Investing in relationships with your clients pays triple

Here is a real situation. Two SAP consultants are equally knowledgeable, equally diligent and equally passionate about their work. Both do a great job at gathering business requirements, configuring the system and getting things done in a reasonable amount of time. One finishes a successful go-live and gets praise from the client. The other is accused of taking too long, not keeping the client properly informed and is cut from the project. The only difference between the two consultants was the amount of time and effort they put into building personal relationships with their clients.

It may seem to some folks that consciously working on personal relationships with your clients for the purpose of having more successful projects is manipulative and disgenuine, that you should only show interest in someone's beliefs, values and personal life if you are naturally and emotionally attracted to that person. I get that. I understand why this would make many people uncomfortable.

However, there are usually two misconceptions that lead to this type of thinking:

Relationships do not belong in the workplace

Doing consulting work requires engaging with other people, both clients and co-workers. Relationships are the connective tissue that always impacts the transfer of information from one person to another. Whenever there is more than one person involved in a conversation, or task, or project everything is subject to personal interpretation and bias. And psychologically we as humans are generally programmed to be careful, if not defensive and suspect of people that we either know little about or have poor relationships with. In the end, it is in consultant's and client's best interest to develop and retain a positive and trusting relationship, because in the end it is a critical component of getting things done.

Relationships can be achieved by simply doing a good job

Unfortunately, good intentions and technical skills are not enough to build strong personal relationships. You have to engage in conversations on topics not related to work, you have to search for common interests, you have to earn and develop trust, which requires time and focus. You leave way too much to chance, if you treat relationships as an afterthought. Every consultant will sooner or later face a situation where his or her work and ethics will be subject to questioning. This often happens due to external factors, for example client's internal political turmoil or budget pressures. And when that happens, the only thing that will shield you from spending hours and days worrying, explaining and proving your worth and integrity will be the relationships that you've established with your customers.

So where do you start? Trust me, I am far from what you would call a "social butterfly". In fact, I generally avoid any type of social gatherings like the plague. For the most part, I only enjoy the company of my wife and my little girl. Thankfully there is a simple technique that I picked up from an "Influence" course I took as part of my MBA called fishing:

Talk to your clients about something other than work. Get to know them and look for areas where you both share common experiences, opinions and interests. Do you both have children? Do you like similar food? Do you both enjoy sci-fi movies? Do you play or watch the same sports? Once you have some common ground to stand on it becomes a lot easier to carry a conversation.

The next most important thing to do is pay attention. What I mean by that is staying in tune with any signs of your relationship getting stronger or weaker. Sometimes these signs are very visible, for example a genuine verbal compliment on your work. Other times they are very subtle, almost to a point where you have rely only on your intuition rather than hard evidence. I've found that paying close attention to your own gutt feel and emotional sensors is incredibly important in maintaining and developing relationships. There are a number of articles and books out there that discuss the topic of emotional intelligence in great detail and I encourage you to do some reading on this subject.

In the end the technical know-how is not more important than the relationships with the client, and vice verse. Both are necessary in order to have consistent and predictable long-term success as a consultant.