achieving his desired outcome. I’ve found that this discussion can lead to an even better understanding of your client’s needs. Thinking this way will also help demonstrate to your clients that you care about them, their needs, and the final result, which will further your relationship far more than by posturing and talking in code.

Developing strong and open relationships with your clients will help you help them best.

Until next time ...

Craig

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