You’re an expert in your field — it’s why your clients come to you. But do you know how to improve the client experience during the project to such a degree that it takes your service from great to excellent?
As independent consultants, we often get so wrapped up in delivering the actual work that we may not focus as much on the second aspect of our service: the client experience.
By being more deliberate and thoughtful about improving the client’s experience of working with you — before, during, and after the project — you can take your consulting services to an even higher level, so that clients remember and recommend you.
This resource provides a checklist and detailed guidelines that will help you take deliberate actions, and set up systems and structures to provide a consistently excellent experience to your clients.
Client Experience Checklist
We have provided this handy checklist for creating a consistently excellent experience for your clients.
You can also download the resource in Word, if you prefer to edit or customize it to your needs.
You may think that as long as you do great work for your clients, their experience will take care of itself. You’ve produced excellent results for the client — doesn’t that mean they love working with you?
Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case. A great client experience requires having intentional processes in place and being consistent about delivering on them.
Why is client experience so important?
Your client’s perception of value is not just based on results — it’s also based on the other things that make working with you a pleasure: how easy you are to contact, how you engage the client during the project, how you handle mistakes, and how you handle communication.
David A. Fields recommends that you think about the last three to five projects you completed and put yourself in your clients’ shoes. How do you think they’d rate their experience at each stage of the process?
From that, identify five aspects of the client experience you’d like to improve.
Remember: every touch point between you and the client before, during, and after the project is part of their experience, and each is an opportunity to build your relationship with the client.
How to improve client experience: The proposal phase
The proposal phase of a project covers all interactions with the client at the start, from your first introduction to the signing of a contract. It’s the client’s first impression of you, so the experience you provide during this phase — even if you don’t end up winning the work — is critical.
Your goal at this stage is to establish a long-term relationship so you will be remembered in the future, and perhaps even receive referrals from the client.
For an in-depth guide on writing the proposal, including templates and examples, check out our Resource here.
David A. Fields provides several tips for creating a smooth and seamless customer experience during the proposal phase:
Focus on the long-term relationship, not just one project
Yes, of course you want to win the work — after all, that’s what the proposal phase of a project is about. At the same time, the best result from this interaction is establishing a quality, long-term relationship.
Instead of trying to impress the client by making a sales pitch for your services, treat this period as phase zero of your project. Provide value that your client can use even if they don’t contract with you.
If you make progress towards a solution for your client in your first meeting, that is far more powerful than any presentation you can make.
First impressions count
If a potential client has done their homework, they are likely to review several things about you. Make sure these are up-to-date and reflect your brand and expertise.
- Logo and branding.
- LinkedIn profile (Tip: Listen to Episode 235 of Unleashed).
- Website — does it clearly communicate who you are and the services you provide?
- Professional, not generic, email address.
- Email signature that includes your phone number.
- Branded proposal — this is another chance to reinforce your value proposition.
When the potential client reaches out, respond within eight hours or sooner. During the proposal phase, you’re signaling how responsive you’ll be during the project itself; your client will assume this is the most responsive you’ll ever be because you’re trying to get hired.
Make it easy to schedule time with you
Provide the potential client with a link to book time on your calendar. Consider including this booking link in your email signature.
If the client offers certain time slots to you, try to pick the first one they offer.
Hold a Context Discussion
A Context Discussion, the brainchild of David A. Fields, is a specialized discovery conversation. Essentially, it’s a series of questions that anchors your discovery process. During the Context Discussion, you and the client will discuss:
- The scope of the project
- Desired outcomes
- Indicators of success
- Perceived risks and concerns
- Value the client expects to obtain from the project
- Time expected from team members
- Geography (where the work will be done, on-site or remote)
If possible, conduct the Context Discussion in person — it’s always best to have live face time with the client and to see their site. However, if you can’t have the discussion in person, it’s okay to do it via videoconferencing.
In Episode 365 of the Unleashed podcast, Fields shares 20-25 questions he typically asks clients during this initial conversation.
Apply the 70/30 rule
During this conversation, try to spend most of your time listening. A good rule is to spend about 70% of your time listening and 30% of the time talking.
