After reviewing the responses to your potential client questionnaire, meeting either in person, virtually, or by phone, and putting the finishing touches on your contract, you’ve landed a new client.
This is part of the on-boarding process, where you’re brought on as a consultant or contract worker for a new project. And since I do most of my consulting around program design and evaluation work, I’m going to speak within the context of working with a new client who has hired you to either develop a program theory model or to design an evaluation specific to an existing program.
To start, most evaluation projects tend to last for an agreed upon length of time. If you’re hired as an external evaluator, and you’ve never worked with this client before, you’re already at an advantage. An evaluator works with program directors and executive directors to “tell the story” of their program through identifying potential outcomes for the program activities, creating a data collection process that aligns most with the program and what questions the organization is expecting to answer, and analyzing the results. As an external evaluator, you’re the ideal person because 1) you’re the expert, 2) they may not have the staff capacity to do what you’re about to do, and 3) you don’t come with “baggage” (i.e. you’re not intimately involved with the goings-on of the program, thus being more objective and impartial.)
Despite this, being an external evaluation can also work against you if you don’t make good use of your first days with a new client.
Before you start discussing qualitative versus quantitive data collection or what to highlight in an executive summary, you need to understand what’s going on with the program you’re evaluating and the environment you’re going into. It’s like your first day on the job as a full-time employee. The more you know, the more ahead of the game you’ll be.
Use Their Language
If you follow a lot of business and marketing people, they talk a lot about “tribes”. A tribe is a subgroup of people in the world you market your services to. Some come up with names for their tribe, or the name is determined based on how the subgroup reacts to what you’re providing. Like the BeyHive, for instance.
Within these tribes are common terms, concepts, catch phrases or acronyms that are unique to that tribe. This is the same for a program. When I worked on an evaluation of the Sadie Nash Leadership Project‘s Summer Institute, I referred to the teen participants as “Nashers” because it’s in their marketing and programming, the participants and staff referred to themselves as such, and it was, well, cute.
When you use their language, you make the effort of familiarizing yourself with the uniqueness of the program and the organization. This shows the program staff that you’re invested in what they’re doing and that you’ve done your homework. This not only goes for interactions with the staff and participants, but also in any evaluation-related documents you create as a result of the evaluation.
Observe the Environment
Tied into using their language is observing organizational culture. This gives you a sense of how staff interact with each other, how program participants interact with each other, and how staff and participants intermingle.
Observing how staff and participants interact with each other can sometimes be an indicator of how well received a program is to the participants. This can also be an indicator of whether you will be able to fit in with the personality of the organization. They may value your work, but if the environment itself is off-putting for whatever reason, it may be an uncomfortable experience for you.
And from a professional standpoint, observing the environment can give clues to what to wear and what not to wear while on site, even if it’s not verbally expressed. I’ve worked with clients who have more of a casual office wear, and I’ve worked with clients who required business attire Monday through Thursday.
Know How to Communicate
Before you even get started, your work scope should have how you plan to communicate with your client, how often, and who else may be part of that communication. Your work scope should address who oversees your work. It could be a executive director, program director, or someone related to the project.
I cannot being to describe how frustrating it is to report to multiple people, to have emails or calls go unanswered, or to have something lost in translation because a client (or you) expected something and it wasn’t communicated clearly. And this goes both ways.
Does your client expect a reply to every email? Does your client expect monthly or weekly summary of work you’ve done? Does your client expect you to be on site a certain number of days? All of this needs to be ironed out before you get started.
The more you know about your client and their program, the more prepared you’ll be. You’ll understand your client’s (and your) expectations, and you’re be off to a great start in building a positive working relationship with your new client.