I’ve spent my career consulting – 20 years now and still continue to learn on a daily basis. I’ve tried to condense some of these lessons into this article, so here we go.
1. Beware first impressions
To be conscious of this, you need to understand what forms first impressions and whether theseare relevant to a situation or not. Is it appearance, language, or attitude. For example, don’t assume someone is not intelligent because they don’t speak a language as well as you do. While the predominant business language is English, it’s not everyone’s native language. These sorts of things may seem obvious but it’s easy to fall into this trap. A few years ago, a colleague could have handled a situation in a better way when dismissing a person dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. It turns out this person was the CEO of the client organisation.
2. Fit in with your Client
Even although it’s business, people deal with people. Where a client resonates with you, the engagement is always going to be easier. What this doesn’t mean is giving in to your client when unreasonable demands are made or when you think your client is making a mistake. Also be careful not to become absorbed or assimilated by the client culture (especially on longer engagements) – remember you are there to help pull the client ‘out of a ditch’, not end up in the ditch with them. You’re no help then.
3. Technology is not a silver bullet
“We’ll just throw more resources at it”. How often have you heard this? And how often has it worked? Technology alone doesn’t solve problems and in many cases, it can introduce even more. For example, if you are implementing an ERP system, why automate an inefficient business process? This process should be improved and then automated. When implementing a technology solution remember not to do this in isolation. You need the people and process changes that go with it.
4. A client will volunteer whatever you ask – but nothing more
As a consultant, you need to learn to ask the “so what” questions. You need to understand what a client is telling you and then unpick the detail around that and drill into any areas that you think will answer the “so what” questions. Very simplistically when asking a client what the problem is, the answer might be “our revenue is declining” and it’s your job as a consultant to ask the deeper questions. Not “which products seem to be the problem” (although this is a valid question) but questions like “are you experiencing any quality or customer service issues?”, “are you experiencing an unusually high staff turnover?”, or “have you launched a new service which could be cannibalising your sales?”
5. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
This is such a valuable lesson that can be applied in all facets of life and work. In this context, all it really means is that you must question extraordinary claims and statements. Don’t take them at face value.
6. There is no money like your own money (converse: it’s not always about the money)
Having consulted to large corporates, one-man outfits, and every size company in between, some interesting light has been shed on the way that organisations spend money. Most (well run) organisations – regardless of size – have budgets in place. The key difference, however, is that when a budget holder in a privately owned organisation needs to spend money, it’s usually his or her ‘own’ money.
When it comes to spending this money on consulting time, the business owner will always ask the question “What else could I buy with this money? A new delivery van. New warehouse shelving?” It’s your job as a consultant to demonstrate the value that you are delivering so that either this question is not asked, or the answer is easily articulated. The project that you as a consultant are delivering needs to have a better return on investment that that new delivery van. Once you demonstrate this, the money is not an issue.
7. If thinking were easy, more people would do it
If a client engages your services, don’t think it’s going to be an easy assignment. If it was easy, your services wouldn’t be required. Equally, you need to demonstrate how you can better solve this problem than your competition. Make sure you differentiate yourself.
8. Beware the Mumbo-Jumbo
Every profession has it’s buzzwords, none more so than the consulting profession. This lesson, however, is twofold. Firstly, don’t be fooled by buzzwords, euphemisms, or messages that actually have no meaning. Remember that many buzzwords or vocabularies exist to ‘demonstrate’ that someone who uses these vocabularies possesses some sort of knowledge that others don’t. Why are so many legal terms expressed in Latin when English will do? Secondly, don’t become that consultant who relies on buzzwords, euphemisms, or meaningless statements.
9. Get a hero – what would Joe do?
Everybody needs a hero – or two. One of mine is Joe Simpson who overcame some serious odds when breaking his leg mountain climbing in the Andes and managed to make it back to camp unassisted. Having a hero who has overcome these sorts of odds helps put things in perspective when you face challenges in your day-to-day life and career. Understanding how these role models deal with problems help you deal with yours.
10. Take charge
Don’t sit back and wait for problems to solve themselves. Don’t avoid difficult situations, and don’t postpone tough decisions. It’s important that you shape your future before someone else shapes it for you. As a consultant, you are hired to solve problems and if you are not part of the solution, you become part of the problem.
11. Give back
Use the skills that you have acquired to give back to society. It might mean volunteering for a community-based organisation, a charity, or helping entrepreneurs start their own businesses. These organisations and individuals need the skills that you have but cannot afford them – give something back.
Okay, so I lied when I said it was 10 lessons. Number 12 should be push ‘Challenge the status quo’.