I’m a consultant. But unlike many of my consultant colleagues, I don’t come from a substantial consulting background. I come from the other side of the fence…
Clients are funny creatures. We look to consultancies for knowledge, advice and the latest industry best practice, but when they turn up to our offices with their laptops and tablets full of pre-prepared answers, we can be a bit wary.
We tend to be on our guard, aware of our limited budgets and hoping they don’t get stretched too far.
After all, aren’t consultants always on the lookout for ways to part their clients from their hard earned revenue?
Often we find ourselves wondering what can they do that we can’t do ourselves? After all, we have Google.
How our clients see us
This is the challenge every consultant is up against, every time you meet with a client – whether it’s the first pitch or the 5th workshop you’ve run in a 6-month project.
Clients will always look at you through a filter – “am I getting value for money from this person?” “can I or one of my team do this work for less?” “can I trust this person to do the work I need and not charge me for work I don’t need?”
To be a truly successful consultant we have to win our clients’ trust and keep winning it every time we interact with them.
Think of our clients as an Australian voter and you’ll understand what I mean.
Do consultants really know our business?
Many years ago, I was the manager of an Australian software company’s global digital presence, my boss and I went out to the market, looking for some advice on how to improve uptake of a new product suite.
I’ll never forget the initial meeting we had with one of the consultancies we short-listed for the work.
Two suits walked in, suits that probably cost more than my car at the time. They shook us both by the hand, looked us in the eye and talked at us for 20 minutes straight. There were beautiful PowerPoint slides, with stylish graphics, there was talk of customer heuristics, competitor landscapes, marketing frameworks and a lot of “What you should do is….”.
Not once did they ask us a question.
After we’d thanked them for their time and walked them out to reception, my boss turned to me and asked “Do you think they even know what we sell?”
When our colleagues ‘consultant’ us
OK, enough about consultants.
Let’s talk colleagues.
Let’s imagine, I say imagine because I’m sure this never happens to any of you, that you’ve had a particularly difficult time on a project. The team is very dysfunctional, there is a lot of infighting and you’re copping the brunt of the fallout.
It’s not a complete crisis. You’re fairly sure you can manage it, but you could do with a bit of advice and support from someone who’s been in this situation.
Fortunately, it’s Friday night drinks at the office. A few glasses of red and a download is just what you need.
Back at the office, drinks are in full swing. You grab a glass of Merlot and plunge in.
One sip into your drink, you get chatting with Nic. Nic’s been talking to another person on your project and has heard about your team issues. Nic’s been with the company for a few years now and has a lot of suggestions for you.
For the next 10 minutes you hear a lot of. What I’d do is… You need to…. Oh that’s a real problem. That could really impact the project. You have to… If you don’t fix this, it could ….
All good advice. But now you need another glass of red!
At the drinks table, you bump into Toni. You’ve always looked up to Toni. It’s hard not to be impressed by a person who has delivered that many successful projects.
Two sips in, Toni asks you if anything’s up. You look a bit stressed. To start with you don’t say much – who wants to admit to such a successful person that things are going badly on your project? But as you talk, Toni draws you out. You find yourself talking through the situation and, with a few pertinent questions and subtle suggestions from Toni, you think you know what’s causing the issues and what might alleviate the situation.
Who are you going to turn to the next time you have issues on a project?
Nic or Toni
When language becomes the communication blocker
One of the things that always used to bug me as a client of consultants was the jargon. Half the time I felt like I needed a dictionary or Google to understand what they were telling me. This used to intimidate me a bit – sometimes I’d leave vendor meetings feeling like I was a bit stupid.
Then I realised the motivation behind it.
Imagine you’re in your car and it starts making a funny noise. You’re a sensible car owner, so you drop it off at the garage. Later that day they call you and say the bushes on your radius rods are worn and your thrust race is possibly on the way out. It’ll cost $800 for parts and labour, are you happy to proceed?
Yes? No? What’s a radius rod?
And when the blocker follows you to around
After forking out that much money on the car, you need a drink! So you swing by your local, to partake of your favourite beverage. Everyone around you is talking about a hurling game that finished on Foxtel just before you walked in. Hurling is a sport you know nothing about. No one explains the rules to you or who the players are, they’re too busy discussing the finer points of the game.
How do you feel?
That drink is looking like your only friend right now, isn’t it?
Two situations where people used language you didn’t understand. For two different reasons, but the effect was the same.
- Our friend the mechanic was using technical language to justify a rather sizeable bill.
- Our friends in the pub were speaking the language of a tribe – the tribe of hurling.
Both situations will leave you feeling a bit isolated and out of the loop, not a pleasant feeling. Something to keep in mind when talking to our clients.
We may find that they are completely comfortable with our jargon – just as I am fairly confident my car-loving husband knows exactly what a radius rod is and why you’d be concerned about your thrust race – or they may not
They may even be Hurling fans.
There is only one way to find out.
Ask them. Listen. Adjust your language to match theirs.
Why consulting can be a lot like online dating
I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept that consulting is all about building relationships, but let’s unpack that for a moment. What does building a relationship really entail.
