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Solid consultant/client relationships: What do they have in common?

Greg Squires for Progressive Dairyman Published on 30 September 2016

I was recently asked what I thought were among the key ingredients of a long-term and substantive consulting relationship between a dairy producer and his or her adviser(s).

The person asking the question was a nutritionist representing one of the major feed companies, but he could well have been a veterinarian, banker, agronomist or anyone else serving in an advisory capacity to the dairy industry.

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Coincidently, Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley posed nearly the exact same question a month ago, so I thought I would offer my observations from a 30-year-plus career working with U.S. dairy producers in two very different roles.

As I began my outline, I noted some similarities in how I could frame this discussion and the thoughts I shared with my daughter and her new husband during my father-of-the-bride toast at their recent wedding reception.

In my toast, I incorporated some anecdotes and quotations from Life’s Little Instruction Book authored by H. Jackson Brown, Jr. Let’s see how the following “instructions” resonate as you reflect on the fruitfulness, profitability and effectiveness of your adviser relationships:

In business and in family relationships, remember the most important thing is trust.

One of the most fundamental determiners of success in an adviser relationship will be the level of trust and respect you have for each other. A significant portion of this dynamic goes back to selecting the right person to fill the role.

In order for the relationship to develop optimal synergy, it will have to possess depth, candor, mutual challenge and healthy debate. None of these relational qualities are possible without strong trust and respect.

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Don’t be called out on strikes … go down swinging.

I’ve had clients over the years who were incredibly complacent and others who could be accurately described as never being satisfied and of course many more who were somewhere between these two extremes.

Without question, and if given the choice, I would choose to work solely with those owners who are hungry, never satisfied and always looking to create improvement in their processes and businesses.

Why? Because the folks who are always looking to improve are the ones who are constantly asking questions, setting expectations and excel in executing plans. They are proactive. They seek and embrace change. They sift through their advisers’ recommendations, evaluate the merits of each proposal or suggestion, make decisions and then act.

Every person you meet knows something you don’t … learn from them.

Dairy producers who embrace this dynamic are stereotypically hungry to learn. They are also usually very adept in applying new learning to improving their businesses. Folks who embrace this “life’s instruction” tend to follow the axiom of surrounding oneself with people who are smarter than themselves.

People for whom I have worked who fit this mold get more out of me than others do because I know my work is expected, leveraged and appreciated. In these kinds of relationships, one almost always finds a healthy and productive exchange of ideas that translates to more consistent improvement.

Be a leader. Remember, the lead sled dog is the only one with a decent view.

The term “leader” can mean many things. When you are the owner of a business, you probably should be constantly working to improve your leadership skills. A great leader is many things but certainly one of the common traits is the ability to accept constructive criticism. Another is the ability to recognize when you may be wrong.

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It’s been said that everyone needs a boss. We all can benefit from having someone we trust implicitly act as our accountability manager. If you truly trust an adviser, you should be comfortable in allowing him or her to provide insights to your own professional limitations and weaknesses.

You should feel comfortable with a truly trusted adviser even to the point of inviting their input regarding your follow-up on projects and guidance on general business issues and opportunities. A great adviser should be constructively critical of you from time to time in an honest effort to help drive improvement.

Demand excellence and be willing to pay for it.

Surround yourself with the best skill sets available for each of the adviser roles seated at your management table. Don’t hold back in setting and communicating expectations of your advisers. Setting expectations lets everyone know your goals and how each person is expected to contribute.

Keep several irons in the fire.

For this analogy, think of yourself as having just two primary irons which you have the option of keeping in the fire: 1) hands-on, day-to-day chores and responsibilities or the “tactical” iron and 2) managing the business (you know, the planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling stuff) or the “strategic” iron.

The problem with too many farms is that the owners spend a disproportionate amount of time with just the tactical iron in the fire. They do not discipline themselves to carve out time each week to keep the strategic iron hot.

Many business management experts have been known to use the phrase “continuous process improvement.” Basically, this is a label for always striving to improve. Working on improving processes is very difficult when an owner struggles just to get their tactical work completed every day.

This is one of the most common reasons why so many people have difficulty managing change; they just don’t have time to handle anything new or different. So when a trusted adviser makes a recommendation to change an existing SOP or add a totally new protocol, these owners just smile and say, “I’ll get to that next month.”

How can we generate greater synergy from our advisers?

The process all starts with you. Make a personal commitment toward embracing change. Only after you commit to the power of change through continuous process improvement will you be able to harvest the fruit of strong, synergistic consultant relationships. From there, you can then:

  1. Evaluate what roles you want to be seated with you at the management table. These could include but aren’t limited to: nutritionist, veterinarian, lender, attorney, accountant/tax professional, financial adviser, training and labor management consultant, market risk adviser, milk marketing consultant, etc.

  2. Ensure that you have determined and communicated appropriate expectations of those advisers already seated at the table. Too often, clients experience unsatisfactory results from a relationship not because the adviser isn’t capable of better work, but they thought they were performing exactly as you had defined their role. Communicate.

  3. Make sure you have the right person filling every seat. If you feel you’ve given the relationship every opportunity and have communicated your expectations, don’t be afraid to find someone different to take the seat. Sometimes greater synergy can be created by simply finding a more compatible personality which better supports your character traits and business needs.

I believe most of us realize that we can’t go very far in life without the input, coaching and shared experiences of other people. There is an old African proverb that says: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others.  end mark

Greg Squires
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