I’ve worked in the IT and financial services industry for almost 35 years and I’ve worked with a lot of consultants. A seriously astounding number. Mind-boggling, actually. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes ranging from independents to teams of consultants from the Big 4 firms. Men and women, new graduates and grizzled veterans, native born and new Canadians. Some had a list of designations on their business card that was as long as my arm, others had none. Taken together, they’re a varied and diverse cross-section of society; you wouldn’t think that they would have something in common. But the vast majority did, and that realization is a bitter pill to swallow.
What was it that they had in common? Simply this: what they produced wasn’t worth the money we paid them.
That’s a really harsh judgement and I don’t want to tar all of them with the same brush. Some of the consultants that I worked with were absolute delights. They had the skills, expertise and knowledge coupled with the right attitude. They worked hard and cared about the outcome. They taught me a lot about business, how to get stuff done, how to work cooperatively and about accountability. They helped us succeed in our endeavors, and if we didn’t succeed it was no fault of theirs. Their fees were money well spent.
On the other hand, there was a much larger group that didn’t really have the impact on the business that they should have had. I wish I understood why, but they were lacking something that ended up making their engagement less than it should have been. We usually realized a nominal benefit, but in the worst cases we were just a meal ticket for them; their objective was to squeeze as much money out of the organization as they could for as long as possible.
This taught me to take a rather cynical attitude towards most consultants.
In hindsight, the fault was not with the consultants – it lay with our organization. Our onboarding process was lackadaisical at best. Once onboard, we didn’t manage them properly. We were too willing to accept substandard work and insufficient effort. It was our duty to be informed consumers and we weren’t. We should have demanded better. Caveat emptor isn’t just something that you learn in a high school business class, it’s a principle that’s worth following.
That was then; now I find myself in a rather peculiar situation. I have gone over to the dark side. I am one of them – a consultant. I feel a little bit like I’m living the Talking Heads ‘Once in a Lifetime’; asking myself, “Well…How did I get here?”
That’s question has a long answer and it’s not all that relevant. What’s more important to me is determining what it means to be an effective consultant? What are the best practices that I should follow in order to have my clients look back on the engagement and feel my fees were a good investment and not an unnecessary expense?
I’ve concluded that the best way to ensure that I’m viewed as an asset is to imagine I’m a client and ask myself what behaviours I would like to see in a consultant who works for me. What do they need to do to demonstrate in order for me to trust their judgement? What would make me want to re-engage them on another initiative? I’ve arrived at six. (What you won’t find in the list are attributes like honesty or an ethical nature. These are necessary – not having them is a dealbreaker.)
1. Know your client
Financial institutions all over the world have ‘know your customer’ regulations in place. Part of the reason is to ensure that money laundering activity isn’t taking place, but a more important reason is to ensure that the services and products being recommended to the client are suitable – this isn’t possible without the appropriate information being gathered first.
Consultants need to do this as well.
You need to understand both the client and his business. In most cases they aren’t looking for you to be a business expert, but they do need someone who has a fundamental understanding of their business, its basic operation and the environment in which it operates – regulatory, competitive and the like.
You also need to be able to look at all of this from the client’s perspective. Understanding the client and the business situation that they find themselves in is a prerequisite for a successful engagement.
Having a degree of empathy towards the client isn’t a bad idea either.
Understand that most clients want a relationship and they want the relationship to be based on a mutual sense of trust between you and the client. It requires a great deal of trust on their part to allow someone to change how their business operates, regardless of whether it’s the organizational structure, process or technology. Trust is one of the keys to success, and you won’t get to trust without a relationship.
If I am undertaking a change initiative, the outcome of which will have consequences to both me and my organization I need to have a relationship with the individual with whom I am working; I need to trust them. In the long term, the relationship may actually be more important to me than the actual work, because it’s likely that the relationship will endure after the change initiative is finished. I want a relationship. I need you, the leader of the change initiative, to have a really clear understanding of what I want (and perhaps more importantly, what I need). I need to know that you are operating in my best interests.
Know your client in order to develop a working relationship based on trust.
2. Be transparent
Clarity is important. In this age of political correctness there is the pressure to take pertinent facts and couch them in language that obscures their true meaning. Problems become ‘opportunities’ or ‘challenges’, defects become ‘bugs’ or ‘glitches’ and failures become ‘opportunities for learning’. (It makes my head spin sometimes.) Avoid the temptation to obfuscate; instead, be as crystal clear as possible. Report both good and bad news objectively, dispassionately and accurately.
This is also an excellent way to build trust. Be transparent for long enough in both your reporting and your behaviours and over time the client will learn to trust in you completely. Be transparent in your actions.
You also need to demonstrate transparency in your motives. It’s reasonable to make recommendations that may result in additional work in the future as long as those recommendations are made in the best interest the client and their organization. The client may even welcome them if they are closely aligned with this vision for the future. What they don’t need are proposals for work that is speculative or seem to be a make work project to keep you employed.
3. Act in a way that inspires confidence
For me, a consultant needs to demonstrate three characteristics for me to have confidence in them: aptitude, attitude and availability.
Aptitude is skill set and expertise. This is quite likely why you were hired in the first place; you have demonstrated that you have the knowledge of how to do the work and the proficiency to actually get it done. Just remember you don’t know everything (and that the client doesn’t expect you know everything) but never say the works ‘I don’t know’ without immediately adding ‘but I’ll find out’ afterwards.
