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Freelance Engineer relationship building tips

14 Relationship-building Tips to Help Freelance Engineers Win Work

Gavin Christie

Gavin Christie
Oct 30, 2016 09:13

I’ve written a number of articles recently on client engagement, business development and winning work, and in this one I’m going to focus on how a freelance engineer can build better relationships with clients.

For these tips, I collaborated with kkooee co-founder Bede Evans, who has held roles as both a client and a consulting engineer, and that experience has given him some extremely valuable insight. They’re based our combined experience: some successes and, of course, some epic failures. Don’t hesitate to post your comments or share your stories.

1.     Find something in common

Every professional relationship should start with an initial bonding point. You’ll no doubt say that finding common ground with your clients is easier said than done, but I beg to differ.

Look at someone’s LinkedIn profile and quickly read their previous work history. You may have worked on a common project, or in a common city or even country. It could also be something personal: maybe you both play golf, or have kids the same age.

I’ve worked with people in too many countries to count, and I can always find something that sparks a conversation, whether it’s sport, politics, economics. You don’t need to try hard, just be a real person.

2.     Focus on building trust

When I run business development workshops, I ask attendees to think about a person they trust. I then ask about the attributes that make that person trustworthy. The most common answers are that these people are honest, dependable, consistent, and they keep promises.

I believe that one of your ultimate objectives as a freelance engineer on any job should be to earn your client’s trust. By that I mean, your clients should all describe you as dependable. The easiest way to achieve this level of trust is to deliver on your promises – no matter how small – from the beginning of your relationship. If you’re able to deliver on timeline, quality, and budget as promised,  you’ll go a long way toward building trust, which is a critical factor in determining whether you are contracted by a client again.

3.     Shut up and listen

When I say to shut up, I mean resist the temptation to talk about yourself or your company. It’s off-putting to a client and you’re doing yourself a disservice. But an important part of listening is asking questions. You need to understand as much as possible about your client, their business, their project, and their engineering needs, and when you’re over-confident or too quick to expound upon your own expertise, you may miss crucial context that you need to deliver your work.

Set yourself an objective to understand as much as you can about your client. When you listen and ask thoughtful questions, chances are excellent that your client will respond thoughtfully to them. The engineering services and end product you deliver will be better for it.

4.     Find out what drives the project

Ask yourself, did you truly understand the drivers for every engineering project you’ve ever worked on?

Chances are, you will have listed the drivers for each project. But if you asked your clients, the actual drivers may surprise you. Often, your perception and your client’s perception of the project drivers are wildly misaligned.

Some freelance engineers may read this and think it’s not that important. But what is important is your relationship with your client. It’s your job do align your work with your client’s goals and when you do that, you will deliver more valuable services to that client. It’s as simple as asking the question from the beginning, but it could be the difference between being contracted for future engineeing work or not.

5.     Shut up and work

You’ve worked in 50+ countries on hundreds of massive projects. You’ve amassed a lot of experience, and you love talking about it every chance you get. Congratulations.

You’ve probably encountered this type of engineer: if you built a deck, they built a house. If you climbed Mt. Everest, they climbed it blindfolded with no oxygen. And if this description hits a little too close to home for you, I have a few words of wisdom: you’re probably not as interesting as you think you are.

Each project is different, and your client probably feels their engineering project is completely unique. What you did five years ago on a project with a different client in a different country probably isn’t relevant, and the client definitely doesn’t want to hear about it. 

Sure, past experience counts. In fact, your experience is probably the reason you’re contracted. But when you crow about your resume, you run the risk of coming across as abrasive, pedantic, or set in your ways. Oh, and no one will want to work with you. Ever.

6.     Some decisions don’t need your commentary

Companies make decisions that baffle you; We can all think of examples. No doubt, your clients’ companies – or even your clients themselves – have made choices that don’t make sense to you. But this isn’t football, and you’re not a commentator. You’re a contract engineer, and your opinion won’t impact the outcome, so why share it?

Why do I say this?

It’s simple. Your client probably agrees with you, even if they can’t say so. It’s also possible that he or she wasn’t part of the decision either. Companies make decisions based on information that isn’t available to you; you’re likely never getting a wholistic view.

If you understand and accept this, you’ll realize that being a commentator isn’t helpful; in fact, it’s harmful. Rather than pass commentary, ask questions and seek to understand. Part of building trust is knowing what not to say.

7.     Non-engineers are not inferior humans

Even if your days at university are long behind you, you remember what it’s like to sit through a lecture.

Sure, you need to present findings to your client. Sure, you have highly specific skills and expertise. That’s why you’re contracted. But no one responds favorably to being lectured.

Your client likely has an understanding of the fundamentals of the contract engineering services you’re delivering, but don’t assume inferiority or stupidity just because he or she doesn’t understand – or maybe just isn’t interested in – the technicalities of your work.

It’s this type of arrogance or a misplaced view of self-worth that sows the seeds of misalignment. Your client has goals, and your job is to help deliver on them. So be informative, not condescending. 

8.     Don’t deliver a square peg for a round hole

Recently, a friend told me a story about a tender he ran for a large piece of contract engineering work. As part of the tender package, he requested that consultants prepare a cost estimate in a prescribed MS Excel format. Of five firms, only one applied the requested format.