When you are talking, most of that time should be spent asking the client questions. Again, use the 70/30 rule — 70% of your time should be spent asking questions and 30% of time giving answers or information.
Even if your client asks about your background, they care more about how it applies to their problem and how you can solve it, so keep your focus on that.
Follow up with an email
After the Context Discussion, send a recap email that includes:
- Key points from the Context Discussion
- Action items
- Due dates
- Decisions that were made
- Open questions
- Next steps
For smaller projects, this follow-up email could constitute your proposal, rather than sending a separate, formal proposal.
Make it a habit to send a recap email after every meeting you have with the client.
Submit your proposal promptly
If the client requests a formal proposal, send your proposal promptly — even before the deadline if possible. Call it a draft, then schedule time with the client to over it, and get their feedback. Then use that feedback to revise and resubmit.
The speed with which you draft and send your proposal will be indicative to the client of the speed at which you will work and the attention you will give them.
The format of your proposal should reflect your clients’ needs.
- If there was an RFP, a list of clients, or a list of items the clients wanted addressed, structure your proposal to reflect that.
- You might even include that list of requirements on the first page, along with the page number on which each item is addressed.
- Your proposal should be professionally formatted, and branded with your firm’s logo.
- You should include a sentence at the end stating that the proposal is your intellectual property, and may not be shared outside the client firm, and specifically not with other professional services firms without your written consent. You’ve put hard work into the proposal, and a client respects a provider who politely asserts her rights.
For more in-depth details and a proposal template, read our resource on How to Write a Consulting Proposal.
Have your documents and resources in order
Be sure any supplemental material you’ll need for your presentation or proposal is organized and easily accessible. For example, maintain a sanitized project list of all the projects that you’ve ever done. Then, when you’re asked to provide examples of your work, it will be quick and easy to choose a relevant example.
The same goes for any sample work and client references. Have some sanitized sample work that you can share so the client can better understand your work, as well as a list of references.
For more in-depth details and templates, read our resource on Project Lists.
A word about references: You might be reluctant to provide client references early in the proposal process. One way to proceed is to postpone sharing references until the end of the process, but provide sanitized titles and companies.
For example, you might say that your references will include the CEO of a Fortune 500 retail bank, or the head of sales at a $1 billion B2B tech services provider.
Be sure your file names are in order. The file names should be written from your client’s perspective, not yours. So, for example, the file name of your proposal should not be “Proposal_for_ABC_Company.pdf.” Instead it should be something like “Procurement_Proposal_from_Consulting_Firm_XYZ.pdf.”
Be pleasantly persistent
Sometimes your prospect will go silent after you send the proposal. In many cases, if the potential client goes radio silent, that means the project is dead — but not always.
Don’t take it personally, and even if you do get annoyed, don’t let the client know you’re irritated. Instead, be pleasantly persistent in your follow-ups.
Check in once a week, vary your approach. and keep it light. You may also want to use a CRM to help keep track of follow-ups as well as all the deals you have in progress.
Here are some ways to do that without sending your client on a guilt trip for not getting back to you:
- “Hi, I wanted to check in. Any updates on potential next steps?”
- “Last time we spoke you mentioned that you’d be discussing the proposal with the senior leadership team. Any news?”
- “Want to touch base on the project we discussed three weeks ago? How’s your thinking evolving on that as a priority versus other goals this spring?”
Be willing to give up the business
Sometimes, after all the work you put into the proposal phase, it may turn out that you’re not a great fit for the client or the project. Be prepared to tell the client that you’re not the right consultant for the job and, if possible, refer them to a colleague who is a better fit.
Walking away is never easy, but that sort of honesty builds trust between you and potential clients, who know that you’re not trying to make a sale no matter what.
Know your rates
Going into the proposal process, it’s important that you have a clear idea of how you’re charging the client (by the day, by the hour, or per project) and what you will be charging.
If the client asks for a discount, seek to shift that from a discussion purely about fees to the possibility of adjusting the scope of your services. You could offer a different package that includes fewer services.
Be firm about your value. If they legitimately do not have the budget, then work together to see if you can adjust the scope in order to reduce fees.
