Consulting Best Practices: Do's and Don'ts

Not setting clear boundaries, such as with time availability and scopes of work, is a common mistake for rookie consultants. This can lead to poor client experiences and burnout for the freelancer. Learn from our mistakes for what to do and what not to do when working and communicating with clients.
Written by
Kim Le
Published on
February 22, 2024

One of my rookie mistakes as a consultant was not setting clear boundaries. At times, I would get last minute client requests at 3PM in the afternoon that would need to be completed before the start of the next business day. In those early days, I would wake up in the middle of the night (the only time I had) to complete the tasks requested.

I no longer do that. Over time, I’ve learned some practices of what to do and what not to do when working with clients.

What Not To Do in Consulting

What not to do with clients as a consultant

Working Without a Contract

Working without a contract can be a risky decision. A contract serves as a legally binding agreement between both parties, outlining their rights, responsibilities, and obligations in the workplace. Without one, it's difficult to resolve disputes, especially if there are disagreements over payment leaving you short on expected cash to cover bills.

Ghosting Your Client

Ghosting, also known as sudden and unexplained cessation of communication, can occur in any type of working relationship, but is particularly damaging in a client and customer relationship. Ghosting your client can lead to a loss of trust and potential future opportunities. This in turn can hurt any future referrals from this client.

Don’t Tell Your Client When You’re Behind Schedule

While it may be tempting to keep quiet about falling behind schedule on a project, it is important to communicate any delays or issues to your client as soon as possible. Avoiding or delaying this conversation can lead to even bigger problems down the line, such as missed deadlines and dissatisfied clients.

Working Beyond Your Outlined Scope

Taking on tasks or responsibilities beyond what was originally agreed upon can lead to misunderstandings about expected deliverables and timelines. Ultimately this can lead to disputes over payment, as well as causing strain on the working relationship.

Working Hours Without Billing For Them

If you're new to consulting, it can be easy to miss recording hours worked or working more hours on a project than was originally quoted to the client. Both in effective means you're working for less than your hourly rate.

Saying “Yes” to Every Job Request

Saying "No" is an important skillset as a consultant. There will be offers for work that you're ill-suited for or isn't aligned to your goals. In those cases, it may make the most sense to pass on the project because it's likely that the client will not get their desired deliverable and you might be wasting time that could be better spent elsewhere in building your portfolio and brand.

Trying to “Please” the Client

Without a permanent salary, there may be a desire to constantly please the client in order to secure future work or maintain a good relationship. However, pleasing one client may come at the cost at serving another by taking up unscheduled time and resources. Additionally, constantly pleasing a client can lead to indulgence of bad behavior such as making last minute requests or adding on work to the scope without compensation. While it is important to provide quality work and maintain good communication, you have to advocate for yourself, and if you have one, your team.

Best Practices for Consultants: Do This

Best practices for engaging with clients as an independent conslutant

Have a Contract with Clear Start and End Periods

A contract with defined start and end dates provides a clear timeline for expectations. This ensures that both parties know when the project is expected to be completed, as well as any important milestones along the way. It also sets boundaries for when payments should be made.

Clearly Define Scope of Work

Before starting any project, make sure to clearly define and agree upon the scope of work with your client. This includes deliverables, timelines, and any potential changes or additions to the project. Having a well-defined scope can help avoid conflicts and ensure that both parties are on the same page.

Set Realistic Expectations

It's important to be honest and realistic with your client about what can be accomplished within the agreed upon timeframe. Avoid overpromising and underdelivering, as this can lead to dissatisfaction and potential disputes with the client.

Tell Them Your Availability and Stick With It

Communicating your availability and sticking to it is important for managing expectations with clients. If you have set working hours, make sure to communicate them clearly and avoid working outside of those hours without prior agreement from the client. This can help prevent burnout and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Lean Towards Over Communicating

When it comes to communication with your client, it's always better to over communicate rather than under communicate. This means providing regular updates and being transparent about any delays or issues that may arise. It also means asking for clarification or additional information when needed, instead of assuming things on your own. This shows professionalism and helps build trust with your client.

Stay Professional at All Times

Even if a project is not going as planned or a client is being difficult, it's important to maintain professionalism at all times. This includes avoiding arguments or disagreements and handling conflicts in a respectful manner. Remember, your reputation as a contractor is just as important as the quality of your work.

Have a Surcharge Rate and Late Payment Penalty

It's important to value your time and expertise as a contractor, which is why having a surcharge rate for additional work or changes outside of the agreed upon scope can be beneficial. Additionally, setting a late payment penalty can motivate clients to pay on time and avoid delays in compensation.

3 Principles of Effective Client Engagements

Generally speaking, all of the recommendations boil down to three principles underlying effective communication and boundary setting with clients:

  1. Align on a clear scope of work and terms of engagement
  2. Set and manage expectations early on and reiterate them
  3. Consistently over-communicate, both good news and bad
3 principals of effective client engagements

As simple as these guidelines are, they can be hard to implement because they tend to lead to confrontations. Challenging conversations with customers from time to time are as much part of the job of a freelancer as performance reviews are of a corporate job. Learning to be comfortable with tough conversations and guide them in a productive and professional manner will differentiate you as a consultant and help you create and maintain healthy long-term working relationships with your network of clients.

For more reading on working with clients, check out:

How to Get Clients

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