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February 2017

Clients are from Venus,
Consultants are from Mars

February 19-25, 2017 celebrates the 66th annual National Engineers Week. This is our sixth annual recognition of the contributions engineers make to our society and the entire world. Guest Author Michael Ellegood, PE, has held positions ranging from Project Engineer through Senior Executive in major consulting engineering firms. He joined the public sector as an agency head ultimately retiring as County Engineer, Public Works Director and Transportation Director for Maricopa County, Arizona. Michael is a Senior Consultant with PSMJ Resources and collaborates with public works agencies across North America to improve their project delivery. He answers why you and your clients don't speak the same language with a practical plan for better communications removing barriers sabotaging positive client relationships.

There has been a lot of talk recently about running government like a business; guess what, it doesn't work; it can't work and there is good reason for that.

First off consider your private sector business model. Fundamentally it's stone simple, three steps:
  1. Find work
  2. Do work
  3. Get paid
There you have it in six words, three simple tasks and that, in a nutshell , is the consultation business model.

Now let's consider your public sector clients model:
  1. Follow the rules, all of them all the time, even when they conflict or perhaps violate the laws of physics.
  2. Appease the Politicians
  3. Satisfy the nay-sayers
  4. Avoid the press
  5. Fight with the permitting people
  6. Deal with other agencies
  7. Keep a low profile

While all this is going on, the public sector client is trying to deliver the project with inadequate project management tools, an accounting system intended to identify who is to blame as opposed to being a tool for the PM, typically few if any institutionalized project management protocols, and often less than highly qualified staff.

In most cases, the public client is highly motivated to deliver the project on time and on budget but there is so much else going on that it is very difficult to focus on project delivery.

"When you are waist deep in alligators, it's real hard to remember that you are there to drain the swamp"

Having been on both sides of the fence, and I might add, successful in both arenas, I can tell you that as difficult as it is as a consultant to deliver a project on time and on budget with a demanding client who doesn't want to hear about changes and additional charges, but this pales in comparison with being a public sector project manager. Again with a fixed and often inadequate budget, dealing with other agencies or communities who just want "my bite from the apple" and often distrustful elected officials. Or the community meeting with electeds in attendance populated with the "Citizens Opposed to Nearly Everything"(CONE) of the inevitable NIMBY. You sir, or madam are simply pawns in this political chess game.

OK, so you are a consultant, how do you make your clients life easier and in the process become that "trusted advisor" that makes a client for life? Some easy steps:

  1. Communicate: prepare and send frequent progress and status reports to your client whether requested or not. (I have a simple format for the report, email me, for a free format).
  2. Bill every project every month
  3. Be open and honest, do what you say you are going to do and follow up.
  4. Offer to be an intermediary with the public on a controversial project so you take the heat not your client.
  5. Go into contract negotiations with a great deal of knowledge of what it will take to deliver the project and during the negotiations display your depth of knowledge and preparation.
  6. Don't be afraid to request a change if there is a distinct departure from the original negotiated scope but do not pepper the client with change requests. (In most cases, changes require board approval and your client will be required to thoroughly justify a change to a skeptical elected official.)

There is more of course to this but for starters, remember that your client operates in an alternative universe, best to understand it.

Speaking of the "public sector", have you been challenged by the myriad demands of maintaining your professional credentials? Are you a professional with multiple licenses and several organization memberships? Each of these credentials generally have non universal requirements for continuing education, cycles and fees for renewal vary, not to mention the different reporting processes. We can make your professional life much easier and save you time and money, too. Call us at 913-608-7880 or visit for more information.

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