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Understanding the role of consultants and building client relationships

In this chapter expert by William McKnight, learn the role of consultants in business problems and how to build a personal relationship with clients.

90s Days to Success in Consulting by William McKnightTable of Contents:

  Understanding the role of consultants and building client relationships
 Tips for being a positive communicator and an effective consultant


Chapter 8 – Role of the Consultant

Prospects are prospects until you get a signature on a statement of work stating that they are going to pay your company for services you provide. Then, they become clients. However, they are also prospects while they are clients. They are prospects for the next service—the one after you complete what you are currently contracted for. This is the so-called follow-on work.

If you cannot secure follow-on work, you will not be successful as a consultant. Follow-on work is simply payback for all the effort it takes to put yourself on the client radar, for them to become a prospect and finally a client. This is not simply about the energy put into those companies who become clients. It’s about the time, energy, emotions, and money you put into developing the marketplace. In other words, you need those few companies who actually become clients to pay for all of the touches you make to those who don’t.

Life is short. Those who do come into our circle in this journey should be treated as special. Call it fate or whatever, but by some stroke of coincidence, James Joseph and Franz Sanchez became your clients, vendor contacts, other consultants you associate with, or high-value prospects who you’ve spent some time with. Don’t lose that by becoming complacent in the relationship.

This is not about a “put on” relationship where you really don’t like the person and are faking enjoying the person in order to see what they can do for you sometime. If someone truly rubs you the wrong way, you have my permission to blacklist that person. However, you should always check yourself when you do this, because getting along with others is a key correlate to success. You already have something in common with people you come in contact with in your business. Furthermore, most people have something to give you in a relationship, and it really should be a matter of what degree your relationship will take on, not whether there will be a relationship.

You may be great in this area, or you may need to work at it. True value-added consulting is business, but it’s also personal. Some will struggle with this new way of relating to people. It can be a difficult transition for those who have always been employed by others and have maintained a mental distinction between business and personal. With consulting, the lines blur.

It is the relationship, as well as the delivery, that turns the prospect into a client and the client into a repeat client. This chapter deals with the sometimes complicated, exhilarating, seldom linear, and often frustrating process of the relationship between consultant and client.

Consulting is a Personal Relationship
In Chapter 1, I talked about abstracting the personal relationship into a set of numbers, or deliverables, in the form of return on investment for the client. I need to caveat that now. Your success with your clients will be measured by your measurable impact, but if you deliver that in a dour or confrontational manner, that impact will certainly be discounted, if not outright voided. Consulting is a personal relationship. You do not want to compound the fact (and it is a fact) that a client’s problems are usually people problems and not technical ones. The consulting you aspire to means you must deal with the people issues behind the complex problems at a client.

Though brought in under the guise of implementing a technical solution to solve a problem, I have seldom seen real problems be caused by technology. Technical implementations, if they go well, will undoubtedly gloss over corporate problems for a while, but the corporate problems will return. Attending to the postimplementation client roles and responsibilities for success is part of true consulting.

The following sections contain some tips for dealing with people and engagement issues.

Curb Your Enthusiasm
If your estimations of value that the client is going to receive seem otherworldly, present a reduced, yet still acceptable, measure of success. I remember formulating one projected return on investment that was in the 500-percent ROI stratosphere. Obviously, the client is going to want to do this, right?! Imagine getting a

500-percent ROI. Fortunately, this consultant was counseled by his client to chop it down to 10 percent of the estimate—50 percent ROI. That’s still an eye-popper, but at least it’s a more reasonable estimate in the eyes of the executives who would be approving the project. The project was approved and had a good outcome—but more in the 50-percent range than 500 percent after all!

The point is that there certainly is a “good enough” threshold for project justification. Stop with the projected benefits when you get there. Don’t look ridiculous by promising to singlehandedly solve all their problems—and end world hunger while you’re at it. If what you are proposing does not show acceptable project benefits,

then it’s not worth doing. Don’t propose it. However, all companies need help and have ROI-producing needs right there under your nose. Don’t be a one-trick pony. Be creative enough to keep working on your project justification until you show meeting a real need with a real project.

Credit is a Four-Letter Word
The topic of project justification brings with it the whole matter of credit. Credit in consulting is a four-letter word. If you are looking for pats on the back, consulting may be the wrong field for you. Here’s what you want out of a consulting engagement:

■ To be paid according to the contract.

■ To obtain a reference and/or a referral.

