Troubleshooting for the beginner consultant

by | March 10, 2009

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Introverts need not apply

Many consultants are fresh out of top schools, smooth operators eager to make their mark in the business world. They may lack industry knowledge or know little about the fundamentals of big business, but they know how to interact with people. No one gets a job offer in consulting without having a penchant for person-to-person interaction. Clients absolutely demand it and consulting firms consider it a prerequisite for the job.

Consulting firms actively screen candidates for the ability to establish professional relationships, handle pressure, and communicate effectively. Consulting interviews, apart from being tools to learn a candidate's background, are meant to test these skills and see how candidates will perform in front of clients. The whole experience is a simulation where the candidate plays the role of consultant, and the firm sits back and judges what it hears. Did you structure your thoughts? Were you comfortable answering complex questions? Were you convincing?

The most common mistake for would-be consultants is to concentrate so strongly on acing case questions that they forget to be engaging and personable with their interviewers. Clients want more than long, hyper-logical answers to every question. They also want to make small talk, trade stories and feel as if they are a valuable part of the conversation. Consulting interviewers are on the lookout for anyone who, despite being extremely intelligent, cannot communicate in a way that makes the client feel involved and appreciated. Those people will not get job offers.

Of course, clients are often twice as demanding and create far greater challenges than anything experienced in consulting interviews. Consulting training, therefore, is geared heavily toward preparing new hires for an ever-demanding professional experience. Being smooth gets you in the door, but it's only a foundation for the advanced skills you will need down the road.

Keep your counsel

One of the first lessons new consultants must learn is the proper care and feeding of clients. It's not uncommon for new hires to be overwhelmed and uncertain at first about how to deal with clients. Clients are often much older than new consultants. It's often unclear who's in charge of consulting projects, the consultant or the client. And it's easy to mistake a good working relationship for a stronger bond.

Experienced consultants, however, know how to play by the implicit client-consultant rules. They never forget, first and foremost, that a client is a client, not a buddy. This might seem obvious, but it's not unheard of for consultants to let down their guard during a friendly golf game or a client dinner. Tell your client that his boss is a moron, and even if you're right, you shouldn't be surprised to find yourself yanked unceremoniously from the engagement. And neither the client nor your employer will be happy with you. Respect your clients, but don't get too close.

Sell, don't study

For consulting managers and partners, the essence of consulting has little to do with locating a client's problems, identifying solutions or driving large-scale change. Consulting, at its fundamental core, is about completing the terms of relationship, making the client happy and getting a referral for more business. That is the primary focal point of consulting engagements: selling. Consulting executives know that all the brilliance in the world doesn't matter unless, at the end of the project, the client is happy. That means if you don't make the client happy, your manager will not be happy with you.

Some consultants have a hard time understanding this. Armed with their Fulbright scholarships, valedictorian plaques or reputations for solving difficult problems at the speed of light, some consultants have difficulty prioritizing interpersonal relations over intellectual achievement. Of course, smarts and creative thinking are essential to the completion of the consultant's tasks. But and this is a big but if the project is completed through steamrolling client objections, scoffing at client ideas, and otherwise behaving in an arrogant, "I'm-24-and-run-the-company" manner, your client will still be unhappy.

Your client is not stupid

Many consulting engagements are held in the confines of large, corporate headquarters where organizational clarity is, in theory, supposed to exist. Upon arriving at a client site, consultants are often taken aback by the lack of process, frustrated by the poor communication between departments and shocked that no one seems to care. How the hell does this place make money? "I," thinks the new consultant, "could do a better job in two months than the leaders of this place could do in a lifetime."

This sort of arrogance is all too common in consultants. Overconfident consultants think that by observing the client for a while or by reading a brief company history, they will be able to identify and solve every single problem that exists. What they fail to realize is that people on the client team have been working in the company for years, sometimes decades. Their institutional knowledge can be extensive and extremely helpful, and their ability to maneuver through their company's culture can save consultants a lot of heartache. Scoff at your own risk. Clients often know more about their companies than you ever will, so rely on them for occasional help or drown in your own ignorance.

Be careful in your attitude towards the client. Clients know when consultants do not approve of the job they are doing. And have some sensitivity. It's galling to have all your problems examined openly by strangers and used as examples of faulty thinking.

Do you still think the client is stupid? Just remember that the client hired you, so how stupid can they be? Also recall that the client signs your checks. The client has the power to support, or not support, every single initiative consultants so brilliantly suggest. Anger the client and you may as well start writing the project's obituary.

Like it or not, the client is central to consulting projects. Consulting may have the allure of being a think-tank experience with no running commentary from outside observers, but that is only half true. The reality is that clients are involved in the process nearly every day, that factions within companies have power (and need to be neutralized) and that right answers, no matter how impressive, are worthless without client buy-in.

Nothing does more to stunt a consultant's learning than this type of attitude. In fact, it is nearly impossible to consult with any effectiveness if the client is stereotyped, underestimated or ignored. Clients hold the keys to mountains of useful information, and they either make this information available or they don't.

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