I believe a successful client-consultant relationship is built on trust, integrity, and a deep understanding of what a client values. Before coming to Gresham Smith, I spent time on both sides of the relationship, including my time as sustainability initiative manager for Gwinnett County. And it got me thinking about how my time as a client informs my behavior as a consultant and helped Gwinnett County become one of our largest Water + Environment clients.
So, I recently sat down with my colleagues Sam Mehta and Scott Mounts to learn from their experiences of being on the “other side of the fence,” and how that informs their approach to client service, building trust and contributing to the success of their clients. In this post, I share some highlights of that discussion.
Srinivas Jalla: When selecting a consultant, what primary traits or attributes did you value and why?
Sam Mehta: I like to compare a consultancy to a professional football or basketball team. All have talented “players,” but what makes the difference is attitude and form. To that point, you can receive five different proposals from five different consultants and all of them are equally capable of doing what the client wants. What makes a winning proposal is its ability to reflect the consultant’s attitude along with their agility, flexibility, collaborative sense and overall capacity to deliver what a client needs.
Srinivas: As a client, how did you measure the success of a consultant?
Scott Mounts: In my role as a corporate Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) manager in manufacturing, I found the most successful consultants to be the ones who recognized that although the corporate guy may have responsibility for a problem, the plant was ultimately accountable for implementing the solution. The plant was my customer, and the consultant needed to help me meet my customer’s needs. If the solution was beyond the plant’s capability, then the problem wasn’t solved. I highly valued the consultants who took the time to understand the needs and limitations of my internal customers.
Srinivas: Based on your experience, what can we do to make sure clients get the most value from our services?
Scott: Having walked in “client” shoes, I understand that my job is to help my clients achieve their goals. I’m excited to be in a position where I can not only help clients develop EHS solutions but also support them in implementation. Clients are busy and typically need more time to focus on the core function of their operation. At Gresham Smith, we have incredibly creative people armed with diverse skill sets who can offer support in a way that’s different than what I’ve experienced in other companies. It’s important that we take the time to understand our clients’ goals and use the creativity of the whole Gresham Smith team to make our clients’ customers successful.
Srinivas: What was your appetite for innovative ideas from consultants, how did you keep up with innovation in your practice area, and what is the best way to bring these solutions to clients?
Sam: We encouraged innovation from our consultants. To make that happen, our request for proposals and specifications were less prescriptive and focused more on our aspirations. We made our consultants aware that we relied on them to bring us innovative solutions—both low- and high-tech—to reach our goals.
One of the ways I stayed up-to-date with innovation in my practice area was by regularly attending sustainability-related forums/conferences for various industries, where best practices and solutions were discussed as they applied to various industry sectors. I still do this as a consultant because it gives me a deeper understanding of advances and is a great way to identify innovations and solutions that can be adopted to our practice areas to successfully meet our clients’ issues and needs.
Scott: I used to tell my consultants: “You’re our consultant, we need you to consult.” We desired their creative ideas and wanted to capitalize on the diversity of their experience. In the EHS world, where the work is largely driven by prescriptive regulations, innovation isn’t necessarily in the product delivered, it’s in the service provided. We looked for ways to make regulatory compliance both simple and sustainable. This often meant keeping up with changes in other areas of the business—such as IT, Quality, Engineering and Procurement—to see how we could collaborate to drive toward our goal of “simple and sustainable.”
Now I’m on the consulting side, I see the same need. Just recently, a colleague and I explored the idea of leveraging a municipal client’s asset-management system to help build an environmental compliance management system. It’s still an idea, but I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.
Srinivas: How does having these two very different perspectives ultimately bring value to our clients?
Sam: For nearly 25 years I served as the environmental and sustainability manager at San Francisco International Airport. Having been a client, I believe that as a consultant I can bring an awareness of a client’s pain points and help open up the right dialogue between our consultants and our clients. I think it’s important for consultants to be aware that they need sharp eyes and ears that are open to understanding the client’s opportunities and issues in order to help them navigate toward a successful solution.
Scott: I may sound like a broken record, but everyone has customers. When I meet with a client about a project, I know that if I don’t walk away with a complete understanding of their needs, the project is not going to end well. When all is said and done, the perspectives of a client and a consultant may be different, but the vision should always remain the same.