No Regrets! 5 Lessons for Contracting with Clients


Whether we are in-house or external facilitators, we all have a client group. This group is depending on you to help them transform how they do business in the future. How you establish and meet your client’s expectations is critical to your and their success.

I am just finishing up at our annual gathering of Technology of Participation facilitator’s in Denver this year. One of our sessions was on contracting with your client group. I have shared a few tidbits from that session along with an article I published in 2008. My ToP colleague, Mary Flanagan from the company, Lead. Think. Do, reminded us in this  session of Peter Block’s famous must-have book, “Flawless Consulting”. He says that contracting is “an explicit agreement of what the consultant and client expect from each other and how they are going to work together… a social contract. It is designed not so much for enforcement, but for clear communication about what is going to happen on a project.”

Mary Flanagan (middle) speaking with participants Bev Scow (right) and Melanie Goodman at annual USA ToP gathering.

Mary Flanagan (middle) speaking with participants Bev Scow (right) and Melanie Goodman at annual USA ToP gathering.

It is critical as facilitators to know how to do this contracting. In fact, it is the first of six overarching facilitator competencies required for certifying as a professional facilitator (i.e., achieve designation as a Certified Professional Facilitator or CPF©) with the International Association of Facilitators and for the Certified ToP Facilitator with the Institute of Cultural Affairs.

I’d like to share some of Dorothy Strachen’s thinking, that of another colleague, Roger Schwarz, author of “The Skilled Facilitator” and my own thinking and on creating collaborative relationships with your client.

This article will share five lessons for establishing and maintaining collaborative client relationships and about 35 key questions to ask your client in the initial meeting to establish clearly what you are being contracted to do.

The First Contact With the Client

Awhile back, I received a call from a new client. I was in the middle of a conference call. My mother was arriving that afternoon. I was up to my ears in two other big projects and had just had a project cancelled by someone else from this same organization. It was possible I was not “in the mood” to be friendly with this client. Luckily, I paused long enough for them to tell me what their needs were. To my pleasant surprise, the client who had just cancelled referred me to her colleague. I let this new person know I would call her back right after my conference call and I did do this.

Lesson #1: Follow up immediately with new clients. Ideally, we do this with all our clients but friendly, old clients are likely to be more forgiving if you do not return a call or an email for a day or two.

Now you have the goodwill of this potential new client. To keep that goodwill you need to spend at least 10-30 minutes hearing what their needs are, giving them a few great suggestions about how to handle their situation and a concrete proposal to offer your own services or to find someone who can help them out. There are many reasons why this initial contact may not proceed to a final sale, but they are sure to come back to you another time, or refer you to another person, if you enthusiastically help them out on the first call.

Lesson #2: Give your best attention to every client and make sure every communication includes some way that helps make their job a little easier or gives them confidence that they are not alone in sorting out their need.

Assume you and the potential new client are still negotiating for your services. What do you do to make sure it will be a good fit for both of you? Here’s where great questions come into play. I typically write out the objectives of the first in depth interview with the client and create 10-20 “juicy” questions that probe for better understanding of the project needs and the desired outcomes.

Lesson #3: If you are really enthusiastic about providing your services on this particular project, be sure to write down what YOU hope to get out of the initial contact and what questions you want to ask in advance of your conversation with them. It is really important that this is WIN- WIN for both you and the client. You can create a generic template for the first contact or call. (See below)

Great, they are still talking to you. What questions do you ask now?

There are four levels of thinking based on the Institute of Culture Affairs ToP Focused Conversation Tool. The book, “The Focused Conversation Method” is a fabulous reference for questions and understanding how to sequence questions to really achieve a depth exploration with the group. It also gives you some great examples for establishing the “contract”.

Objective Level

The first level of thinking is probing for facts and are known as the objective level. Examples of objective level questions include:

  • Who is seeking these services?
  • Who are the decision makers on this project?
  • Why are you calling for a facilitator?
  • Who is the group and where do they come from?
  • What is the group’s experience with a facilitator?
  • Who will be involved in providing input into the agenda design?
  • When will you hold this event?
  • Where will it be and how much time do you have for it?
  • What kind of follow up are you expecting to do?
  • How much work has already been planned?
  • What is your anticipated budget for this hiring a facilitator?

This last question is for external facilitators who are available for hire (and, yes, according to my colleague Dan Duster – facilitator, speaker and trainer extraordinaire, author of soon to be published book “Peaceful Selling”, it is best to ask this early so you know whether to refer them to someone else.


Dan Duster, author of upcoming book, Peaceful Selling, speaking at annual ToP gathering

The Reflective Level

The next level is called the Reflective level. Examples of reflective level questions are:

  • How would you describe the mood and morale of the group?
  • How is the group reacting to having this meeting/workshop?
  • What is going well with the group or organization right now?
  • What are some of the challenges?
  • If you do not have facilitation for this meeting, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
  • If things go really well, what is the best that can happen?

