HR consulting is a relationship business, which can be both good and bad. It’s good when HR consultants have established strong client relationships that can lead to more work and referrals, but it can be bad when a key contact leaves a critical client organization. What can HR consultants do to preserve the client relationship when a key contact leaves or is about to leave? Those who have been in this situation offer insights, tips and even some positive implications of losing a key client contact.
“Clients often ask me ‘What is the most difficult thing about consulting?’ ” says Dennis Kravetz of Kravetz Associates in Scottsdale, Ariz. “They think I will respond by describing some highly complex project that I had to work on. Actually, I tell them, the most difficult aspect about consulting is the transitory nature of many of the people that you work with. They are literally here today and gone tomorrow. Trying to manage client relationships in a transitory world is extremely difficult.”
Sally Haver with The Ayers Group/Career Partners International in New York City notes that “Good experiences include being able to continue the relationship. Bad ones include the fact that new regimes have different priorities as well as different alliances. The new head of HR may have a strong, historic allegiance with another vendor—a competitor of yours—and nothing you say or do will break that bond.”
Yet, in some cases there are things HR consultants can do to respond to a sudden transition. Key among them, say those who have been there, is being proactive.
Planning for What Might Be Inevitable
“I have a number of companies where I can truthfully claim to have consulted there and yet I know nobody anymore,” says Laurence Stybel with Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire in Boston. “This is a fact of consulting life,” he says. “I look at developing relationships as a process that never ends.”
It’s a process that requires vigilance and planning.
“We plan for the inevitability of client contacts departing,” says Scott Nelson, executive vice president of consulting services for MDA Leadership Consulting in Minneapolis. “We know departures are simply a reality—that for whatever reasons, many of our original client contacts leave and we need to be prepared to work with their successors or other client contacts.”
Planning is critical, agrees Lisa Anderson.
“I’ve discovered there are a few secrets to how to address when your sponsor leaves the company,” says Anderson of LMA Consulting Group Inc. in Claremont, Calif. “The No. 1 way to address this issue is ahead of time. It is key to establish effective relationships not only with your sponsor but also with key project participants and other executives.”
Nelson also recommends having multiple touch points within an organization. In addition, he says, it’s important for the client to know multiple points of contact within the consulting firm. “The best client-vendor relationships are broad and deep,” he says. “For our largest accounts, we specifically assign two senior client managers, not only to convey the degree of importance we place on the relationship and provide the client with a greater depth of knowledge and experience, but also to be prepared, just in case someone departs.”
When the inevitable happens, act quickly, Anderson adds. “When your sponsor leaves the organization, it is important to immediately establish contact with the person transitioning into the role,” she says. “Offer to provide a project update and be sure not only to provide value but also to weave in enough organizational knowledge tied to potential results related to his or her likely areas of interest so that he or she will be interested in continuing the conversation.”
Learning from Experience
Mary Williams is a professional ergonomist, corporate trainer and wellness coach with Corporate Health Alliance LLC. Williams recalls a “great consulting job” at a hospital where she worked for a vice president who had hired her to “fill gaps and sometimes direct” people who came to resent her. “When he retired, I got shifted to a middle manager who had been friendly, but when she saw my invoice she became my gatekeeper and made an excuse to say ‘no’ to every project. I went from all of the work I could handle to no work at all. It lingered this way for years.”
Looking back, says Williams, she would have handled the situation differently. “I knew his retirement was coming, and I should have nurtured these relationships better. I had worked with the people so long that I think I got too casual and acted more like an employee than a consultant. Mostly I think I got sloppy and took the relationship for granted.”
Marcia Reynolds with Outsmart Your Brain had a similar experience: “After a seven-year relationship where I was awarded ‘vendor of the year’ twice, the director of training retired. The woman who replaced him, of course, wanted to make her mark. She scrapped all the programs and made plans for new ones.”
Reynolds says she did one thing wrong and one thing right in this situation. What she did wrong was to accept an assignment to develop and teach a program on an unfamiliar topic, based on content given to her by the client. “It felt pedantic and harsh. I did it anyway, hoping to establish a relationship with her. The pilot, made up of all male engineering leaders who didn’t want to be in the room, was a disaster. I have not done work for this corporation since.”
What she did right, she says, was to stay in contact with the vice president of HR over the years. “He was the person who originally brought me into the company. I occasionally send him research I think he will be interested in. I sponsor his run for the Heart Foundation. I send him holiday cards. Occasionally, we have met for breakfast.” Recently, she says, she was contacted about coaching the executive team. “We are now making plans to do this, and he has discussed my helping design the new succession plan.” Lesson learned: “Never give up.”
Looking on the Bright Side
There is a bright side to a client transition, note some HR consultants. Laurent Duperval with Consultation Duperval Inc. in Quebec advises HR consultants to see these transitions as opportunities, not threats. “Your contact may be going to a new company. If he or she maintains the same status, that can help you start working with that company,” Duperval says.
Alice Waagen, Ph.D., an HR/HRD consultant with Workforce Learning LLC in Herndon, Va., agrees. In fact, she says, “I am very pleased when a client of mine leaves their current position to join a new organization. I see their transition as potentially increasing my client base with a new organization.”Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.