The Art of Using Consultants

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to hire and work with consultants to get major projects successfully completed. My perspective on the value of consultants and what a good consultant looks like has been shaped from 35-years of being on the client side. Now, I am working to be a consultant and am learning first hand what the profession looks like from the other side of the relationship. I thought it might be interesting to share my early thoughts as I work to build my practice

Why Use a Consultant?

I think the three key reasons for considering hiring a consultant are:

  1. When you require deep expertise in an area that you do not have cost effective access to in your current operation. Typically, these are “one off” engagements to help you solve a problem or explore a new opportunity area. It always helps to have a guide who has walked the path before and can easily recognize the “rocks in the stream”. Nothing helps improve the odds of success more than the benefit of practical experience. Consultants often are able to quickly bring that experience to bear at your point of greatest need, and their advice can be invaluable. At Procter & Gamble, I used to leverage consultants whenever I explored a new category of business opportunity. The benefit of a consultant was to move up the learning curve at an accelerated rate and to minimize the probability of program failure. I always felt both were solid business reasons for hiring a consultant.
  2. When you want a trusted, courageous, and objective third-party perspective. In my career, it always amazed me how a team would become so bought into a proposed plan that they became blinded to potential pitfalls. As a manager, I always found “pressure testing” plans with a consultant whom I could trust to tell me the real strengths and weaknesses in the thinking always helped make the proposal stronger. At a minimum, it helped in identifying the need for and creation of contingency plans to ensure success. The key was finding a consultant I genuinely trusted to tell mw what I needed to hear versus what I wanted to hear.
  3. Training. While I designed and led a lot of training myself, I generally found bringing a content expert in from the outside to deliver training had great value. Using an outside trainer helped create a “safer” learning environment where the management hierarchy was removed as an obstacle for asking questions. I found the key to successfully using a consultant as a trainer was the pre-briefing. It was important that I communicate WHAT I was trying to accomplish and WHY it was important to the operation. That way the consultant would know what aspects to be certain and emphasize in the training session.

What Makes a Good Consultant?

In addition to my own practical experience as a client, this is the area I am studying more deeply now that I am embarking on making a living as a consultant. Here is the list I’ve developed so far.

  • Good listening skills.
  • Common sense and a down-to-earth attitude.
  • Genuinely care about helping you be more successful (willing to turn down the assignment if they think there is somebody that could deliver you a better value).
  • Has practical experience rather than ivory tower counsel. Can help you plan the successful implementation and advise you on how to address likely challenges.
  • Not afraid to tell you what you need to hear, but do so in a constructive way.
  • Able to strengthen the skills of your organization so your team is even more effective after the consulting engagement.
  • Good at communicating.
  • Respects your company culture and has the agility to adjust personal approach to fit it.
  • Finds a way to provide value above and beyond the contract.

Discussion

Transitioning from the client side to the consulting side is an interesting learning experience. I never realized there was so much authored on the subject and that the quality in the consulting profession varied as much as it does. I guess I was always blessed by having access to consultants who were among the best in the industry. From the client side, I did learn that sometimes the client “gets the service they deserve”. Pre-planning to clearly identify the challenge and identify the desired outcomes before seeking to engage a consultant always resulted in a more successful engagement. I am still trying to figure out how to ensure that planning is in place as part of my evaluation of an opportunity to consult. I guess you could think of it as trying to figure out if the company would be a good client. I haven’t yet found as much written on that subject, but haven’t given up looking.

What is Your Point-of-View?

The above list of characteristics is just a starting point. I would love your help in rounding the picture out. If you are on the client side, based on your experience what are the 1 or 2 things you feel separate great consultants from good ones? If you are on the consultant side of the equation, what do you feel positively differentiates you from your peers? I think this promises to be a great discussion and it would be wonderful to collectively create a list for what makes a great consultant and another list for what makes a great client. Thanks in advance for your help.

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5 Comments so far

  1. Perks Domingo

    January 15, 2012

    I just want to build on your list on What Makes a Good Consultant. I also spent 30 years on the client side in P&G and I’m now on the other side as a consultant. I believe as a consultant, I should build the capability of my client by transferring knowledge and technology so that they can handle things on their own once my engagement is done. Some consultants may not like this as they will lose the client and lose the return business, but to me it helps to build more trust and opens up more business in other areas. If a consultant genuinely cares and wants to provide value beyond the contract, building client capability is a natural consequence.

  2. Ed Burghard

    January 15, 2012

    Perks – As you’d expect from a fellow Proctoid, I totally agree.

  3. James Leier

    January 18, 2012

    A good consultant can also:
    – Provide insight
    – Establish connections to make the case for an opportunity
    – Enables the client to achieve / fulfill their goals
    – Addresses the client’s needs / objectives

    Let’s make 2012 the Year of Growth

  4. Thomson Dawson

    January 18, 2012

    Great post!

    I especially like the fact you begin your post by sharing your deep experience working with consultants on the client side. Seeing good ones in action is a great perspective to have as you build your own practice. And welcome to the the rough and tumble world of busness consulting, Your in for a wild ride!

    I have spent my entire career as an independent brand consultant. Most of those years as Principal of my own marketing communications and design agency. I can confirm one of your three components of a good consultant– SPECIALIZE!

    To be successful as a consultant, you must specialize and build your reputation as the go-to resource for one thing only. This means building your own brand around expertise that is not in abundant supply within the client organization.

    In my consulting practice, I focus on helping clients navigate the process of inventing new brands and building the foundations on which they will base their down-stream marketing initiatives.

    That’s all I do…

    When you specialize, it makes your busness development activities far more productive. Many find the idea of being a specialist too restrictive and limiting. On the contrary, a specialist will beat a generalist everytime–and they get paid a premium to boot.

    When you specialize in an industry, a discipline, or a demographic you will:

    – be able to quickly identify prospects and opportunity
    – not be restricted by your geography
    – more effectively position yourself as an expert
    – work with clients that highly value your contribution to their business
    – get paid more money

    Of course, that doesn’t make the job of getting and keeping clients any easier, but with a deep and narrow focus, you’ll find yourself being more effective at having opportunity exceed your capacity–then you can be choosy about who you work with.

  5. Encoradrino

    January 31, 2012

    yay google is my queen aided me to find this outstanding web site ! .

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