Done well, all of our early marketing considerations will yield clients who want to use our unique combination of abilities and are willing to put their resources behind their wants. Now it is time to reach a common understanding with those clients.
There is nothing more important to the consulting process than attending to contracting. You must attend to it constantly because it is alive and always moving, changing, and adapting to what is happening. The client and consultant need to be mutually clear about what each expects of the other and what each is going to provide the other. Contracting is an exchange of wants and needs that goes both ways. It starts with the 1st contract and is alive, and being renegotiated, throughout the entire consulting relationship. Either person can open a discussion of this living contract at any time. If my needs as a consultant are different now than they were yesterday, then I will open a conversation. If the wants of a client are going to be different tomorrow, then he or she should discuss that with me today.
My contracting differs from a legal contract. My reservations about legalistic contracting concerns what happens to the partnership while the legal document is being created. A legal contract, once it is finished is more dead than alive. Contracts that emphasize form more than substance kill the client –consulting partnership. Contracts that are legalistic have the same effect on our relationships with our clients that prenuptial agreements have on marriage. Even when they are necessary, they are not very romantic, and certainly not what the partnership is all about. I avoid them whenever possible.
I attempt to create a contracting process with my clients that is alive and adaptable, not one that is fixed in ink. I encourage trust between client and consultant. I see anything that smacks of
mistrust- as defensive legal contracts can do-as damaging to the partnership I want to establish. I favor written communication that records what we decided so we don’t forget our responsibilities. I keep files/emails tracking the work the client and I are doing together, but I balk at anything written that suggests we need to protect ourselves from each other.
I have never required a client to sign an agreement with me. I have been “burned” only a few times in my over twenty plus years in consulting and then not badly enough to reconsider my practice that “our word is our bond”.
Clients occasionally require some form of contract with me and I am usually willing to sign what they put together. I am not ornery about it, I just don’t encourage the practice by giving it attention. If all that is required of me is a signature then I’ll sign. If the legal contract begins to intrude on our work discussions, I get concerned. At the same time, I must acknowledge that most of the major problems I have had as a client and as a consultant, can be traced back to poor contracting. I hasten to add that the problems would not have been solved by a legalistic document or process. Instead I would criticize my own lack of clarity, inattention to detail, failure to keep up with changes, or misunderstanding of the other persons intentions. Just because it is a barrier for me doesn’t mean that it is a poor fit for everyone. I also know that my “ contractless approach” is possible because I am a one-person firm taking on projects of limited scope. But, whatever the size and nature of your consulting business, watch out for relationships that focus more on the written word than what is happening between the people involved. ( Peter Block’s book “ Flawless Consulting”, provides an excellent description of a contracting process).
Now that my biases are clear, how do I integrate my need for a living contract with the need for a written memory of what we are doing together? Following a discussion or negotiation with a client, I find it useful to outline in an email/letter the major points covered and the actions we plan to take. I see this as confirming our contracting rather than a contract in the legal sense. I will do whatever I can to make sure the client and I understand each other, and reinforcing our face to face meetings with the written word just makes sense. It gives us a mutual record of what has happened.
In my early years as a consultant, I spent a lot of time talking with clients about what I would do and they would do, however, lately I have found that it is useful to make a few more assumptions about how we are going to work together, to reinforce actions that fit with my assumptions, and to question actions that do not. To me this is similar to dancing with someone you have never danced with before. You and this new dance partner do not have to go through a long negotiation about when you are going to dance, who is going to lead or follow, or how long you will dance. There is usually an invitation, an acceptance, and a dance. You learn from each other as you go along what each needs to do to allow the dance to work. It is much less important to me than it used to be to stop working/dancing in order to talk about how things are going. More often, I try to check in regularly how we are doing as we work.
My current practice is to begin the contracting with more positive assumptions about how the client and I will work with each other and to put fewer concrete details in the initial contracting process. Then I watch to see how those assumptions are borne out in the work, and I continue contracting as the work calls for it. I see to it that the client and I have a clear understanding of what will happen between now and our work horizon. And I don’t spend much time contracting for what is over the horizon. I find clients are more drawn to this approach than to my process laden contracting of a few years back. I also find that we get more work done and our contracting is more relevant because it’s more timely.