Every professional I know feels uncomfortable about the fact that at some point in the future they see no revenues coming in, after current assignments and contracts are completed. In private discussions, many professionals have told me how deeply they ache for the security of having long-term client relationships. Many find it difficult to attract new clients, don't enjoy that role, and know that it is time-consuming and costly.
Anyone who feels that way should definitely read this book. Primarily drawn from the experiences of the authors and of top advisors they interviewed, the answers ring true for me. Having been a management consultant for 30 of the past 33 years, all of my long-term relationships had the qualities described here.
The book outlines the characteristics that clients are typically looking for. These include:
Balancing detachment and dedication to the client's cause to act in selfless ways (you are especially warned against the 45 minute hard sell for the next assignment at the end of the current one.)
Becoming empathic with your client at such a level that you pick up on tiny, unspoken clues about what is on their minds
Moving beyond being a specialist into becoming a deep generalist so that you can help connect the perspectives of your specialty to adjacent issues
Seeing the big picture so that you can help synthesize solutions that no one else would have thought of
Improving your judgment so that you can sift the winning options from the losing ones (this section is particularly well done)
Acting from conviction by operating from your values rather than your self-interest
Having earned a deep level of trust you can draw on based on the integrity and competence you have shown in the past
The authors make these points very well by contrasting the role of experts (the one-time assignment of a specialist in a narrow area) with advisors (the broader role). For example, professionals often make the mistake of focusing on presentations and reports while clients often most value working sessions and one-on-one discussions.
There are also many examples in the book of great advisors like Gertrude Bell, David Ogilvy, George Marshall, Peter Drucker, Henry Kissinger, and Harry Hopkins. These role models help make the points clearer.
The authors also have a good section on evaluating whether or not you should want to have a long-term relationship with certain clients.
Now having praised the book, let me also point out that I disagree with the book's premise as it relates to management consulting. In my experience, it is bad for clients and consultants to focus on lifelong relationships.
Let me explain. Here are the problems from the client's point of view. First, if the consultants have done a good job, the company should at some point have learned how to do what the consultants do. Second, the firm is obviously larger than the consulting firm in most cases, and the expertise of the client should grow faster than the consultants. That means that the consultants should run out of relevant, needed expertise at some point. Third, if your clients are wildly successful as a result of your collaboration, they surpass their goals quickly and retire. As Peter Drucker has often said to me, "Don, the last person the new CEO wants to see is you if you have been close to the old CEO." The reason for that is because the new CEO wants to create her or his own mark. Peter Drucker has advised working for every other CEO in a company if you want to have a long-term relationship. Well, CEOs stay in their jobs about 7 years, and that is decling. That's not a lifetime. Finally, the time and money the client spends with you is time and money that they cannot spend with another consultant who may have expertise they need more than yours. I have seen famous, brand-name firms stay on too long in such circumstances and do great harm to their clients.
Now, let's look at the same question from the consultant's point of view. Peter Drucker's first client was General Motors, for example. Yet his biggest contributions have come in assignments for organizations like the Girl Scouts and churches, which came late in life. If he had stayed with only his first clients, even as large and interesting as they were, he would have cut off his opportunity to do his best work. I think that consultants should always be looking for where they can make the most positive contribution. That may not be in a lifelong relationship, and will usually not be.
Also, it is new clients who push you the most because you don't know exactly what is going on. When I look back on assignments, I find that I have usually learned the most from working with a client in the first 6 months. If I had stopped taking on new clients, 90 percent of the ideas I have developed would never have occurred to me.
So for me at least, this book points me in the wrong direction in pursuing the lifelong relationship. I suggest you ask yourself whether it does you or not, as well. On the other hand, it is always good to find ways to be more valuable to clients, and creating what could become a lifelong relationship through being a better advisor is commendable. The book can help you with that goal, as well.
Be a great advisor to your clients, regardless of the length of the relationship!