■ To learn something of significance.

■ To secure a client2 for life.

If you only achieve the first goal, you are not allowed to be unhappy. However, you certainly should do whatever is in your control to accomplish the second, third, and fourth goals as well. At a lower scale than a reference is pure appreciation. You should ask for honest feedback on your or your team’s performance at various intervals during the engagement. However, it is not usually a client priority to provide the feedback—unless, of course, you are failing miserably and their career is affected.

You are the one who ultimately needs to know whether you are providing good work and good value to the client. Do not be hung up on making sure the spotlight is on you and your work. This kind of hang-up is an albatross to success for a consultant. There sometimes is a complex chain between the client admitting there was a problem and wanting to do something about it. This doesn’t always translate into you being the solution. In fact, the best mindset to have about consulting is that you are there to help the client succeed.

Corporations Are Problem Creators
Speaking of problems and solutions, ever since man first decided to work together to bring down the beast, disagreements about the collaborations between people have existed. The process has been refined over the years, and there is a normative business behavior pattern. However, this has not erased conflict. The rapid consolidation among corporations these days actually exacerbates human interaction issues. And, folks, humans create the problems that other humans fix.

I get involved in client problems so deeply that sometimes the only seemingly sane thing to think is that once the problem is solved, as complex as it is, it’s smooth sailing from there for the client. Wall Street will love it, the stock will jump, sales will rise, competitive advantages will be locked up, and the competition will be doomed. I love solving problems, but there’s always another one. It’s like a balloon where once you squeeze one end, out pops a bubble at the other end. Squeeze it, and...well, you get the picture. Problem number two—a distant, uninteresting problem two weeks ago—is now priority one.

Keep an eye out for your client’s problems that you can solve...er, help them solve.

Consulting is About Tradeoffs
It is a tremendously key skill to be able to articulate various ways to get to an end state. These end states usually come with tradeoffs that look like this:

 

Aggressive

Lots of people on the project

Large goals

Aggressive timelines

High risk

Low business involvement

Just the end goal

Risk Adverse

Fewer people on the project.

Small goals

Manageable timeline

Low Risk

High business involvement

Interim goals along the way to an end goal

Your client may be pushing you into one extreme or the other, only to find out he is ultimately not willing to live with the tradeoffs that come with that selection. For example, you are asked to complete a project in three months. You think that is very reasonable, so you only bring one additional person with you to accomplish the task.

One month into the project, something seems to have changed. The client is suddenly looking at the project for the deliverables. Perhaps he shares with you some of the new pressures that he is under; perhaps not. Either way, it’s time to get more aggressive with the project. You may need to move toward the aggressive side of the tradeoffs. While you should have had the tradeoff conversation with the client already, it’s now time to lay out some new possibilities for the client. You can add another person and meet the deliverable goals more quickly. You can cut some corners to get to the deliverables more quickly. You can more sharply define the expected deliverables so you are sure you are working spot-on to the specific, grievous problem. You can enlist more support or involvement from the client team. Et cetera... You need to know your deliverables well enough to present these alternatives at all times. You furthermore should be sensing the “tea leaves” of the project and suggesting the alternatives that make sense for the client.

Most environments resemble a mishmash (yes, that’s the technical term) of the good and the bad. It’s a combination of well architected structures and those that were obviously designed to meet an urgent need regardless of the longer-term consequences. This dualistic reality is true for all organizations. Are the well-architected structures right and the others wrong? That depends on your perspective. There is no easy answer.

However, there are effectiveness and efficiency measures. Effectiveness is measured by the client’s ability to meet specific needs—and how long they are going to be able to do so with current support levels before re-architecting is necessary. A quick and dirty solution may meet a singular short-term need in a timely and very effective manner, and it may be well architected when you don’t consider the longer-term needs. However, it is efficiency that usually enforces good solution architecture.

For example, many corporate programs still operate using fairly rudimentary, home-built solutions that conform to no guidelines. As the needs grow—and especially the need to integrate—the patchwork approach required to pull together the disparate structures grows too...and it becomes painful.

Essentially, these departments wish they had a more suitable corporate approach, where all the requirements—both now and in the future—can be met, so that they can immediately exploit the data or quickly add it when needed. How long until they bite the bullet and consolidate into a “bigger hat” solution? It will likely happen, but when? However, if the unarchitected components meet the need accurately and in a timely fashion, it is difficult to argue that the solution is wrong.


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This was last published in May 2010

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