Creating Collaborative Relationships

(This article was publishedin our June, 2008 newsletter.)
In this newsletter, we’re going to talk about the first of the 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. See also our learning module with these competencies.

In April this year, over 500 facilitators attended the North American 14th International Association of Facilitators conference in Atlanta. One of my Canadian colleagues delivered an excellent half day workshop on process frameworks. Her name is Dorothy Strachen. She has published two books, “Questions that Work: A Resource for Facilitators” and “Process Design: Making it Work. A Practical Guide to What to Do When and How for Facilitators, Consultants, Managers and Coaches”. I’d like to share some of her thinking and my own thinking and that of another colleague, Roger Schwarz, author of “The Skilled Facilitator” related to 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 or call as you do a “needs assessment” of the job for which they are seeking services.

The first contact with the client
A while 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 indepth “interview”/needs assessment 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. You may create a generic template for the first contact or call. (See below)

They are still talking to you: what questions do you ask?
You may be wondering, what questions do I ask? There are four levels of thinking based on the Institute of Culture Affairs Focused Conversation Tool. See also their book called, “The Focused Conversation Method”. 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?

The next level is called the reflective level. Examples of reflective level questions are: How would you describe mood and morale of the group? How was 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?

The third level of thinking is the interpretive level. Examples of interpretive level questions 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 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 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 facilitator’s in preparing and conducting this event? What sort of document do you need from the event? What budget have you set aside for this project? What do you need in terms of proposal and when do you need it by? 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.

You’re still trying to build a collaborative client relationship even at the contracting stage. You have to decide how much detail your contracts contain. There are many examples that you can probably 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 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. 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. It pays to provide more than what you said you would do.

Lesson #5: I am plagiarizing directly from Roger Schwartz’s concurrent workshop in Atlanta with the phrase, “No bad contracting goes unpunished”.

More to come in a future newsletter about how to maintain long term, excellent collaborative client relationships. Feel free to write me with your questions or offer your experiences with initial client contact.