Examining Our Client Relationship by Brian McGill

Brian McGill, a partner at Stawowski McGill, reflects on our 25-year journey of success through Relationship Based consulting.

Examining Our Client Relationship by Brian McGill


As one of the partners of Stawowski McGill, I have had a rich and fulfilling career.  Reflecting on this, I like to ponder and understand what has really made our specific Stawowski McGill advisory and consulting model so successful over the past 25 years. What is the secret sauce that allows our clients to really succeed and us to enjoy what we do so much? In Simon Sinek’s famous Ted Talk and book Start With Why, his main assertion is “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. If people see your passion for your business, they are more likely to be comfortable dealing with you. At Stawowski McGill, we have subscribed to this theory for years and the results have been off-the-charts successful for our firm, our team and our clients.

In our world of business consulting, there are two predominant types of structures which exist: Project Based and Relationship Based.

Project Based. consulting is built on the premise that the client has a specific issue for which resolution may require outsourced knowledge. This is arguably the domain of the large consulting firms with expertise in many different silos. Competition for the consulting work is often very stiff and success is dependent on who has the best knowledge base, presentation and price. Most project-based consulting engagements have an end date. Once the project is completed, invoices are rendered, paid and both the client and the consulting firm move on from one another. There may be no true long-term relationship created.

Relationship Based. consulting is a very different model. The connection between the client and advisor is generally made through a higher collective client need rather than one specific issue requiring attention. For example, the private business and or the shareholder(s) might be stuck. They may be having difficulty reaching the next level in their business or may not understand or know how to work with all of the new (to them) realities of business growth or downsizing. They may have great businesses but are unsure how to plan for the exit from the business or succession. Any of these scenarios requires a variety of perspectives, processes and knowledge to navigate successfully with the client over an extended period of time.

Relationship Based consulting is where my colleagues and I at Stawowski McGill have been working since the start. Keith Merron, in his book entitled Consulting Mastery, puts together the following set of recommended principles and commitments to be adhered to by both clients and advisors when entering Relationship Based consulting arrangements:

  • We (the advisors) are committed to your (the client’s) well-being and effectiveness.
  • We tell the truth and expect you do the same.
  • We act with integrity and expect you to do the same.
  • We recognize that to be successful in the process, each of us must be successful.
  • We encourage each other to be our best and give and take feedback to support this.
  • Nothing is held back. We put our heart into this relationship and to an effective outcome and so do you.

We believe this commitment to be integral in developing and maintaining our client relationships. So much so that at Stawowski McGill, we include this list in each client engagement letter and speak to it often in our introductory meetings and thereafter if reminders are necessary. It is not fluff – it is the essence.

So what are some those key learnings, considerations or ‘nuggets’ that come to mind – good and bad – when I reflect on the Relationship Based consulting model?

The Great Nuggets

Caring about people and their well being. It must start here. You must have a high level of care towards your fellow humans or you should not be dealing with them at this level. There is too much at stake. Whether it is helping an older person to cross the street or helping them in their business – helping others must come naturally. If your client senses you are really not who you are trying to portray, your relationship will likely not be strong, if it really exists at all.

Care about where people come from, their families, their beliefs and how they got to where they are today. Care about their pains and why they can’t sleep at night. Care about their personal and company goals alike. Check in on them. See how their families are doing. Celebrate and mourn with them. Do all the things you would do with and for a friend. Because these are what our clients should be – friends.

Integrity. It is written that integrity can be defined as doing the right thing, even when no one is around. Your reputation for being a person of integrity and honesty will precede you wherever you go. An apparent lack of the same might haunt you. In life, we sometimes find ourselves, or our clients, in situations where difficult decisions need to be made. We should first ask ourselves what is the right thing to do? Often it is the hardest decision, but usually the best one. Again, if these traits are not evident, the clients may begin to see you in a different light.

Periodically, our clients will find themselves in difficult business or personal situations where their managerial moral strength or integrity is tested, and they will often come to us for help. Of course, it is easy for us to guide the client with reasonable approaches to the issue. However, what do we do if the client chooses a different approach which challenges our integrity? Now we are being tested. In my experience, if the client–advisor views on issues diverge to the extent that our integrity is being pushed and we cannot resolve the matter, we must resign from the engagement. We have done this in the past and, frankly, the decision was easy to make.

Ego and vulnerability. In his classic book Getting Naked, author Patrick Lencioni stresses that as advisors, there is great importance in checking our egos at the client’s door. There is absolutely no need to put ourselves out as the smartest people in the room. This just puts people off. Lencioni recommends vulnerability – do not be afraid to ask questions, even the dumb ones. We are trying to assist our clients in moving forward and the only way to do so is to ask questions, listen closely and learn. Do all of this often.

Difficult conversations. At some point in the relationship, it may be necessary to have those conversations with the clients where the path of least resistance may be to simply avoid the conversation all together. But we are accountable to our clients. They expect us to talk frankly with them. As noted above, our engagement letters say we are going to be honest with our clients. So, despite being difficult, we must both be committed and not afraid to have these conversations. We have had many of the over the years. Most, but not all the time, the discussions have been appreciated by the clients.

