It is challenging enough to serve one client at a time. How can a consultant serve a group of clients in the same project and be successful?
Forming a multi-client group
There are two routes to handling group projects: either the consultant or the client takes the initiative. Most of my group projects fall into the latter category. Certain companies – after networking for some time – have discovered an opportunity in forming a strategic partnership. They have, for example, found a market need for a new service concept that is realizable only if they develop it together. They decide to hire a consultant to help in creating a strategy and a plan for the new business.
In some cases, the consultant is the group builder. The consultant has a service that can be delivered collectively. For example, some coaching programs benefit from involving participants from several companies at the same time. Benchmarking is another example of multi-organizational services.
A forum or round table is an interesting form of consulting. Some of my colleagues have had an ICT management-related forum for years. They have collected a group of CIOs from non-competing large companies. The group decides annually on a theme or question for which they are seeking a solution. With the help of the consultants, the CIOs work in teams to learn, define and plan solutions. They also invite experts to give presentations about issues of interest.
Setting a solid foundation
Before you begin to consult for a group, check that the following three preconditions are met:
1. Every company in the group must feel that they have a clear win–win opportunity. If this is not the case, you’ll have a group in which some members are less motivated to work toward a common goal. That leads to poor results and delays in the project.
2. Trust within the group is paramount. All the members must trust each other and the consultant. They must also feel that the consultant is impartial and objective. If the consultant appears biased toward one member, others will eventually question his/her integrity.
3. The last precondition is openness in sharing knowledge and information. A group needs to be internally open to succeed. If someone holds back valuable information, others will start doing the same. A mutual, written non-disclosure agreement is often needed to dispel worries about confidentiality.
There are two scenarios when it comes to agreements: one-to-one and one-to-many. If there is one clear sponsor of the project, then it is natural to make the consulting agreement with that sponsor. This is also the case when a group already has a co-owned firm in place.
I’ve most often made the consulting agreement with each participating firm. The agreement and the fee is the same with each participating company.
Managing the project
A multi-client project does not differ radically from a single-client project. There is, however, one thing that can require special attention: when you have just one client, there is one project sponsor who can make decisions if needed. In a project with equal partners, this is not the case unless one partner has an indisputable leadership position.
Project practices vary from company to company. A multi-client project must have a common project model that everyone follows.
Some good practices
It is difficult to find time for meetings as workshops with even a single company, let alone with three or five. I normally construct my consulting projects around workshops. A good approach is to set the dates for the workshops at a kickoff meeting where everyone is present.
A lot of communication between workshops happens online. Our company offers a web-based collaboration platform. All the participants are obliged to use the service for document exchange, project calendar and communication. Direct email communication would be impractical.
Even if a multi-client project delivers the expected results on time, it can still lead to a failure. Partners are not always able to implement what they were after, e.g. a successful service concept or a lean supply chain. Real-life collaboration is not as easy as it was during the development project. Resource and financial issues are often more complex in practice than was initially expected.
A success is possible as long as the collaboration creates value for both the customers and the firms involved. Achieving success can take more time than was originally thought.
I believe that partnering companies should continue to use the consultant after the development and implementation projects are complete. It is a good idea to have an objective party to follow up, evaluate and moderate common issues during the evolving partnership.
Aarni Heiskanen is a service innovation consultant and entrepreneur from Finland. His company, AE Partners, helps clients strategize and innovate B2B services.
Aarni has been involved in pioneering Internet businesses in Finland. And also runs, Thinking Business (In Finnish Language), which develops Internet software for managing project portfolios.