The first thing I think of when someone uses the phrase “building relationships”, is romantic relationships (you know dating and stuff). And when you think about it, there are a lot of parallels:
- The song and dance we go through before a first date is not that different from preparing for a client proposal.
- Waiting for a client to get back to us afterwards is very much like the “will he/she call” – and it can have the same life changing impact (as I’m sure Upen would attest).
The parallels continue:
- The thrill of acceptance when they say yes.
- Growing confidence as you spend more time together, finding areas of commonality, developing your own “in crowd” language.
But there is one major difference – well OK two – there are certain behaviours expected in a dating relationship that would probably get you kicked off a client site.
The other major difference is a fairly critical one. A romantic ‘dating’ relationship grows out of mutual attraction – it’s a two-way consensual relationship. A consulting relationship is decidedly one way – the client is in control.
So it’s up to us consultants to attract the client and keep them attracted.
Let’s imagine we’re the client, and several someones are trying to attract us:
First we meet someone #1. Sharp dresser – subtle but classy suit and a scent that leaves you thinking of 6 star hotels. Not an unpleasant addition to the decor! And when they open their mouths, oh the charm!! They’ve swallowed the etiquette book! Yes, they know their stuff.
Once you get talking, it’s hard to find anything they haven’t done. Banking, insurance, utilities, construction, logistics – they’ve worked across the board – and always at the c-suite level. Business strategy, digital transformation, innovation, change management – they’ve set the standard in every discipline. And in their spare time, it turns out they’ve swum with sharks and bungeed the Grand Canyon.
You leave the meeting feeling rather dazed and not quite up to their standard.
Now we sit down with someone #2. Another snazzy dresser, also very easy on the eyes and the nose. And very interested in you. Over a couple of long blacks, you’re skilfully interviewed about your business strategy, past performance, areas of difficulty and the measures you’ve put in place to address them.
Comments they drop into the conversation show they’ve researched your company – they quote your CEO from last week’s ABR. They know how well your share price has performed over the last year. After an hour, you realise you’ve gone over time and you didn’t even notice. You spent most of the time talking about your business area, what you’ve achieved and where you’d like to take it in the future – to an audience who seemed informed and really interested.
Who’s getting the second interview?
Moving to a longer term (consulting) relationship
But relationships aren’t all about initial attraction. Ask any married person, the spark only lasts so long. After that you need a few more tools in your kit.
Whether you’re working on your marriage or your client relationship, there are key things you need to build and maintain:
And again, it’s up to you, the consultant, to make sure these things are built and maintained.
Let’s use the marriage metaphor to explore this a bit – let’s see how those of you who are married answer, vs those who aren’t….
After 3 years in your current role, you realise you’re not happy in your job. It’s very stressful and you’re working long hours which doesn’t leave much time for the family. But the role pays well, very well. You’re way ahead on the mortgage and you’ve managed two overseas holidays in the last year.
So you sit down with the other half to discuss your options. Let’s look at two ways this could do down:
You talk about how stressed you are and how you’re finding it harder and harder to get up in the morning and go to work. Your other half listens, comments that they had noticed you were not your usual self and starts to talk through options.
You say that, really, you’d like to leave the role and find something less stressful. Your spouse is concerned about the loss of income but starts to suggest ways you both can economise. They ask you if you can last in the role long enough to adjust your budgeting to adapt to a lower income. They also suggest that maybe you could talk to your manager about making your current role less demanding or finding ways to reduce the stress.
Starts the same way, with you expressing your dissatisfaction with your job. Your spouse listens but seems to be distracted. When you finish explaining the situation and how you feel, your other half sits for a moment and then tells you that right now you can’t afford to give up your job.
They assure you that there are ways to deal with stress and the family is OK with your long hours. After all you’ve had those lovely overseas holidays. After that, the conversation loses momentum and you turn to other subjects.
Later that week you find out that your spouse has told your family that you’re really busy at work right not so they shouldn’t tell you that they miss you being at home.
Which conversation is would you prefer to have?
Whispering the right words
Each one of these examples is a parallel for a situation we consultants can put our clients into.
- Focusing more on demonstrating our knowledge than their needs.
- Presenting solutions, rather than listening to problems – the ones they DON’T know about as well as the ones they do.
- Using the latest lingo, or jargon we’re comfortable with, and not checking if the client understands.
- Making decisions for our clients because we KNOW its right for them or the project.
So what does all this say about a client / consultant relationship?
- Consulting is not all about us, what we know or the latest theory we’ve read about – it’s about our clients, what they need and the problem they are trying to solve.
- Good consultants take the time to listen to their clients, empathise with their situation and work WITH them to find solutions. Understand that the project we’re delivering is just a part of a bigger picture – their business.
- Language is vitally important. It is, after all, our primary means of communication. We need to make sure the language we use is our client’s language, not just ours.
- Just like we do with our better halves. We need to put the client at the centre of what we do – it is our job to make them feel like they most important person in the room, the hottest ticket in town and the most interesting project in our lives.
So, when we find ourselves short-cutting a client conversation to save time and get to an outcome or drive a project goal or when we feel we have all the answers and want to jump straight to presenting a solution to our client – we need to remember – they can swipe left any time they like.