Management

Pragmatic Consulting: The Client’s Perspective

Two of the greatest companies in the world have given me the opportunity to work during my career: Accenture and Microsoft. I gained a lot of knowledge from Accenture over my 11 years. This included project management, strategic planning and systems development. In my nine years with Microsoft, I used most of what Accenture taught me and was able to apply it in a very practical way. Both of these experiences were crucial to my professional growth.

I was able to move from Accenture’s client side to my consultant side when I left Accenture. At Microsoft I had the opportunity to work with a large number of consulting firms in my various jobs managing IT projects, heading up Corporate Procurement, and managing Corporate Planning & Budgeting. Working with these companies gave me ample opportunities to reflect on my career as a consultant. I was able to see things from the perspective of the client and how I could have been a better consultant. This client-based or pragmatic consulting is what dramatically increases a consultant’s effectiveness and creates long-term win-win partnerships with clients.

The “Ah-ha”s

When I switched from consultant to client role, I was capable of clearly articulating some principles (or “Ah-has”) that many consultants don’t understand or don’t practice regularly.

Consulting is more about listening and less about speakingTo get a full understanding of your client’s problems and top priorities, it is important to be a good listener. Too often I have witnessed consultants rush in to give their viewpoints on theories and problems, without taking the time to understand the needs of the client. While sometimes things went well, there were instances when the consultant’s understanding of the problem was not accurate. The client was unhappy and viewed the consultant a pompous jerk.

The consultant must resist the temptation to offer solutions before the client has had a chance to fully understand the problem. While it may be possible that the consultant is very familiar with the problem, the best way to build a relationship with the client is to let them express their concerns and needs. This is crucial to establish trust and credibility between the client and consultant in order to be able to effectively work together.

It is the fastest way to gain credibility.A consultant might have an in-depth understanding of the industry and functional issues faced by other companies, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they can solve those problems for clients. If a consultant assumes problems that other companies have are applicable to the client, it can be a risk to their credibility. Worse, if the client explains the problem to the consultant and the consultant doesn’t acknowledge it or doesn’t understand the solution after multiple explanations, this is even worse. Clients are less likely to trust consultants if they take longer to get the problem figured out.

The consultant must be able to see the client from their perspective and not make assumptions about its complexity or urgency. If you can show that you feel the client’s pain, you will quickly overcome any credibility issues and get them to listen.

“More” is less important than “concise”This is something I experienced as a younger consultant. My presentations were often measured by the number of slides I could pack into each slide and how much information they contained. I used to be able to create PowerPoint presentations of 100+ slides that would take me several hours to complete. My first presentation for the pass-the weight-test was when I joined Microsoft. I learned quickly to focus on concise, tight, treat-every-word-like-you’re-spending-a-dollar presentations.

A consultant must resist the urge to pack as many beautiful slides into a presentation. The client does not necessarily have to see all the details. Many of my presentations can be boiled down to a core deck or an appendix. The core deck contains three key components. They include a succinct description of the problem and a proposal to solve it. Finally, they show how the solution will actually be implemented. Additional information is included in the appendix, which the consultant reviews only with the client. I was able communicate my points to my client clearly and concisely, and was able answer any questions that were raised. While you might only use a portion of your appendix, and you may not see much of your hard work, if you are solving the client’s problem, then who cares?

Although the client is generally familiar with the theory, they might not be able to apply it in practice. – I’ve seen too many presentations from clients where a consulting company brings in an industry expert to speak about the problems facing my industry. After they spent about fifteen minutes explaining theory to me, I would then ask them, “So how do you fix it?” The majority of the time, the industry expert knew little about the solution, if any, to the problem. The theory is only useful for the first mile of a 26-mile marathon. Knowing how to apply it in a practical and efficient manner will help you get through the rest.

Clients want to hear how their problems can solved in a practical and straightforward manner. They don’t want to be bombarded with theoretical ideas. Your theories won’t solve the problem. Save them for philosophical conversations over a drink later in the night.

Relationships are far more important than short-term fees goals Consultants are in business to make money and generate fees. It’s fine to have a profit motive and the desire to make money. It can be a problem when consultants are motivated by short-term fees and do not serve the client’s best interests. It wasn’t long-term consultants who had one hand in my pockets that were the most successful.

My most respected consultants were those who said things like, “I don’t think that you need me on the project” or “You could probably do it yourself and save some money.” Trust in consultants increases exponentially when they prioritize my business interests over my own fees. Although the consultant might have to pay a small fee if they don’t sell jobs, the long-term opportunities for a win-win with the client were much greater.

Sometimes it’s okay to say “I don’t know”.Consultant does not mean that an omniscient fairy visited you and gave you her magic wand. Sometimes the consultant won’t be able to answer a question. The worst situations I’ve ever seen were those where the consultant tried to make a deal out of a topic he did not have any business discussing. Simple “I don’t understand” would have been better than a smokescreen and hoping that no one asks.

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Two caveats should be noted. First, consultants must always follow up on statements like “I don’t understand” by adding “but I’ll find out” and giving an answer by x-date. A consultant can only get a handful of “I don’t know” before being labeled an incompetent doofus who doesn’t know their subject. It is essential that you have a solid understanding of the subject matter your consultant claims to be an expert in. A weak understanding will result in you being voted out on the island.

Being a true consultant is one that listens to clients and understands their pain. The consultant also presents practical solutions in an easy-to-understand manner. These are the things that will help you win and keep the best clients. You will be a pragmatic consultant who views things from the perspective of the client.

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