IC Week: Elayne Vlahaki on Understanding Clients’ Needs

My name is Elayne Vlahaki and I am the President of Catalyst Consulting Inc., an independent evaluation consulting firm based in Vancouver, British Columbia. I have held multiple sessional appointments teaching the Program Planning and Evaluation course within the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. You can follow me on Twitter @Catalyst_Tweets.

A colleague recently explained to me that their organization has been underwhelmed by evaluation consultants they have hired in the past. He emphasized the gap between what they were looking for and what was ultimately produced. I left this conversation thinking about the importance of understanding your clients’ needs and then delivering on them in order for projects to be successful. Here are some tips for how you can be systematic about identifying and understanding potential clients’ needs.

Hot Tips:

  • Do Your Homework. Prior to meeting with a potential client, aim to learn as much as possible about the organization and broader environment in which it operates. This will demonstrate your credibility and improve the relevance of your proposed evaluation approach. Cruising the Internet ten minutes before your meeting won’t cut it. Be systematic about your research process and be sure to explore the wide range of information sources available to you, from program documents to industry reports.
  • Listen Carefully. How can you understand a potential client’s needs without giving them the opportunity to tell you? This may sound simple but meaningfully listening without planning a response or thinking about solutions to their challenges can be difficult. Actively listening will show that you are genuinely interested in learning about their organization.
  • Ask Questions. Asking thoughtful questions is one of the most valuable tools you have to learn about your potential client. Ask open-ended questions that will help you define the scope of their needs, which will then help you define the rough boundaries for your proposed solutions.
  • Ongoing Assessment. Remember that clients’ evaluation needs will shift over time. It is critical that you review and respond to their changing needs to ensure that your evaluation findings will actually be used to inform decision-making and change.
  • Learn From Business. Most often evaluation consultants are technical and subject-matter experts, but tend to be less familiar with the consulting process from a business perspective. Developing and refining our consulting skills can help us better identify our clients’ needs, but can also equip us with a range of other tools to be successful. Gail Barrington has produced a wide range of training resources about independent consulting skills for evaluators. Check out her book entitled, “Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluator and Applied Researchers”.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Independent Consulting TIG Week with our colleagues in the IC AEA Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our IC TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “IC Week: Elayne Vlahaki on Understanding Clients’ Needs”

  1. Re: the importance of learning from business, are you aware of any evaluation consultants (LLCs) or consulting firms (C or S Corps) that adhere to B Corporation principles: https://www.bcorporation.net/what-are-b-corps/the-b-corp-declaration ?

    B Corporations are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Their mission aligns well with AEA’s core values.


  2. Hi Elayne,

    Thank you for your much needed and thought-provoking post. Evaluators play a vital role in helping an organization move forward and thrive, and if they don’t fully understand their clients’ needs then they will not be able to produce the best possible solutions to help the organization be successful.

    I love your tips for how evaluators can be systematic about identifying and understanding potential clients’ needs. In particular, the two tips that caught my attention were: “do your homework” and “ask questions”.

    If an evaluator does his homework and is well prepared then he will have the ability to provide a more comprehensive and meaningful evaluation that is based on all the facts. This gives a very good impression to clients and they will feel more at ease knowing that the evaluator is competent and devoted to helping the organization. If the evaluator has very little knowledge of an organization and lacks background knowledge and information, this also may negatively affect his overall evaluation.

    Asking questions is another great tip for evaluators to get the full picture and make sure that no stones go unturned. Evaluators should not be shy to ask questions for clarification or for the overall benefit of the evaluation. However, one thing to note is that the evaluator should not be too invasive as clients may get a bit uncomfortable and feel that they are being interrogated. I feel the best way to ask questions is through a solution-focused method so no one feels like they are being targeted or blamed for anything. Questions should promote deep reflection and critical thinking because I think in any type of evaluation this is what evaluators should be striving for – for honest and meaningful responses to best guide their evaluation so they can come up with the best possible solutions in line with their clients’ needs. Clients will also appreciate this approach.

    Thank you very much again for sharing this post and I hope it helps evaluators better understand their clients’ needs.


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