Unspoken Assumptions – More on the Client / Consultant Relationship

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I wrote some notes last week on the unspoken assumptions that govern (or fail to govern) the relationship between a client and a consultant. Put together, these might constitute a Services Charter that formally documents the way in which Client and Consultant work together.

Better to write these things down than deal with misunderstandings later. Misunderstandings impact on revenue and reputation.

customer supplier

Services Charter

Here’s a further set of clauses that such a charter might include::

Working Practices

Working Time

Professional service time includes all time during which professional staff are adding value to the client through project or assignment work, on the assumption that such time is spent efficiently on relevant issues falling within the scope of the project or assignment during reasonable working hours or agreed overtime.

Such time is not always spent at the client’s place of work, but when time is spent elsewhere this is by agreement.

All working time is recorded by professional staff using the Professional Services Organization’s (PSO’s) professional services software and is subject to review and approval for invoicing by the PSO’s project managers and/or services managers as well as by the client. The PSO’s presumption is that project and assignment time will be invoiced whether on-site or off-site.

Sometimes the client will be unable to verify that time reported by professional staff has been spent in the way each individual has reported (especially if the work is done off site, but also at times when the work is done on site), but the working relationship between the PSO and the client requires a degree of trust on this matter. If the client wishes to dispute such time then he or she may do so (see Disputes).

The PSO’s time recording software records time to the nearest (greater) quarter of an hour in respect of time spent by the PSO’s staff. Thus if 10 minutes are spent, a quarter of an hour will be reported.

For on-site assignments a minimum of two hours is charged for an assignment. This mitigates the inefficiencies (lost consulting time) incurred by the PSO when consultants move between locations, and encourages clients to consider ‘packaging’ issues into assignments of greater duration, whether ad-hoc or project assignments. Doing this is mutually beneficial.

Working time will usually be standard time for the location. This is determined by the location of the client. In general, unless required otherwise, the client’s working conventions (arrival and departure times) will be observed by the PSO. When projects are executed at the client’s location and full days are worked by the PSO’s staff, a full day will be reported and charged when the client’s hours are observed. In these circumstances, if a client specifically asks the PSO’s staff to arrive late or leave early, a full day will nevertheless be reported and charged, unless other terms have been agreed in advance.

Working Conditions

Safety

The client is responsible for providing for the PSO’s staff with a safe and clean working environment, with sufficient space made available for the conduct of his or her work. This will usually mean a specific working space or desk where the consultant can work without distraction.

Refreshments and Meals

The client is responsible for providing for the consultant access to refreshments, such as tea, coffee, and water. There is no obligation on the client to provide these free of charge.

The client is responsible for providing for the PSO’s staff access to meals at mealtime, either in the client’s staff restaurant or through recommendation of a local restaurant.

Both parties understand that pauses of a few minutes (sometimes including smoking breaks) are part of working life, and this applies equally to professional work. We believe it is reasonable that pauses of up to five minutes occur every hour, though this by no means confers a right to such breaks in circumstances that make such breaks inconvenient.

The duration of meal breaks will conform to local standards and will not usually be reported as or considered as consulting time unless they are effectively ’working lunches’ with the client’s staff, where serious issues pertaining to the project or the assignment are discussed. If meals are taken with the client and as a consequence the duration of the meal exceeds local standards, the PSO reserves the right to treat the excess time as services time spent with the client.

Interruptions

We generally discourage our professional staff from making personal phone calls, reading or preparing emails that are not relevant to the client’s assignment, or from browsing the internet for irrelevant purposes. However, it is understood that occasional private calls, even calls to other clients, when important, are part of everyday life. When these exceed more than five minutes the client may dispute charges for this time. We generally discourage clients from making unarranged calls to staff when they are not working on the client’s project or assignment.

Environment

The client is responsible for ensuring that the PSO’s staff ‘s working environment is quiet and comfortable, and that professional staff are not interrupted or otherwise prevented from making progress with the project or assignment.

Standards of Behaviour

The PSO requires that clients behave respectfully towards its staff, just as the PSO enjoins its staff to behave in a respectful manner towards the client’s staff. Ideally this is a friendly relationship based on mutual respect and common goals.

In this relationship anger, as well as other displays of emotion, is inappropriate. Where there may be cause for anger, we would ask the client to abide by the procedures laid out in Disputes just as we ask our staff to do so.

In situations where the client engages in angry, insultingly disrespectful or verbally aggressive behaviour we ask our staff to request a pause, or to withdraw from the situation. The PSO reserves the right to withdraw professional staff permanently from the project or assignment when this situation occurs frequently or is extreme.

Furthermore, the PSO reserves the right to withdraw from meetings or gatherings or from the working environment if disputes between the client’s staff are unduly emotional.

Standards of Appearance

Unless agreed otherwise consultants will wear business attire. If the client permits, consultants will wear business casual or more informal clothes.

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Last instalment on Friday.

Unspoken Assumptions – Do we have the same understanding as our customers as to what consulting means?

