How to Fix a Broken Relationship Between Client and Contractor

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Sometimes a partnership between a contractor and a client is excellent from day one. The price was right for all concerned, the scope of the works required was correctly estimated and each person involved had a desire and the skills for everything to work from the start. It can happen, but rather more often this is not the case and as the sages say it is the way people go about fixing things when they have gone wrong which sorts the good from the excellent.

This piece is about the skills, flexibility and processes needed to transform a contract from being difficult to excellent and the benefits this offers to all concerned, from the contract teams on both sides to the end users in the area being served.

The reasons a contract fails to work straightaway are varied but tend to include issues with personalities, pricing and work scope. Having interviewed countless clients and their suppliers over the years about what works and what doesn’t in a contract, the specific details and issues are often very different but will generally result in one of the two scenarios below. This piece is about how to transform from the first to the second equation.

In an ideal world the second scenario would prevail however more often a contract will start out as the first set of behaviours with both the client and the supplier trying to varying degrees to make it work. Long term however, if the price and the works needed are incompatible this is not sustainable. For the supplier this can mean a loss of morale in the management team as they try to deliver the service needed with resources which cannot match the need. For the client frustration with the supplier develops as delays and issues occur.

Our client, a leading outsourcer and their client a local government authority found themselves in just such a situation but neither the clients at the authority nor my client were prepared to let the situation continue. Instead they worked together to transform the contract into one which works for everyone.

To do this they went through a series of steps involving both the client and the team at our client, the outsourcer, changing the way they both perceived each other and worked together. This whole process was driven using our Halo research as both the information points and to target changes.

These steps were:

So those were the steps which were required by both the supplier and their clients but there was more to it than these very measured steps. There was an attitude and desire needed from key people to make the transformation work.

In the twenty years I have been studying and researching services, including ones which work well and those which don’t there are some traits in the people which are particularly helpful in delivering an excellent service. They are what I have come to look for when interviewing clients and at the local authority they had them all, and this is what made it possible to transform the contract and allow their supplier to start delivering at the level they always aim to do.

So my seven habits of a highly effective client are:

  1. Experienced both in their own organisations and its foibles and their subject / profession
  2. Focused on the users, at each level
  3. Flexible and open minded, I would also suggest humility here as a useful trait. A lack of attachment to being right, despite being the client is exceptionally helpful to everyone
  4. Realistic, both in expectation and budgets
  5. Prepared to pitch in and work at any level
  6. Quick to react when things start to veer away from the vision / expectation
  7. Looking ahead and knowing what to do next

Whilst these are the traits required from the client they are also those needed from the management which have to track the client’s skill. For example if a client shows humility and flexibility it just doesn’t work if a supplier takes advantage, so a commitment to honesty is vital. The top team at our client focussed on finding managers for contracts who were expert at managing teams and workflows as well as building relationships. Sometimes it was they, who led on driving good behaviours, sometimes, as was the case here, their client was keen to do so.

This along with the support given to the management teams from the board at our client allowed partnerships with their clients to flourish and nowhere more so than at this local authority. As their Project Manager says: “Our industry will always suffer problems until everybody plays with a straight bat. When you are dealing with top class contractors the only difference in price should be around level of profit and how efficient can they be in delivery.”

A key part of the toolkit at our client was the use of detailed independent research. Having someone from outside talk to clients and measure the difference year on year gave the MD at the outsourcer and her board key insights about what was needed and how to implement changes. Using specialist research, from The Halo Works is embedded at our client and each year the implementation of the research ensures that every part of the findings is used to improve services and relationships. This helped the local authority because it was clear where the issues were in their supplier and also what was needed to be done to resolve those problems. The research took the guesswork out of the decision making.

As the MD of the outsourcer said “We are committed to moving from a ‘maintain and operate’ culture to ‘transformational and market leading’ one and our work at this client has shown that it is possible within a relatively short time to move into a position with a client where we are both on the path to achieving that for local service users.”

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