What was the reason? The excel format didn’t “gel” with each consulting company’s existing format for estimation. It doesn’t matter why my friend requested the format he did. It matters that delivering in accordance with his request made it easier for him. Be clear on exactly what you are asked to deliver (even if it means asking additional questions) and work within those boundaries. Deliver a round peg for a round hole, not a square peg that you assume will be easy to retrofit.

9.     Don’t be a doomsayer

When you perform a risk assessment, you identify your most critical risks and focus on controlling them. You tend not to allocate effort to mitigating risks with low impact or low frequency of occurring. If you begin to fall into ‘if this, then that’ rabbit holes, you’re giving airtime to low-frequency risks. And worse, you’re portraying yourself as a misaligned doomsayer.

At my business development workshops, I always tell engineers not to be the deliverer of worst case scenarios. Your client will already know many of the risks associated with a contract engineering project, whether it be an operation or project in development. There’s no need to frighten them, or yourself, by focusing on worst case scenarios.

10.  Don’t ask for things you won’t get

Inevitably, your client will have pieces of information – a company strategy, a business plan, a budget – that they either can’t give you, don’t have readily available to give you, or simply don’t want to give you. Sometimes it’s confidential. Other times, they just don’t trust you. Accept it, move on.

The worst thing you can do in one of these scenarios is to push the case or ask the same question repeatedly. When you ask for things you know you won’t get, you come across as self-important.

If you do ask for information and don’t get it, don’t throw your shovel out of the sand pit. Focus on developing a relationship and building trust over the course of the project. It may not happen immediately, but you’ll be surprised at the information your clients disclose when they trust you.

11.  Don’t focus on future opportunities

When you run a marathon, you’re not thinking about your next race. It amazes me how many engineers engage with clients with the hidden motive of securing the next package of work as a freelance engineer.

If you’re pushing future work too much, you’re doing two things: you’re taking focus away from the services you’re contracted to deliver, and you’re unintentionally showing a lack of interest in solving the problems at hand.

As an independent engineering contractor, your best selling points are past freelance engineering projects. The best way to ensure future work is to deliver on time, on budget, and on schedule.

12.  Reports: you’re probably worse at writing them than you think

At kkooee, we write every article ourselves. Sometimes I write them, sometimes Bede does. But no matter what, we always review what the other has written. Peer review is critical to producing the best possible end product.

Reports are one of the main delivery currencies in the engineering services industry. You can’t and won’t escape the need to write them, but many engineers still don’t take the time and effort to regulate the quality of their reports.

I just don’t understand it. You’ll have seen many of these: poorly structured, grammatical errors, poor word choice excessive use of acronyms. The list goes on. Clients hate rubbish reports. They make you look lazy, and it may indicate to your client that the quality of work you provided for them is low. Your report will likely resurface at many levels within your client’s company, and you want to be proud of it. 

Accept it. You’re not as good as writing as you think you are.

If great reports are essential and you’re not great at writing them, the answer is obvious: get every report you write reviewed. Even if it’s not by an engineer, get a second pair of eyes on your writing. Take the same care in delivering a report that you do in delivering the engineering work you’re contracted for. It won’t go unnoticed.

13.  Emails: it’s not hard to be polite

If you have children, you no doubt you teach them to be polite, to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ If they aren’t polite, you enforce consequences until they learn the behavior.

There a loads of tips on writing better emails; I won’t go into them. The only point I want to make is that it’s worthwhile to take the time to personalize your emails. At the very least, be polite. Include ‘please’ in your requests. Say ‘thank you’ when thanks is deserved. Wish your client a good weekend on a Friday.

There is a difference between correspondence and communication, and you should always view email as a form of the latter. Think about how you respond to a polite waiter and how you respond to a rude waiter. Think about how you tip a rude waiter. Understand what I mean?

When you put in the effort to be polite, you communicate more productively and see better results.

14.  Watch for ‘hot button’ bias

This final tip is arguably the most important, because it’s likely the one you were least aware of. As humans, we seek to do things we enjoy or get satisfaction from, and avoid things we dislike or get little satisfaction from. At work, we tend to skew our effort (usually unintentionally) in favor of tasks that give us satisfaction, which can have unintended consequences when working with a client.

Especially within engineering consulting companies that have a core set of skills, there is the potential for what I call ‘hot button’ bias. Think of a hot button as a specific element of work that you or members of your team have a particular interest or strength in. These hot buttons influence your effort and your recommendations. Unintentionally, you allocate effort and focus (current or future) to things that interest you. Human nature is interfering in your project!

Hot buttons can cause you to work disproportionately on low-priority tasks. Without realizing it, you drift out of alignment with your client. Unchecked, you can get wildly off track. As I mentioned previously, the quickest way to lose the opportunity for additional work with a client is to deliver work that doesn’t align with the client’s goals.

 

All of these tips are designed to help you build strong relationships with your engineering clients, and relationship building starts with trust. Ultimately, you want to be the freelance engineer that your clients trust and depend on. 

Comments

This was extremely informative and relative to Engineering as a whole. Great job on explaining in full detail what to expect, what to know, and what is well-known within the processes of offering a project and/or being selective when making a precise decision in the acceptance of a necessarily high-priority project.

Thanks Matt. I'm glad you found it informative. Sometimes the simple and almost "logical" things work the best. i really appreciate your comments. Gavin

This was extremely informative and relative to Engineering as a whole. Great job on explaining in full detail what to expect, what to know, and what is well-known within the processes of offering a project and/or being selective when making a precise decision in the acceptance of a necessarily high-priority project.

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