As my current project draws to the end of its development phase, I’ve been thinking a lot about the client-consultant relationship in heritage interpretation. I’ve been on both sides, and one gains good insights from either viewpoint. In fact, I have come to believe that in order to be a good client or a good consultant, one needs to have worn both shoes.
Interestingly though, most clients hardly ever seem to think about their impact on the client-consultant relationship and the resulting end-product. So let’s start with looking at what makes a good client in my opinion.
The good client
- knows her aim
Even on small projects, clients tend to have a particular aim when they set out on the journey. The only issue seems to be that clients aren’t always 100% clear on what that aim is. It is worth spending some time on clarifying that aim before approaching a consultant. This will mean that once appointed, the good consultant can actually start delivering on that aim straight away, rather than either spend valuable (paid) time on finding the aim, or never quite delivering on it at all.
- communicates her requirements
It’s always important to be as specific as possible about what you need – or what you are able to cope with, as the matter may be. Consultants seem to have a tendency to work on the assumption of the ideal scenario, where resources are unlimited and where the client will be able to manage whatever the consultant puts in place. It is the client’s job to always check every suggestion against its practical implications. Otherwise, you may be left with a wonderful exhibition that is impossible to staff and maintain.
- is open to suggestions
Especially on small projects, some clients are overly protective of the project. It is worth remembering at that point that presumably the client appointed the consultant because she either didn’t have the resources or the expertise to fulfil the task herself. Nothing is more unproductive and unhelpful than a client who fights the consultant’s expertise every step of the way. In the worst case scenario for the client, the consultant may eventually give in – providing the client with sub-standard results that the client actually may have achieved more cheaply had they just done it themselves.
- holds their vision
After the above, this may seem like a contradiction. However, consultants can also get overzealous, or they can miss the point entirely for many reasons that are not necessarily their fault. It is the client’s job to keep their own vision and make sure they check any suggestions against it. Note that the vision does not equal the product – the latter is what the consultant is there for.
- is respectful
What I mean here is respect on many different levels. For example, it is a matter of respect to provide necessary documentation on time. It is also respectful to be forthcoming with information, and to do all in your power to enable the consultant to do their job as best as they can. And finally, it is respectful to treat the consultant as you would a colleague – for the duration of the project that’s what they are.
Now let’s look at what makes a good consultant in my view.
The good consultant
- is humble
As much as the consultant is charged with delivering a professional product, even where the client doesn’t share any of the relevant expertise, a consultant should remain humble. What does this mean? It means first of all that they listen carefully – not just to what the client wants (and you may be surprised how often consultants ignore even that), but also to the client’s intimate knowledge of a site or a subject matter. A good consultant never assumes that ‘they know best’.
- sees the client as a collaborator
This is similar to the above but takes it one step forward: a good consultant takes the client’s ideas seriously. Clients usually really care about a project, and they’re enthusiastic and engaged. They’ll often come up with great ideas. These may need tweaking by the consultant’s professional experience, but they may prove to be just the right solution for the task at hand.
- knows that it’s not about her
I’ll illustrate this with an example from my own experience which you may find difficult to believe. At one of the projects I worked on, a consultant had come up with a very smart idea – on paper. On the ground, it was completely invisible to the visitor, rendering the whole idea (and the millions of pounds that had been spent on the capital project) ineffective as far as the visitor experience was concerned. When I and others from the client team raised this issue, the consultant said (verbatim), ‘But this isn’t about the visitors. This is about the architect.’
I’ll be blunt: it is never about the architect (or the designer, or the script writer, or the interpreter). At a heritage site, it is always – always – about the visitor. In other words, a good consultant will always bear in mind that what she does serves the visitor. If something makes no difference to the visitor, then it isn’t a good investment for the client.
- considers the practical implications
This is the consultant’s counterpoint to the good client’s ‘communicates her requirements’. A good consultant always includes the client’s logistical framework (staff, time, financial) in her considerations. If something won’t work out in the day-to-day management of the site, then it’s not good. I’ve had a consultant once tell me that they’ll leave it to me how I will manage the key provision for which I simply did not have the staff. I came up with a solution, but if I hadn’t, thousands of pounds would have been spent on something that visitors would never have seen. Needless to say, from a client’s point of view, this is another failed investment.
- is a facilitator
This works on many levels. For example, it may well be that the client has never and will never again work on a project like this. It’s the consultant’s job to make sure the client makes the best use of this opportunity. They may not be clear about what the heritage value is that motivates them, so a good consultant will spend some time helping them clarify it. The client may also feel intimidated by the perceived expert knowledge of the consultant, so the good consultant makes sure they feel empowered to critically assess any proposal to ensure it works for them. A good consultant will also never bedazzle clients with jargon, but will try to enable them to fully participate in the discussion. After all, it is heritage interpretation we are talking about here, and heritage begins with the people whose heritage it is – quite possibly your clients.
So these are my thoughts on what makes a good client and a good consultant. The lists are not meant to be exhaustive, but I’ve tried to write out the things that have struck me the most from having been both a client and a consultant myself.