First Things First: Create Collaborative Client Relationships
By Susan Peryam

Posted April 13, 2010

What approaches should you use to develop a collaborative relationship with a client?

This is the second in my series of articles about the International Association of Facilitators Foundational Facilitator Competencies. These six competencies (and several sub-competencies) were developed over several years by IAF members with the support of facilitators from around the world. They include the basic set of skills, knowledge, and behaviors that facilitators need to be successful facilitating groups of people who are collaborating for a purpose. The first Competency is Create Collaborative Client Relationships which is focused on understanding the client’s needs so that the facilitator can design a session to achieve the desired outcomes. There are three sub-competencies:

  1. Develop working partnerships – clarify mutual commitment, gain consensus on deliverables and demonstrate collaborative values and processes
  2. Design and customize applications to meet client needs – analyze organizational environment, diagnose client needs, create appropriate designs to achieve quality outcomes.
  3. Manage multi-session events effectively – contract with client for scope and deliverables, develop event plan, assess and evaluate client satisfaction at all stages.

The key is to ask the right questions at the outset in order to clarify the client’s needs, purpose of the session, desired outcomes, roles and responsibilities, and logistics.

I find that most of the time the client cannot clearly articulate the desired outcomes and scope of authority of the group. Oh…I’m not saying that the client can’t describe the outcomes that he or she wants to achieve. I am saying that in order to design a session a facilitator must be crystal clear about what the group needs to accomplish and the group’s authority in order to fulfill the client’s expectations. For example: Let’s say I am working with a client who wants to hold an annual planning session. The client wants the group to discuss how things are working, identify gaps, and create an action plan. For starters I ask the question – “Imagine the session is over and you are delighted with the outcomes, what is it that the group produced that delighted you?” The answer is somewhat obvious – a prioritized list of action items. This is just the starting point for me to gain clarity about the outcomes and scope of authority, so I ask more questions like:

  • What criteria should the group use to prioritize the actions?
  • Will the list of prioritized actions be approved by someone else?
  • If so, what happens if they are not approved?
  • Have some key decisions been made already?
  • Are all the right people in the room to decide what actions to take?
  • What is the preferred decision making process for this group?
  • Are there any topics that are off limits?
  • Is the group privy to all the information that they need to know?
  • What is the planning time horizon – 6 months, 12 months?

There are many more questions I ask when speaking with the client, but these questions are important to gain clarity about the desired outcomes and scope of authority of a group.

I find that most of the time I must clarify to the client what I mean by scope of authority. In simple terms, a group with decision making authority can proceed with implementation of the decision without any further review and approval to move forward. The group is in charge and accountable. A group that is chartered with providing a recommendation means that some other leader/s will review and accept or reject the recommendation. Also, it means that the leader/leaders have some responsibility to go back to the group and explain why the recommendation was not accepted. In a group chartered with providing input only, it should be clear that the leader not the group is accountable for decision making and implementation.

I find that taking the time to pre-define the desired outcomes and scope of authority of the group is critical to design a successful facilitated engagement which in turn fosters a collaborative relationship with the client. Also, it makes it easy to evaluate client satisfaction.

My training partner and I developed and deliver facilitation training based on the IAF competencies to our clients on-site and to the public. During the three day Facilitation Basics training session we spend a couple hours on day one discussing the importance of collaborative client relationships – interviewing the sponsor and much more.

Posted by Susan Peryam