Silver bullets.The success of our Relationship Based consulting model is generally not defined by power pointing a client’s single issue and how we will resolve it. We are defined by very high-level strategies and goals requiring definition, tactics and execution across many areas. Thus, there is no single solution or silver bullet.

For example, a client looking to exit his or her business in five years requires a strategy which would include development of various new business processes, identifying and training the next level of management and many other steps relative to preparing a business for sale. There is no silver bullet to this. It requires commitment and effort in many different areas, by many different people – and it is a long process.

We have generally stayed away from potential clients if we felt they were just looking for the quick silver bullet solution or a consultant who will do everything for them. Experience tells us that we are setting the relationship up for failure if we enter the relationship with these types of client expectations. If nothing else, the experience will not be enjoyable for either party.

The Not-So-Great Nuggets

On the learning side, not every client relationship has been successful. We have become better over the years in our new client assessment, but we are still constantly learning. Fortunately, some potentially poor relationships were identified before we got going, but others we were well into our relationship when the challenging signs became apparent.  In retrospect, I asked myself what might be some of the causes so that we can be aware moving forward, continuing to learn and grow and be the best we can for our future clients?

Scope creep. This was the result when there was not a clear understanding of expectations at the outset of the engagement. There are a few different reasons this may have happened. Either we were not specifically clear on what we do and what we don’t do, we were clear but we didn’t confirm that clarity initially with the client, or the client was inadvertently or purposely creating additional expectations that were not discussed. If we cannot get to a resolution after discussions, it generally is in the best interest of both parties to sever the relationship.

Trying to do too much. We always want to make sure we go the extra mile for our clients. We are there to help, we want to help – that is one of Stawowski McGill’s core values – so why is this an issue? Naturally, as people who trulycare, there are times where we do more than we should, or more than we agreed to do. Sometimes this creates an unrealistic expectation in our client’s mind.

The client may come to expect that we’re going to do this additional work under the same fee structure all the time because that is what we’ve been doing. We cannot blame the client for us not effectively managing ourselves or communicating scope of work properly. Inevitably, when we then attempt to cut back the work, the client now may feel shortchanged and can become agitated. Managing client and team expectations from the outset is critical to creating trust in the relationship.

Subservient role. This occurs when we perceive (or it is obvious) that we may be entering more of a master-servant relationship than working collaboratively together. We have experienced this in meetings with potential clients where it is apparent that we are being asked to be at someone’s beckoned call – we will be told what to do and when to do it. We must decline any further discussions and explain that we are not a good fit for that business.

Alternatively, it may only be detected later in the engagement when reality begins to set in. If we cannot resolve this in a satisfactory manner through discussion, we will terminate the relationship very quickly. This is not a Relationship Based consulting role. This should not be construed as arrogance on our part. Rather, we know that likely the relationship will be difficult and we simply prefer good cooperative relationships. Who doesn’t?

Lack of integrity or honesty. Obviously, this is very serious. If we sense a lack of integrity or honesty with a potential client, we will generally conclude quite quickly that this client is not a fit for Stawowski McGill. Often, this is just a gut feeling, but if we did move forward, confrontation might result at some point. Best as we try, it is just as likely that we may discover a lack of integrity or honesty further along in the engagement. When this occurs, we try our best to educate our client as to the potential consequences of these types of specific actions.

However, there is a clear line of integrity and honesty that only we will define personally, for ourselves. No one, most certainly not our client, will define that for each of us. We understand our personal and firm reputation could be tainted by being associated with dishonest people and my colleagues and I will not compromise. In the past, I have tried to help people through these situations, but I will not cross my personal integrity line. If up against that line, I will terminate the relationship quickly..

Summary. There are many articles and blogs written on the relationship between advisors and their clients. In a sense, this is just one more. But it does allow me a moment to pause and reflect, and to express just how grateful I am to have learned this Relationship Based consulting model and worked within its methodology for many years.

The model has taught us about the Law of Abundance.  There are more clients in just our locale than we could ever service in our professional lifetimes. So why would we take every potential opportunity that comes along? We strive to understand what a great client looks like for Stawowski McGill and only work with those who also want to work with us. Following this law, our choices and lives are so much easier. If we lose a client, pass on a client due to poor fit, or we don’t get the client we hoped to get – no big deal – there are so many client opportunities where we know we can have a positive impact. The next great client is just around the corner and the fulfillment and satisfaction continues to stream.

The Relationship Based consulting model has also allowed me and my colleagues to see a wide variety of private businesses, meet many successful entrepreneurs and make an inordinate number of lifetime friends. Many of our clients have been with us for years, where our services and relationship have adapted to match their dynamic needs. The model is highly effective and has generated many beautiful long-term results, the ripple effects going well beyond the businesses we serve and onto our communities and local economies. We have become a part of our clients’ teams – teaching and learning all at the same time. We know our clients’ families and, in some cases, even their kids. How could you find anything better?