The Interpretive Level

The third level of thinking, according to ICA and the ToP method is the Interpretive level. Examples of interpretive level questions for contracting with your client are:

  • Who has the most influence and power in this group?
  • Who has the least influence and power?
  • What would each group say the problem was?
  • What are some of the other underlying dynamics at work including cultural or race dynamics?
  • Why are you needing a facilitated event at this moment in time?
  • Who really needs to be present at this event?
  • What have you seen work really well with this group and not work well?
  • What will this group be candid about and not candid about?
  • What’s the most important thing that needs to happen at this event?
  • What will happen if you do nothing?

The Decision Level

The fourth level of thinking is the Decision level. Examples of decisional level questions are:

  • If you were to sum up the top 3-5 things you want the group to know or do, what would they be?
  • Similarly, if you were to sum up what you want this experience to feel like for people, what would it be?
  • What internal resources are available to us as the facilitators in preparing and conducting this event?
  • What sort of document do you need from the event?
  • Who will be our main contact?
  • What do you need in terms of a proposal and when do you need it by?
  • What is your usual contracting process?
  • How else can we help you?

Lesson #4: Do your homework! Find out what your client really needs as opposed to what they first tell you they think they want. For example, often team building or strategic planning is actually a request to solve some long-standing conflict or tension of the group. Talk to more than the first contact. Before you finalize your contract, ask to talk to one to two other people who have different perspectives on what is needed.


You’re still trying to build a collaborative client relationship even in the final contracting stage. You have to decide how much detail your contracts contain. There are many examples that you can borrow or plagiarize from the web or other colleagues. Mine typically include the objectives of the session, the products I will provide by the end of the session, the support and resources I expect from the client, the time and date and hours devoted to the project, whether other associates will be part of the project, what I expect in terms of resources from the client and payment schedule. Some of my colleagues have a cancellation clause and this is especially important with political volatile projects as they often get cancelled or changed in scope. I, as do many of my colleagues, ask for some percentage (10-25%) of the budget on signing of the contract. You have set aside your time and it helps to have upfront money to  help you get started. If you suspect your client is likely to be guilty of “scope creep” (i.e. keep asking you for more than you contracted for on a very lean budget), you will want to be especially vigilant and firm in a friendly way about what you can and cannot do. And, It is good for repeat business to provide more than what you said you would do.

Lesson #5: I am plagiarizing directly from Roger Schwartz’s when I use his phrase, “No bad contracting goes unpunished”.

Feel free to write me with your questions or offer your experiences with initial client contracting. According to Peter Block, the relationship you build with your client needs to assume there is a 50/50 power balance between you and your client. You are in charge as much as they are.  And good luck!


Flawless Consulting by Peter Block

The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz

Making Questions Work by Dorothy Strachan

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Erness Wright-Irvin on January 13, 2015 at 11:21 pm

    Love your contracting questions, Barbara! They are great! So sorry I was unable to attend the Jan. ToP Conference in Denver — its always a wonderful time for inspiration and energy renewal for all of us in the facilitation field. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on the web, with so many of us who are always looking for ways to improve what we do!

    • Barbara Mackay on January 14, 2015 at 2:44 pm

      Thanks Erness.I was just saying to someone last night, how I missed seeing you at the conference this year. I appreciate you taking the time to enter a comment! Please feel free to add other questions that will ensure we all get a contract that works well for both us and our clients.

  2. Barbara Mackay on January 14, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Jerry (Ethan) Mings says:
    Thanks for your article on contracting. Good advice for you readers.
    One of the lessons I have learned is that it is mission
    to know how to prepare, sign and document an official contract. I must confess, in all of my facilitation training, no one taught this to me. I
    had to learn through trial error and training from a lawyer how to do it. Every facilitator should know how to look in one place on a document to determine if the contract is binding (and it is notthe signature line), what the implications are for ending a contract, the link between their contacts and their errors and omissions insurance and what their liability is for failure to deliver.
    The ability to execute a well written formal contract isthe mark of a profession in the market place. I hope our profession will start teaching those steps to
    our colleagues sooner than later.
    PS If contracting is the process, then the contract is the output. That helps me keep things in a process orientation.

    • Barbara Mackay on January 14, 2015 at 3:15 pm

      Jerry – Thanks – we talked at our Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitators gathering this week in Denver about having many of us post sample “contracts” (or letters of agreement) we use with uur clients. We will be posting these on our new comprehensive ToP tool kit page for ToP network members. I will be posting my one page simple agreement.

      • Una McAlinden on June 11, 2015 at 4:40 pm

        Hi Barbara, I’m exploring your invaluable site and seeing this comment and advice, I immediately joined the ToP network to review the resources. Unfortunately, I can’t find the sample contracts. I’d be grateful for direction about how to access!

        • Barbara Mackay on June 11, 2015 at 4:43 pm

          HI Una – i will send directly to you. i keep forgetting to upload this file to the ToP site. 🙂

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