When working as an IT Consultant you will most definitely have to work directly with clients, at least to some degree, and as such, it is very important to know how to interact with them. First of all it’s important to be able to properly distinguish between the notions of client and customer. A customer is a person or enterprise that buys a product or service from you at a certain point in time who might or might not buy products from you in the future, depending on many factors. If you lose a customer it is not good for business but that is sometimes inevitable when changing the company’s policies and can be compensated by winning a few other customers on a different front.
A client however is a person or enterprise with whom you have a longstanding contract, usually for at least a few years in which you will provide them with various services and/or products. Losing a client has a serious impact on a company’s profit and is to be avoided as much as possible. As such, the client can be perceived as your boss, as you interact with them on a daily basis and you have to execute their orders, based on a pre-estabilished written agreement. It is therefore crucial to create and maintain a good relationship with said client by keeping in mind a few aspects:
One of the things you have to be aware of when dealing with clients is their hierarchy.
You will often have to make decisions based on weighing the importance of the task you’re performing against the importance of a person demanding a different task from you at the same time. You might find yourself in a situation where you are supposed to fix a problem affecting a large number of clients, while at the same time you get asked by all of those clients’ boss to give an explanation of what is causing the problem and an estimate to when it will be fixed. Though it might seem a little counterproductive to stop from what you are doing to start giving reports, you have to also understand that the person asking for that information has a very high status, is probably not very patient, and is probably being pressured by the countless subordinates that are complaining.
It might be suitable to pause for a few minutes to give a brief explanation of what has happened as well as a very loose estimate of when the problem might be fixed, while promising to give more details when the urgent matters have all been attended to.
Remember that the person that poses the questions may very well have the authority to break the contract with your company altogether if they feel you are not treating the matter properly.
Another thing to keep in mind is the level of knowledge the client you’re speaking with possesses.
If you’re speaking with a person that has at least some degree of technical knowledge you will need to explain the matter to them thoroughly, while carefully assessing their actual level of understanding, and tailoring the information you give to them as you go, so as not to confuse them by giving them too many details. It also helps if you know something about the person you’re speaking to beforehand, because even if they might acknowledge what you tell them, it could just be out of fear to not make a fool of themselves, pretending to understand what they don’t and thus creating confusion that might lead to problems when trying to accomplish the task they hand to you.
There are also the clients that don’t understand the tiniest bit of technical information yet you will still need to cooperate with them in order to fix their problems. It is very important not to belittle these persons (even if it might seem to you that you’re being respectful, there might be some inflections of your tone that give you away) because in most cases these people will probably know much more in areas you have no understanding in, like for example in accounting or economics in general. The reason these people don’t know the technical details is because it’s not their job, and they don’t need to, not because they couldn’t learn them.
Even so, in order to cooperate with this sort of client, you will have to work to reach some sort of common ground or, failing that, you will need to ask for help from a client that possesses knowledge in both areas, who will act as a middleman between the two parties.
When dealing with a client it is also very important to personalize your relationship with them during your interaction.
Since you will most likely be part of a team, the client will need to know they are in fact dealing with a person, not an entity. They need someone they know they can relate to, that will see their problem through to the end, and who will be aware of all of the aspects that have already been discussed. If you pass the client along to different members of your team it will look as though you are trying to shift responsibility between members of your team and you’re not fully dedicating yourself to accomplishing their demand.
It is good for the client to know that there is a whole team working to help them, but most of all they want to know that there is someone that has taken full responsibility and is overseeing the whole process until their task is done. This is why it’s good to introduce yourself to the client from the very beginning and try to oversee as much of the process as possible, while showing the client that you are personally involved in fulfilling their demand.
Treating your client with respect might come off as an obvious thing to do, but it’s actually very easy to offend your clients if you don’t use the right tone and don’t choose your words carefully.
When dealing with foreign clients you have to be even more careful in choosing your words as it’s easy to create misunderstandings if you don’t fully master the language you’re speaking in. A solution to this is to avoid using words or expressions that you don’t usually employ and try to only use the words you are comfortable with. You must also remember to abide to each language’s politeness rules as each language has different expressions that might seem unnatural to you, but the client might take it as a personal offense if you don’t use them properly.
These are all things that I’ve learned from my own personal experience while working as an IT consultant. I hope knowing this information will be of as much use to you as it has been to me.