Let’s face it. Nobody is born saying, “You know what I really want to do? I want to be a nonprofit consultant! Yep! I am automatically good at this! Don’t need any training at all!”
So, if you are looking to work with nonprofits, on the side or full time, you might want to ask yourself, how do I know how to interact with clients?
Could I be better at it?
How could I be better at it?
Is there something I could do better that would make my clients feel more connected with me, and more willing to listen to my advice?
Recently I read a book called The Trusted Advisor by David Maister. It really gave me some good questions to ask myself, as a nonprofit consultant, on how I could be better for my clients, by asking the right questions.
Before you say, I do everything and my clients don’t listen to me! Ask yourself, do I do any of these things?
1. I quickly relate their story to myself
2. I need to finish their sentences for them
3. I need to fill empty spaces in conversations
4. I need to appear clever, bright, witty, etc.
5. I don’t provide a direct answer to a direct question
6. I have an unwillingness to say I don’t know
7. Name-dropping other clients
8. I recite my qualifications
9. I give answers too quickly
10. I want to have the last word
11. I ask close-ended questions early on
12. I put forth hypotheses before fully hearing the client’s hypotheses or problem statements
So when I looked at this list, I realized these were a lot of behaviors I engaged in at the beginning of my consulting career. It must have been SO FRUSTRATING for my clients! I think if I’m not careful, I still engage in some of these behaviors, if I’m honest.
If you’re cringing a little here too, then here’s how you can turn this boat around:
Do this instead:
1. Let your client fill in empty spaces in the conversation.
I need to get better at this. But when you do this, you really open up and allow them to feel that you have all the time in the world to listen to what their problem really is.
2. Ask the client to talk about what’s behind an issue.
I don’t do this enough. This open ended question can lead you and your client all sorts of places. Because the temptation is to just come in and say, “I know what to do” you have to be honest with yourself, you really don’t know what the problem is, or the organizational history, until your client lays it out for you.
3. Ask open-ended questions.
There’s a bunch below that you can ask to get the ball rolling.
4. Not giving answers until the right is earned to do so (and the client will let you know when you have earned it)
5. Focus on defining the problem, not guessing the solution.
This is so powerful. The more questions you ask, the more your client gets a chance to talk, feel heard, and start to see what a viable solution might be.
6. Reflective listening-summarizing what was said to make sure we understood.
I like to do this at the end of each client phonecall or meeting, to make sure that I’ve understood what their action items are, what my action items are, and what we’re going to try to solve a particular problem.
7. Say you don’t know when you don’t know.
8. Acknowledge the feelings of the client.
This feels a little woolly to me but this is so important. When you acknowledge where your client is coming from (and let’s face it, they would not be coming to you unless they had a problem they wanted to solve) you open up real, honest communication.
9. Listen to clients without distractions (don’t be looking at your phone or computer)
A lot of times on client calls clients will want me to look at their website or another place online, and I tell them I’m not near my computer, because I want to give my full attention to them. When I’m sitting at my computer, I’m only giving them half my attention.
10. Resist the temptation to provide a solution too early on-stay listening and in joint problem definition phase until everyone is clear on what will be a good experiment to solve the problem.
I could be better at this. This field of fundraising consulting sometimes feels like it has a limited number of solutions you can offer, and a limited number of problems people generally run into. But it’s important to let the client talk and hear what they feel the problem is, and get all of the details on the table before offering a solution.
11. Take the responsibility for failed communications
I really like this one. It’s important to always make sure you’re clear in your communications, and when you’re not, to take that full responsibility.
Whenever you have a conversation with your client, whether it’s about an old problem or a new problem, it’s important that the client feel truly HEARD and MET before you move to the next stage, which is hopefully taking your advice and solving the problem.
Often a consultant can be a needed pressure valve, an outside person who is safe to talk with about the REAL issues that need to be addressed.
Here are some questions to ask, to make sure that you are getting enough connection from your client to move forward to the next phase.
1. Engage. Use language of interest and concern.
“I’ve been looking at your competitors, and…
“Your people have been telling me about”
2. Listen: Use language of understanding and empathy
“Tell me more about…”
“What’s behind that?”
“Gosh, that must feel..”
“What else have you considered?”
Listen for the story
Listen for unvoiced emotions
Keep asking for more detail
3. Frame: Use language of perspective and candor
“I see 3 key themes emerging here…”
“You know, what’s tough to do here is…”
“I’m probably thinking about this all wrong, but…”
“It’s probably just me, but…”
“You’ve probably thought of this already but…”
4. Envision: Use language of possibility
“Wouldn’t it be great if”
“What are we really aiming for here?”
“What will it look like when we get there?”
“How will we know we are there?”
5. Commit: Use language of joint exploration
“What would it take, for each of us, to…”
“What’s going to get in the way of getting this done?”
“What do we intend to do about it?”
“Who needs to be brought into the loop?”
“Who should do what part?”
“What information do we need?”
“When shall we check in?”
“What are the key deadlines?”
If you’d like to learn more about how to be a good fundraising consultant, I’d highly recommend picking up the Trusted Advisor book by David Maister. Two thumbs up!