Send a contract
As with the proposal, you should have a template for your contract as well, and it should be branded. If the client wants to use their own boilerplate contract and send it to you for review or signature, review it quickly and get back the same day.
If you’re going to propose changes, be reasonable and pick your battles. Any changes that you propose are, after all, going to have to go get approved by their legal team.
If you are the one sending out the contract for signature, use DocuSign or some other e-signature tool. Don’t ask a client to go through the hassle of printing, signing, scanning and emailing the document. That’s the antithesis of a good client experience.
What if you don’t get the project?
It happens. Sometimes you don’t win the business. If you don’t get the contract, don’t disappear.
If the project was larger and more in-depth — for example, if you put in more than four hours preparing it — you can politely ask for feedback from the client. Ask about their decision-making process and why you didn’t you get the work, or why they chose not to pursue the project at all.
Lastly, send a follow-up email thanking them for the opportunity to be considered.
For more, listen to Unleashed Episode 129:
Kicking off the project
Once the client has signed a contract, it’s time for action: you don’t want the client to sign on and then wait around for weeks before the project kicks off.
David A. Fields calls this moment “making the dust fly.”
The best possible client experience during the onboarding phase is to see the professional who has been hired immediately get to work, communicating across the organization as required, and getting the initial logistics taken care of with minimal fuss.
Schedule a one-on-one meeting with the project champion
As soon as possible, set a meeting with the key client you’ll be serving, and any of their immediate associates, for an in-depth discussion about the agenda of the project. You’ll want to talk about:
- The political landscape of the organization.
- The stakeholders.
- How to announce your initiative to other members of the organization.
Other issues to address include:
- Are there any particular members of the organization that the key client wants you to mentor and develop?
- Who can own the work process tools once you leave?
- Schedule check-ins with the key client for the rest of the project to make sure you have time on their calendar.
Schedule a team kick-off meeting
Your next step is meeting the team. Schedule a core team kickoff with the key members of the client organization you’ll be working with on a daily basis. Walk this core team through the goals of the project, the plan, and the expected deliverables.
You may want to conduct a team learning meeting, where you learn what everyone is hoping to get out of the project. What do they hope to learn? What constraints do they have? How do they like to communicate? Through text, emails, Slack, or phone calls? If it’s appropriate, perhaps you can organize a team dinner or team lunch to get to know one another.
Request data if needed
If the project requires data from the client, make it as easy as possible for the client to get you that data. Refine your data request with input from the core team, and then get it out to the right people across the organization.
At this point in the project, you don’t want people to do any work to create new content. Emphasize that you just want the data and reports they already have so you can get started.
You may need data that will help you with logistics — if so, you may want to request the following:
- A client contact list
- An organization chart
- An organization contact list, if necessary
Announce the project to the organization
If appropriate, ask your client sponsor to send out an announcement to the broader client organization about the project. This announcement could include:
- The goals of the project.
- Information from the context discussion.
- What will be expected of the organization
- The project timeline.
- Permission for client team members to collaborate.
- The names and contact information of the consultant (and any of their team members).
Set up your physical space and get familiar with the site
If the client is providing you with an on-site team room or workspace, confirm the logistics.
- What do you need to know to work there?
- Are there security processes such as badges that you need?
- What are the processes around accessing wi-fi and printers?
It’s a good idea to take care of your own office supplies. If you’re going to be working on a client site for a while, order supplies to be delivered there, and bring your own printer so you aren’t tying up the client’s.
Supplies include snacks: if you have a team room, put out treats to encourage clients to drop in, meet you, and collaborate.
Set up your protocols at the start
At the beginning of the project, make sure you’re in agreement about the following housekeeping items so that the work itself can run smoothly:
- Agree on what PowerPoint template you’re going to use: yours or the client’s.
- Agree on how you will share files. Will it be Dropbox, Google Drive, email, or another system?
Complete your vendor set-up
Take care of the details you need to set up for getting paid:
- Know how you will invoicing the client and what should be included on it.
- Find out how to submit invoice, and to whom it should be sent.
- Set up an ACH payment process.
