Although the majority of engineering articles focus on the technical aspects of engineering consultancy, the success of projects and client engagements can also be attributed to relationships and trust. This facet of engineering is not typically addressed in universities or training, hence consultants are often left to rely on their individual social skills (or lack thereof).
Scope and expectations
Often at the beginning of a project the scope can be left vague. These beginnings often result in dissatisfaction at the end of the project. Given the subjectivity and ambiguity of psychological contracts, these are preferably avoided, because they generate expectation gaps, which erode trust and result in perceived failure of the project (for both parties).
Furthermore, consultants should avoid business development representatives overpromising unrealistic results and should actively manage expectations throughout the project. Some say it is preferable to lower client expectations early on and then over deliver, to end on a high. Either way, both parties should insist on a clear written scope, despite the need for a formal contract diminishing with increased familiarity.
Complex stakeholder webs
In many cases the client can be ambiguous when there are multiple representatives with differing levels of empowerment and ‘stage’ presence forming a complex stakeholder web. This can lead to mixed signals, expectation gaps and difficulties in reaching consensus.
Imagine the concept of a ‘stage’ which the visible project team interact on, but a significant amount of the decision making is performed ‘backstage’ which often limits the empowerment of the interfacing client.
To overcome these complex stakeholder challenges, it is recommended to encourage senior stakeholders from both client and consultant to attend interface meetings to minimise communication gaps, backstage forces, late changes and frustrations for primary contacts.
Engineering consultants do not always have the benefit of contracting directly with the ultimate client. This ‘distance’ can sometimes be a source of distrust and ambiguity. Direct clients and ultimate clients often have differing opinions on items. Similarly, another potential indirect client could be the future building operator. In this arrangement it is recommended that sub-consultants insist on attendance in project meetings with all direct and indirect clients to ensure they can develop relationships, which will help with managing expectations of all decision influencers.
Clients can feel vulnerable without the necessary knowledge of what makes a ‘good’ consultant. Every new project carries risk for the client and also risk for the consultant.
A key knowledge asymmetry is the client’s inability to observe the design progressing. However, new software such as Autodesk LIVE Viewer can help overcome this by allowing clients to view a 3D Revit model remotely in real time using a simple app on their phone or iPad. This user-friendly software for clients has the potential to significantly increase client-consultant trust.
A good reputation due to past performance on projects is the best mechanism for consultants to gain the trust of their clients. It provides the basis for clients to predict quality and future behaviour.
In any business engagement it is important to develop social bonds and trust before getting into the transactional details. In Middle Eastern business, the importance of this informal rapport is all the more so. Social relationships can significantly influence decisions about which company a client employs and similarly influence the success of the project relationships and outcomes. For this reason, informal business development should be prioritised by engineering consultants, while consultancies should focus on hiring charismatic (and technically competent) consultants with well-established social networks for client facing roles.
Competence and ‘fit’
Consultants are often judged on a perceived quality of service, rather than technical competence. This highlights the importance of selecting an apt consultant for a particular client, because trust often relies on cultural connections, common interests, personality types and backgrounds.
Management could profile consultant’s personalities to map individuals with appropriate members of the client team, thereby ensuring a ‘good fit’ with multiple points of connection.
It seems each project is unique and complex, so an article describing a single best consultant-client approach would be naive. However, it seems the one universal imperative required for a successful client-consultant engagement is trust.
Larry McGuinness is associate principal at Ted Jacob Engineering Group