By Bill Solomonson

It has been argued that there are four key areas of knowledge and skill in performance consultancy (Robinson & Robinson, 2008):

  1. Business knowledge
  2. Performance improvement knowledge
  3. Partnering skill
  4. Consulting skill

This third area of partnering skill aligns directly to ISPI’s fourth Standard: Work in Partnership (ISPI, 2012)–a particularly important part of what we do as performance consultants.

As a field, we do well at providing ourselves with models, handbooks, case studies, best practices, university programs, certificates, and the like. We are good at that. Where we primarily fall short is on this notion of partnering skill. There are grave dangers in missing the boat on this, as Ivor Davies (1975 p.372) noted, “no matter how pert our development and evaluation procedures, no matter how sophisticated and scientifically based our techniques, little will be achieved if the quality of human relations is overlooked or ignored.”

I have been very lucky to have had mostly positive relationships with my clients over the years. Honestly, I used to attribute that to thinking I was simply pretty good at my job; perhaps as defined by listening well, working hard, and believing those people who told me so. But, then again, what happened with those relationships that did not go so well? Ah, those were “personality issues,” a “bad situation,” a “problem client,” and so on. Were they really? Could I have salvaged those somehow?

Of course there are environmental factors that affect our client relationships, but, generally, we suppose our professional relationships are based on the same factors as our personal relationships. This supposition is, for the most part, wrong.

This is because first, and fundamentally, our client-consultant relationships are based on professional exchange–our work is exchanged for pay as part of a social, or literal, contract. Second, nearly half a century of research into the buyer-seller relationship has shown us otherwise. In fact, a meta-analysis of studies on the topic has suggested that as many as 18 professional relationship-specific variables can play a significant role (Palmatier, Dant, Grewal, & Evans, 2006). The good news for us practitioners is that all this can really be boiled down to (1) building trust as a core component of partnering skill, and (2) understanding the big three factors that affect trust. Particularly in a situation with a new client, these are:

  • Perceived level of expertise: A client’s perception of a consultant’s knowledge and technical competence (Vargo & Lusch, 2004).
  • Shared values: Values that are expressed through the demonstration of expected patterns of behaviors (Lipset, 1975).
  • Sharing of meaningful information: The formal and informal sharing of meaningful information in a timely manner (Fynes, Voss, & De Burca, 2006; Wakefield, Stocks, & Wilder, 2004). Meaningful in this definition means a high level of quality that represents a valued resource in the exchange relationship.

All of this matters to us because by proactively focusing on these three primary relational factors performance consultants can potentially improve trust and the client relationship overall (Solomonson, 2011). In turn, these improved relationships can lead to a client’s commitment to maintain the relationship over time. This notion of relationship commitment is a fundamental goal in many organizations in the 21st century and is particularly relevant to external consultants because of the ongoing nature of continued work from committed clients.

Most important, this enhanced relationship places us in a better position to help improve performance for our clients, which is, of course. the goal and purpose of our partnering and consultation efforts in the first place.

Davies, I. K. (1975). Some aspects of a theory of advice: The management of an instructional developer-client, evaluator-client, relationship. Instructional Science, 3, 351-373.

Fynes, B., Voss, C., & De Burca, S. (2006). The impact of supply chain relationship dynamics on manufacturing performance. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 25(1), 6-19

ISPI. (2012). CPT Standards & Ethics. Retrieved from

Lipset, S. M. (1975). Social structure and social change. In P. M. Blau (Ed.), Approaches to the Study of Social Structure. New York, NY: The Free Press pp. 172-209

Palmatier, R. W., Dant, R. P., Grewal, D., & Evans, K. R. (2006). Factors influencing the effectiveness of relationship marketing: A meta-analysis. Journal of Marketing, 70, 136-153.

Robinson, D. G., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). Performance consulting: A practical guide for HR and learning professionals (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Solomonson, W. (2011). A mediated model of trust and its antecedents in the client-consultant relationship (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations.

Vargo, S. L., & Lusch, R. F. (2004). Evolving to a new dominant logic for marketing. Journal of Marketing, 68, 1-17.

Wakefield, R. L., Stocks, M. H., & Wilder, W. M. (2004). The role of web site characteristics in initial trust formation. Journal of Computer Information Systems, Fall, 94-103.

About the Author
Bill Solomonson, CPT, PhD, has consulted with many Fortune 500 organizations and is assistant professor of education and human services at Oakland University in Rochester, MI. He actively consults in enterprise performance improvement and learning solutions including e-learning design and development, distance education, organization development, and stand-up training. His research interests include the role of trust in the client-consultant relationship, multimedia learning theory, the development of meta-cognitive learning skills, virtual learning environments, and organizational performance improvement. Bill is an active member of ISPI and is a CPT certification reviewer as well as a track reviewer for ISPI international conferences. He may be reached at