- Submit your W9.
- Find out if the client requires a purchase order.
For more, listen to Unleashed Episode 130:
There are a number of elements that allow you to provide a smooth client experience — ways in which you can make working with you a pleasure.
Schedule key dates
Work with the client to develop a project roadmap. This should include:
- Key milestones.
- Key meetings with senior stakeholders.
- Schedule these meetings well in advance, preferably at the beginning of the project.
- Timeline and the deliverables at each stage of the project.
- Schedule the project review dates at the beginning, so they’re on everybody’s calendars as soon as possible.
Work with client team members
If appropriate, ask the client to introduce their team members who will collaborate with you. If the client is involved along the way, they will be much more likely to implement your recommendations.
You should also make use of those client team members at progress reviews — during those meetings, ask the lead client team member to present. It’s far more compelling for leadership if someone inside the organization demonstrates ownership by presenting the material.
Give interactive presentations
Avoid just making slide decks to deliver your findings, if possible. Think of ways in which you can make the deliverables more interactive.
Consider using some form of experiential learning to deliver your findings or recommendations. In episode 131 of the Unleashed podcast, Umbrex co-founder Will Bachman discusses a presentation he did for a cable company he’d been consulting for:
“We brought together the executive team and we assigned each one of them a demographic, like ‘you’re family with two children, with $50,000 annual income,’ for example. We provided them with the rates for different telecom bundles from their company and local competitors and asked them to choose one and justify their decision. Many of them ended up picking the competitors’ bundle, which was eye-opening, and far more compelling than if we just presented a slide about it.”
Below are a few ideas for interactive presentations. As with the progress reviews, it’s often more effective to have one of the client team members present the findings.
- Post your findings on the walls and invite leadership to browse and ask questions.
- Do some sort of role play exercise.
- Use photos and videos of the actual conditions you’ve been studying.
Have an open door policy for team members
If working on-site, post key charts in the team room so client team members can come in and discuss the emerging insights. You should also invite the client team to whiteboard sessions so they can work with you as you develop your deliverables.
Be a good guest
This may seem obvious but, your daily conduct as a guest at the site will provide some of the best client experiences, so do your best to be polite and gracious.
- Follow your client’s site dress code.
- Make sure the client team has your contact information.
- Give credit to team members for their contributions to the project.
- Adapt the client’s preferred format for presentations.
- Park at the far end of the parking lot instead of taking up guest spots near the building.
- Don’t eat all the banana bread one client team member brought to work.
Most importantly, be willing to admit to and correct your mistakes. While no one ever wants to make a mistake, the way in which we recover from mistakes is an opportunity to strengthen the client relationship.
Be willing to teach and learn
Your client brought you in because your skill set is valuable to the organization. Be willing to mentor client team members and work to develop their internal talent. This will help the client organization own the project after you leave.
Learning is a two-way street, so be vulnerable enough to seek out mentorship from the client. Ask for advice as well as for feedback from leadership as well as junior members of the client team. Showing that you value the client’s advice making this a two way exchange makes you more human and more likable.
Share a meal
Get to know the client over a meal. Not necessarily dinner — people have families and lives. Perhaps invite the client to join you for lunch or breakfast, and try not to only talk about the project. Get to know each other as colleagues by discussing things besides the work.
For more, listen to Unleashed Episode 131:
The project is done, you’ve had your final review, and it’s time to close out the project and pack up your office space.
Below are some tips for wrapping up the project in the most client-friendly way possible.
Package up the final deliverables
Packaging everything up in an organized way for the client to move forward is important.
- Create a folder of all the key files you created over the course of the project.
- Provide a document or spreadsheet that lists all those files, along with brief descriptions.
- Hand over these files via Dropbox, Google Drive, or other means the client prefers.
- Include all the files you received from the client, so their team members will have ready access to them in the future.
- Conduct a call or meeting with the client to walk them through these documents.
Help the client plan beyond the project
You’re leaving, but the project is moving to its next phase. You can improve the client experience by providing the client project lead with some important information to carry forward.
- A one-pager with the next steps, key actions, or timeline as an easy reminder of what needs to happen next.
