The Art of Empathy as a Client Confidant

Since celebrating my fifth year at North Highland, I’ve practiced and refined the invaluable skill of client empathy that I feel is worthy of passing along to my North Highland colleagues. If I had tapped into this skill earlier in my career, I could have more easily navigated challenging client situations and been a more effective management consultant. I’ll warn my audience in advance that “the art of empathy” isn't rocket science; on the contrary, it's about foundational human interaction and relating to your clients to establish early rapport and long-term trust. Being sympathetic to a client’s situation means you feel badly for their misfortune, but can’t personally relate because it’s never happened to you. However, being empathetic means you relate to the client’s situation through your own personal thoughts, feelings and experiences. Being empathetic is a powerful way to connect with your clients at the most basic psychological levels before tackling the hard work. You still must possess the core consulting “chops” to get the job done at the end of the day, but serving as a client confidant works behind the scenes to achieve exceptional results.

In our management consulting industry, we are given the privilege to work with some of the world’s largest and most prestigious companies that fuel the macro-economic engine. Our clients often seek North Highland’s consulting services during their organization’s most challenging and vulnerable times, which makes them vulnerable as individuals as well. Some clients may feel their job is in jeopardy if a project doesn’t go well; other clients may feel pressure from a recent merger or acquisition, or possibly a reorganization that causes them concern about an uncertain future. At the end of the day, whether your client is the CIO or an entry-level project manager, we are all human and have individual wants and needs in our professional and personal lives.

Successful client confidants listen and understand the basic needs of their clients. According to Abraham Maslow’s psychological theories for human motivation, we possess a hierarchy of needs starting with basic physiological needs for food and water. Once this need is met, our safety and protection becomes the next, most pressing human need to be satisfied, which oftentimes takes the form of employment safety and protection. The intersection between the psychological need for safety and protection and the art of empathy is where the magic occurs between client and management consultant.

I’ll draw upon a recent project experience to illustrate how to navigate a difficult client situation in a highly visible environment, and utilize the art of empathy to turn around a project for the better. As the winter holidays approached when I’m typically thinking about some R&R in the Idaho snow-covered mountains, I was contacted about a failing project due in part to a dysfunctional client relationship. The immediate ask was to engage with the client team to improve working relations, gain respect and re-energize the North Highland team, and simultaneously ensure the project scope was delivered in five weeks to the satisfaction of the unhappy client! Although it was a tall order with a tight timeline, I’d been in these situations before and knew how to proceed with quiet confidence and employ the art of empathy to ameliorate the situation.

Thinking back to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, my immediate priority with the client was to personally connect on a human level to address his basic motivational needs.  What could we find in common to establish early rapport and allow me to satisfy his safety and protection need that “I’m on your side.” Finding common ground with your client is a critical first step to serving as a client confidant. Start by inviting your client to lunch or another social setting to engage with each other outside of the project environment. Be yourself, let yourself be vulnerable and most importantly, be empathetic to the project situation. You’ll be surprised how most clients will open up and tell you their thoughts, concerns and aspirations when you find commonalities in your personal lives. As it turned out, my client and I shared a common interest in skiing, which led to discussions about another common interest in international travel. From there, we began a dialogue about project “war stories,” the current project dysfunctionality and how we could partner together for a successful outcome.  Voila! If you’re able to tap into the psyche of your clients and empathize with their situation, you are well on your way to becoming an effective client confidant.

During my professional consulting career, I’ve seen too many engagements that are strictly transactional in nature, and lack any personal connection with the client and extended team. I’d like to remind my colleagues that projects where the empathetic management consultant and client form a personal connection at a human level have a far greater success rate than projects that lack this chemistry. In short, the early rapport and trust you gain with your client through the art of empathy will ultimately translate to a long-term, trusted relationship on the project level leading to exceptional results.