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I’ve blogged extensively about how the performance of a professional services company might be measured (see PSO Posts). I identified eight different measurements. At least five of these can be affected by your customer’s perception or misperception of your business:

  • Standard Fee Variance will be affected by the willingness of a client to accept a PSO’s most profitable fee rates
  • Utilisation will be affected by the way a PSO and client work together
  • Realisation will be affected by the willingness of a client to accept that a PSO’s work is chargeable
  • WIP Days will be affected by the willingness of a client to accept an invoice
  • Debtor Days will be affected by the client’s willingness to pay

Many aspects of the relationship between you and your customer are defined by contract, but in my experience assumptions by one side or the other are often undocumented, and when it matters, it turns out that they differ.

customer supplier

It makes sense for a PSO to agree in advance the way in which both parties should work together. You might think that these understandings should be part of the Terms of Reference for a particular project, but they are often sufficiently general, and summarise the style and philosophy of a PSO so comprehensively, that there is some value in publishing these terms and agreeing them separately, even in advance of project negotiation. They can be useful during the sales process, clarifying what the buyer is buying and the seller, selling.

A Services Charter fulfils this need and might cover the following areas:

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Introduction

Principles

Client Involvement

  • Limitations
  • Client Engagement
  • Communication

Working Practices

  • Working Time

Working Conditions

  • Safety
  • Refreshments and Meals
  • Interruptions
  • Environment
  • Standards of Behaviour
  • Standards of Appearance

Commercial Issues

  • Expenses
  • Travel Time
  • Account Management
  • Cancellations
  • Commercial Issues
  • Issues Arising from Non-Payment

Project Issues

  • Projects (Scoped Fixed Price / Time and Materials / Etc.)
  • Scoped Fixed Price projects
  • Time and Materials projects
  • Time-Hire Projects
  • Outsource ‘Functional’ Work
  • Training
  • Acceptance
  • Project Management

Disputes

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Let’s start with the first three sections of such a Charter:

Introduction

This document sets out the principles and assumptions that underlie the provision of services by the PSO to a client. It is not a contractual document, but the signature of both parties indicates acceptance that this charter governs day-to-day relations between the parties.

Principles

Independence and neutrality

A client should expect honest, impartial, objective advice and guidance from professional staff, who, from the moment of engagement, must have the client’s best interests in mind, whatever the commercial implications for the PSO.

Where the PSO is represented by a team of consultants, advice must be seen as collective, and must be formed in a disciplined and methodical manner, led by a senior member of the team, a project manager or services manager responsible for the assignment or project. Any professional staff holding a different view, must have the option to express this view through the team’s spokesman, but professional staff should not express, nor should a client foster, dissident views in a manner that undermines team work, and team responsibility.

Professional advice is given in good faith in the circumstances. These circumstances will reflect:

  •  Agreed needs of the client
  • Agreed priorities of the client
  • Financial limitations of the project or assignment
  • Deadlines
  • Skills available to the PSO
  • Skills available within the client’s organisation
  • Other factors

These may change, but a complete set of agreed, documented assumptions must always be at hand.It must also be understood that staff are fallible, and that whilst they accept responsibility for mistakes and the correction of those mistakes, they cannot on occasion avoid making them.

However, staff must always identify, admit and correct errors in their work or judgement. In some cases, mistakes and their correction should be seen as part of the working process (such as, in the joint development of systems), and because they are not surprising, plans must reflect the fact that they will occur.

The client will sometimes disagree with the judgement of professional advisers, even when all assumptions are agreed and there are no disagreements as to fact. In this case, whilst registering disagreement, a professional adviser should continue to advise the client and to accept the client’s judgement, though in some extreme cases the adviser may choose to withdraw from the project or assignment, if a reasonable case can be made for doing so.

In giving advice, staff do so against a background of stated assumptions.

Limitations

By default, a professional adviser is never an executive within a client’s organisation, and should not take responsibility for the client’s staff or their work unless (as perhaps in the case of interim management) he has specific, published authority to do so.

A professional adviser is never the legal representative of the client and is not responsible for statements, verbal or financial, that have legal repercussions for the client.

A professional adviser advises, and does not act in the place of any of the client’s staff, unless this is specifically agreed.

Client Involvement

Client Engagement

Projects and assignments can go wrong if the client does not engage deeply with the project or assignment. A professional adviser does not work ‘for’ the client, but more often ‘with’, the idea being that knowledge will be transferred to the client. Where the appropriate level of engagement by the client is missing, and if this raises risks for the project or assignment, the PSO will notify the client.

At best, a PSO’s professional staff can play the role of energetic, persuasive advisers, but final responsibility for the success of a project or assignment will depend on the client.

Communication

It is essential that expectations of the project and assignment are synchronised not only between the PSO’s project team and the client’s project team, but in depth in the client’s organisation, especially when end-users’ opinions, reactions and acceptance are required.

It is particularly essential that in the case of training the client clarifies for all trainees the objectives of the project, the limits to its scope and the role of the PSO in the process of the project or assignment.

Communication should be in unambiguous written form whenever possible.

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More next week.