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Maintaining the relationship

March 15, 2002

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Time takes its toll on everything, including long-term working relationships. There is some truth in the old phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt.” Too often, consultants and clients can begin to take each other for granted. There is usually no dark purpose behind this, just the simple casualness that results from knowing one another for many years. There are ways, though, of counteracting the effects of time. Below are detailed a few ideas that can help you keep your long-term relationships on track.

Familiar, but not too familiar

Over time your can become quite comfortable with your clients. Perhaps you are invited to dinner parties or sporting events. There are many benefits to developing deep relationships with your clients but also a few pitfalls. (See Career-Op: Friends and Clients, February 22, 2002,

One way to keep your relationship on track is to continue reporting to your client as you have always done. I try to keep a regular status report of all the work I perform. As a relationship deepens, it is your status reports that will keep your professional relationship on solid ground. Sometimes clients, even your best ones, need to be reassured that you are still working in their best interest, or indeed, working at all. Perhaps they need to defend your services to their management or fight for the budget that pays for your time. Maybe they just need to feel that they are aware of what you are doing. Whatever the reason, status reports are one way of heading off trouble before it grows into something nasty.

You should also make sure that your billing statements provide as much detail as possible. Don’t just list the hours worked, include a description for each day’s work and for whom the work was performed. While this might seem redundant considering the status reports above, your billing statements are designed for a different audience, accountants and executives. They don’t need detailed technical descriptions of your work, but they do need an accounting of the work you did so that they can check up on your work, if they wish. They might also have different priorities than what they are seeing in your work assignments. Perhaps they think that more time should be spent on new computer installations than maintaining a legacy system that is going to be replaced. A good billing statement can help you identify and correct discrepancies in priorities before they turn into a larger problem.

Even on the inside

These guidelines also work well if you are a corporate employee. Your status reports are an on-going reflection of your work and progress as an employee. You are helping your managers to recognize your accomplishments and offering an opportunity for them to make corrections in your priorities. This can help to make your year-end review a more pleasant experience. Your manager can offer advice throughout the year instead of trying to make corrections once when it is too late to change anything. Keeping your managers informed can also help them to make the case for merit raises and promotions. This is always a good thing.

Take a break

There may be times in your long-term business relationships, just like your personal ones, when some time away might be dictated. Sometimes a company may need time to evaluate the part your work plays in their organization. Perhaps their budget has been expended. Whatever the reason, don’t take such breaks as the end of the line. Stay in contact through email or phone, but don’t be overly aggressive. More than once I have found companies and individuals returning for my services after a long hiatus. The simple truth is that there are a myriad reasons why they might not be able to work with you, many of which you will never know, since they are internal to the company. If there hasn’t been any obvious “falling out” between you and your clients, give it some time. More than likely, they will come back.

Communicating regularly with your clients, regardless of how long you have worked together, is one way to insure that small problems don’t grow into relationship-breaking issues that will harm both you and your client. It is important to your career to cultivate client relationships as they will be the backbone of your work for years to come.

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