Insights & Ideas

The right fit—how to integrate into client teams as a consultant

For consultants, building trust with a client team is job #1. Here’s how to do it.

Whether you’re in middle school or middle age, assimilating with a new set of peers can feel a bit daunting. However, when you’re a consultant, it’s part of every project. Luckily, many of our consultants at Salo say meeting new colleagues is one of the best parts of their job.

Salo consultants often work with clients onsite for months, so they need to build trust with new teams quickly at each engagement. Here are their top tips for making a smooth transition to a new team.

1.  Do your homework

It might seem obvious, but before you begin an interview or set foot in an organization, do some research. Find out: What does the company do? How is the team structured? What’s happening in their industry? Are there any current events that may impact (or necessitate) your role?

Building trust is easier when you’re informed. When you know about the organization, you can describe how your past experience is relevant to the client’s current situation. And, knowing some context—such a recent merger or executive team shakeup—gives you insight into the client’s mindset, so you can accurately address their challenges and concerns.

2. Set expectations early

Once you’re hired, start the job by meeting with your key client sponsor to outline (or confirm) how you will work together. Talk about:

  • The work—What you’ll do and how you’ll do it. (e.g., What does success mean? What internal processes should I be aware of? Who are the key stakeholders on the team? What format works best for deliverables?)
  • Communications—How to communicate most effectively with the sponsor and the client team overall. (e.g., How often should we have status updates? Do you communicate through email, Slack, etc.? When should I schedule in-person meetings?)
  • Corporate culture—How to act in the client’s environment. (e.g., What are normal office hours? Should I attend staff meetings? Is there casual Friday?)
    When the conversation is complete, send a summary to your client to ensure everyone is on the same page.

3. Designate time to meet the team

Although you’ll meet people organically while working on a project, you’ll be most successful if you get familiar with the key players on the client team early. Build connections and confidence in your work early makes it easier for you and the team. During the introduction phase:

  • Be prepared for each meeting. When possible, take some time to learn about the primary stakeholders before you meet them. Ask your client sponsor about each person’s role, check LinkedIn, etc. That will help you and the stakeholder get the most out the meeting.
  • Use tools to remember each person. When you’re meeting lots of people in a short period of time, help yourself out by taking notes. Write down each person’s name, position, and any project-relevant information. And, try to find something in common with each person. A personal association helps you remember the person better and gives you something to talk about if you meet her in the elevator later.
  • Be aware that people may have different reactions to you. As a consultant, you’re there to make things better, but not everybody will welcome you with open arms. While some people will be thankful for your assistance, others might feel uncomfortable or embarrassed that they need your help. Regardless, make sure each person feels heard, valued, and respected.
  • Ask permission to contact people in the future. Asking a simple question such as, “Could I contact you if I have questions?” goes a long way. Most importantly, it tells the person that you value what they have to say. It also creates an opening to learn about each person’s communications preferences and availability.

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4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

You’re smart and experienced. That’s why the client hired you. But, don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. At a new organization, there’s a lot to learn. Asking questions—instead of guessing or making assumptions—saves time and leads to more successful projects.

You can get your questions answered and still look smart by asking purposeful questions. Before you ask, think about:

  • What you’re asking for. Are you looking for information, advice, feedback, assistance, or permission?
  • How to format the question. Avoid confusion by asking several short, clear questions instead of a single, multifaceted or complicated question.
  • Who to ask. For critical questions, don’t just go to the easiest resource, go to the right person—even if you might feel awkward doing it.
  • How long the conversation will take. Do you have a simple question you can ask at the water cooler, or do you need to schedule a meeting? Be respectful of people’s time.

5. Relish your outsider status

Different teams treat consultants in different ways. Sometimes you’re treated like part of the family and sometimes you’re treated like an interloper. If you wind up in the second situation, remember that being an outsider is your strength, not your weakness. You were brought in to provide an outside opinion (and rising above company politics is a perk of consulting!)

In any engagement, your client “coworkers” will play a role in the project. Creating a strategy for integrating with the team that focuses on mutual respect and openness facilitates success.

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