There are few things that can erode a client’s confidence faster than not having the right attitude. While a consultant is with client they need to demonstrate that the initiative they are working on with the client is the most vital thing they are doing. Even if the engagement is small and straightforward and you could do it in your sleep if it is important to the client – it needs to be important to you. It’s actually much easier to demonstrate engagement on an initiative that is a challenge, because it makes you work harder, employ more of your skills and likely take more of a directive leadership style. A positive attitude towards the initiative reinforces to the client that they made the correct decision in hiring you – an indifferent (or worse) attitude says the opposite.
Finally, be available. You need to give the client the ability to engage you according to their needs, not yours. This may mean a few calls at inopportune times, but in the long run it builds the trust and relationship between you and the client. You don’t need to be their nursemaid, but making yourself available outside of the agreed to times just strengthens the relationship.
(How not to act – a true story. We had engaged a consultant to make a recommendation on moving forward with a certain software package. When it came time to review the draft findings, a bunch of us gathered in a meeting room with the consultant. The content of the report was fine, but about 15 minutes into the meeting it the consultant’s phone rang. He answered the phone, began talking (it was clearly another client), gets up and leaves. He came back in about 5 minutes, issued a brief apology and started back into the findings like nothing had happened. At that point how confident was I that he was working in my best interests?)
4. Build an enduring partnership
In a partnership people cooperate in order to advance their mutual interests.
The client’s primary interest is to get the initiative completed successfully, but what is the consultant’s primary interest?
It’s tempting to say that it’s the delivery of the initiative, but I actually believe that that’s a secondary concern. I feel this way because I think that, in general, if the engagement has been structured properly and all the due diligence has been done the outcome should never really be in doubt. (If neither of those have been done then both the client and the consultant are taking on a lot of risk).
The primary interest of the consultant should be the next engagement, and the engagement after that, and the engagement after that. Don’t think that the client doesn’t want the same thing, because he does. Sourcing a consultant can be a time consuming task; His life becomes easier if he has a ‘go-to guy’ that he can engage when needed. Be that guy (or gal) because it makes your life easier too.
5. Find the right solutions
There is a multitude of solutions for every problem. Some will be great, some will be good and some will be questionable at best. It’s your job to sort through the options and recommend the right solution to the problem at hand. But what makes a solution ‘right’?
Minimize complexity. Complexity is a killer because it isn’t a one-time cost. The costs associated with complexity endure long after the change initiative is complete; they become a permanent fixture on the bottom line of the organization. Strive for simplicity. Make the solution as simple as possible but not necessarily simple.
The right solution is both scalable and extensible. Prepare for success; make sure that your solution can handle additional volume and a broader scope.
The right solution is cost effective. I have worked on some change initiatives where the cost was not really a consideration; there seemed to be an endless bucket of money. One would think that removing cost constraints would make the change initiative easier but that’s not necessarily the case. What tends to happen is that avenues get explored that should remain closed; money starts to be spent on efforts that are speculative with little payback, resulting in an overall loss of focus. The right solution gets lost in the noise of all the less-right (or downright wrong) solutions.
Lack of funds is equally troubling. Even if the right solution is found, the tendency is to take shortcuts and pare back the functionality until the solution is hobbled; the objective of the initiative becomes ‘spend as little as possible’ rather than focusing on the value that the investment will generate.
And the generation of value is really the ultimate goal. The right solution articulates the value clearly and starts to realize that value as soon as possible.
The right solution cares about quality. A long time ago (1972!) there was a TV commercial for Fram oil filters; the tagline was you can pay me now or you can pay me later.
It’s like that with many software projects. Defects that should have been addressed as part of project are just deferred and they become operational issues that cost more and taken longer to fix than they would have if they were just fixed when they should have been. The right solution minimizes defects before the solution is implemented, not after.
6. Demonstrate the value you bring
The best way to demonstrate your value is by succeeding – by delivering the initiative as planned. However, I don’t think that’s enough – success should be the minimum target that you aim for.
Here are some other ways you can demonstrate your value.
Display a sense of urgency. Time is money and it’s your job to help the client move forward whenever the tendency to procrastinate sets it. Sometimes it’s hard to close doors; the fear of making the wrong decision can paralyze the entire process so that no decision ever gets make. Allow some time for sober second thought but keep things moving.
And, somewhat paradoxically, be patient. Whenever an organization is undergoing change the stress level of the staff increases. Even small changes can ramp up the level of anxiety to intolerable heights. Your advantage is that you have done this before and lived to tell about it; by displaying patience and calmness you can help diminish their fears and help them refocus on the tasks at hand.
Take the opportunity to teach and mentor. This is a value-add that is extraordinarily easy to accomplish. Either the client or one or two of the staff will be eager to learn how to do what you do; take the time to explain your thought processes, maybe even delegate some of the work to them. Teachable moments abound on every consulting engagement; take advantage of them.
Finally, go above and beyond. Do more than is expected – there are no rules against delivering extra value to the client.
Six behaviours. I actually started with eleven; I was able to distill them down to a smaller number the more I thought about it. But I was unable to get to fewer than six. I was actually hoping to be able to reduce it down to one or two behaviours but in retrospect that wasn’t reasonable. There isn’t a single best practice that a consultant can follow to ensure success; the typical consulting engagement requires a larger toolbox than that. But supplementing your consulting methods with these six behaviours will go a long way to ensuring success.