Unpleasant Surprises

Where parties and presents are concerned, there’s such a thing as a pleasant surprise. Where budgets and bills are, there isn’t. Indeed, in business, the upsetting of expectations is not only unpleasant—it can destroy the most important part of a professional relationship.

I was recently at a meeting where a former general counsel now in private practice talked about surprises—namely, the surprise of receiving an invoice from an outside law firm for an amount much higher than initially discussed. Upon receiving this bill, the attorney said he would of course be irritated by the amount. But more importantly, he pointed out, these “surprises” would cause him to lose his trust in the professional-services provider—the trust that the provider would deliver what they had promised, at the cost they had promised.

Cost overruns happen. And when they do happen, the best thing a provider of professional services can do is give their client a heads-up. What this attorney was saying, though, made explicit something all of us in professional services know implicitly: the most valuable element in any business relationship is trust. After all, as long as you have a client’s trust, you have the opportunity to work with that client in the future, and that opportunity is invaluable. It makes you think: When a professional-services provider surprises their client with cost overruns, who really incurs the greater cost?

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