- Identify the point person who will be responsible for overseeing the next steps of the project and identify owners for each of those individual next steps.
- Recommend any training you think the client should consider.
- Be sure your client understands the models and methods you used, and can update it if necessary.
Schedule a follow-up
Get some time on the calendar now so you can follow up with the client on the project in a few months. It’s important to get it scheduled now so you have a reason to call them in the future.
Give and receive feedback
Hold meetings with the client to receive feedback on the project, even negative feedback. Provide your own feedback to the client. If appropriate, provide confidential feedback on client team members to the senior client.
For more, see our resource on How to Solicit Client Feedback.
Submit your invoice promptly
Get your invoice in as soon as possible, in the clients’ preferred format with all the required documentation, including the purchase order number, and make sure you get it to the right people.
Unleashed Episode 373 offers some detailed tips on invoicing and collecting fees.
Clean out the team room
If you had space on-site, clean out your team room and return any physical assets that belong to the client, including security badges or keys. Destroy any confidential information.
You’ve finished the project and you all deserve to celebrate. Have some kind of closing event with the client, like a dinner or a fun activity. You may even want to give the client a physical object to memorialize the project.
You may want to connect on LinkedIn with any client team members that you worked with, if you haven’t done so already.
For more, listen to Unleashed Episode 132:
The project has ended, but that doesn’t mean the client’s experience is over. You should still be providing a high level of service even when you’re not actively working with the client.
Send a thank you note
Send a handwritten note on branded stationary to key members of the client team you worked with on the project, thanking them for their contributions and for the privilege of working with them.
Send a gift
This can be tricky. The gift should be meaningful but shouldn’t be too expensive— you don’t want to seem like you’re bribing the client for more work. Also, some clients have explicit rules about accepting gifts from vendors above a certain dollar value. However, you don’t want to spend too little money.
The best gifts are the ones that are personal, but if you’re having trouble figuring out a gift, below are a few ideas:
- A fruit basket
- Non-food gift baskets
- A nice bottle of wine, if it’s appropriate for that client
- A personalized coffee mug
Publish a case study
Was your project a great success? Get the client’s permission to create a case study and then ask them to approve it. There are several things you can do with a case study:
- Content marketing: Create a sanitized case study as content marketing, and post it on your site. In that case, ask the client to review it for accuracy. They’re doing you a favor here, but it’s also a way of reminding them of what you accomplished together.
- Thought leadership: Write an unsanitized case study that includes the client’s company name, and pitch it to a trade journal as an article, authored by the client. (Obviously you need the client’s permission for this.) This approach benefits the client organization by showing off the project. It benefits the specific individual you worked with because they get a writing credit. You also benefit, because you’re named in the article (which is a better reference than if you wrote it under your own name), and the client appreciates you doing all that work to help raise their profile.
- Speaking engagements: Instead of just writing an article, you can also arrange for your client to speak about the work at an industry conference. You do all the hard work, of course: preparing the slides, writing the speech, and getting the invitation lined up. All your client has to do is show up, give the speech, and mention you.
Write a recommendation of the client on LinkedIn
This requires some judgment, and may not be appropriate because it potentially makes your client list public. In the right circumstances, however, the client might appreciate it.
For more, listen to Unleashed Episode 133:
How to improve the customer experience: Additional resources
- Client Experience Checklist
- How to Solicit Client Feedback
- David A. Fields Presentation: Creating consistently excellent client experiences
- Unleashed Client Experience Episode 129: Proposal Phase
- Unleashed Client Experience Episode 130: Kick-off Phase
- Unleashed Client Experience Episode 131: Execution Phase
- Unleashed Client Experience Episode 132: Wrap-up Phase
- Unleashed Client Experience Episode 133: Post-project Phase
- The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients: Book by David A. Fields
- Episode 1 of Unleashed: David A. Fields on Winning Clients
- Episode 28 of Unleashed: Ravi Rao on Customer Experience
- Episode 254 of Unleashed: Will Bachman on Being Pleasantly Persistent
- Episode 473 of Unleashed: Celine Teoh on Decoding What Clients Want