One of the unexpected pleasures of starting my business is the great friendships I’ve developed with some of my clients. Sometimes mixing business with pleasure is the best alchemy for forging a strong relationship.
Mike Calihan is the director of training for Aldridge Electric Inc., a $300 million dollar electrical company based in Chicago. Mike and I co-designed and co-facilitate the company’s leadership development program. Mike is a true Chicagoan; a nuts-and-bolts, big shouldered, and big hearted kind of guy. A half- a-dozen times a year we dine at our favorite steakhouse and Mike shares war stories about his early days growing up “in the trades”. Mike’s an Irishman, and can color and embellish a great story with the best of them. Nearly all of his stories end with the same pronouncement: Life is Good!
I’ve come to value these dinners. First, I learn a lot about my client’s industry, including the strands of history that are influencing its current trends. Second, the dinners help me connect with my client on a friendship level, which is really wonderful. Third, I like steak!
Too many clients treat consultants like vendors, and too many consultants deserve the treatment. Having been treated like a vendor in the past (and probably deserving it), I vastly prefer to partner with my clients these days. So much so that in the contracts my company provides our clients we specifically request not to be treated like a vendor, noting that we find the term demeaning and counterproductive. And isn’t it? What’s a vendor, after all? Just something that you put money in to make work…like a vending machine.
Partnering with a client means that you listen to their hopes, concerns and desires. It means that you take a deep and genuine interest in working with them to help them get where they want to go. In short, it means you care about them. It’s far easier to care about your clients when you build a real relationship with them.
And that often means mixing business with pleasure.
Not all of this mixing involves eating. Most of my client mixing involves just having good old fashioned fun, including a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley, a NASCAR race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, and deep sea fishing off the coast of San Diego. It doesn’t really matter what the activity is. The activity is just an excuse to get disarmed together so you can see each other past the problem solvers you are at work. When you get “real” with one another, and especially when you laugh together, you come to like each other, and more importantly, care about each other. And when you care about each other, you make better partners together. That’s when the business really benefits.