Consulting and the death of customer service

Posted: September 30, 2006 in Professional

           So, as you probably guessed I have some experience in the consulting arena. One thing that has always surprised me (the longer I do this the less it does) is the absolute horror stories I hear from clients about previous engagements they have suffered through with other consultants. These horror stories generally fall into 2 categories, the trickster and the selfish.
           The trickster is the guy who KNOWS what he is doing is wrong. He is not interested in providing value, not really concerned with the client relationship, he/she is a parasite their only reason to interact with the client is to keep the engagement alive long enough for them to drain it dry. As their goal has nothing to do with true consulting, there is not much you can do with these guys but beware. As a consumer, you need to talk to their references. Believe it or not, sometimes these guys will actually give you references who would say horrific things about them on the bet that you will never check them. And 9 times out of 10 they are right.
          At one of my previous employers we had a company we’d engaged already (with limited success) on another engagement. When we had another huge project come up that was critical to the success of the company, our PM decided he would open up bidding to other companies, and took it upon himself to check the references provided. He checked the biggest reference from the company we had been dealing with, and they could not say enough bad things about them. As we dug, we found the addresses on their business cards were actually the address of their client and they, in fact, had absolutely no US presenece at all.
      So, on to the other group. The selfish. Before I get into this name let me first explain some of my thoughts on consulting. The first of which is why in the world does a client call in a consultant? They could hire a contractor, they could hire their own staff. They could train their own staff. Why in the world did they call that gold certified partner and pay all that money? We could hash out plenty of reasons but here are what I see as the tops (whether they know it or not). In most cases, it comes down to 1 item, risk. You train your own staff, you hire a contractor, hire a new guy, they all involved potentially high levels of risk. They could fail, you already know or suspect your internal resources are not enough, if this all fails, you have no recourse, and there is a good potential that it may. On the other hand, the consultant comes in with knowledge, the support (from his/her company), and the tools to do the job. What I am tyring to highlight here, is that they client has handed over a good deal of trust in the consulting company, they are allowing you to manage their risk, they are counting on you for the success for thier project, and very often paying a LOT more than their managers thought they would have to, in essence. they are putting their butt on the line on the bet that YOU will get the job done.
     Now to take it to the consultant side of things. Why in the world are we consultants? Do we like not really having a home office? Travelling away from our families? The pressure? Well maybe, but the big driving forces are that we often get to play with the latest/greatest technology, we get to see many different facets of business and many verticles, and yes we do get to visit some cool places. Personally, I love the interaction with clients, I love to see a positive impact on their business, to leave my mark so to speak. Oh yes, the other motivating factor, the one that leads me into the selfish classification, we ALL want to make some MONEY.
      Let’s be honest, if we were not being paid, we would not be doing this or any other job. As much as I like consulting, I would rather be chest deep in a trout stream. We are driven to increase those bill rates, to get the bigger better project, to make more and more. This is the side of consulting, that needs to be carefully managed. The consultant that focuses solely or to heavily on this side quickly slips into the selfish category.  The selfish consultant forgets the one key ingrediant to successful consulting, IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. The engagement, is not about you, it is not about the consultant, his/her making money, the consultants ego(s). The engagement is about meeting and exceeding the expectations that have been set with the customer.
      The selfish consultant tend to forget this. They become embroiled with their side of things. They worry a lot about nickel and diming the client. They will sometimes make negative comments to the client about their work environment, their hours, etc. They lose focus on the project and spend a lot more time looking at those bill rates and the total $$$ coming in. They neglect the customer, they don’t hear their concerns, they don’t recognize that they are missing those expectations, and even if they somehow manage to deliver, they still may end up with an unhappy customer and a lost opportunity for repeat business.
      Obvisously, your consulting manager (or equivalent title in your org) would not be too happy with you telling them that you no longer care about utilization, bill rates, revenue. However, this highlights an important point, that is THEIR problem. I have worked at a few shops and I will tell you, you come in a little low on utilization, and still bring them happy clients, repeat business (which costs a LOT less on the sales end of things), and good references, you will find pressure from the consulting manager lessen. If this is what they do care about more serving their clients, then you need to consider moving to another shop cause they don’t really care about serving those clients.
      In any consulting engagment their is risk for BOTH sides, and their should be. You are asking the client to step towards the cliff, you should be willing to get a bit closer yourself. The amount of risk can be mitigated by proper documentation, contracts, and consultant skill but either way, both parties are taking risks. The successful consultant will manage client expectations, throughout an engagement, for the reasons of risk, but more importantly because they care. They care that they are keep the client happy, they care that the client is comfortable with the trust they have placed in them, they care that they engagement is completed at or above the standards and expectations set by the client.
     In my opinion, they key to this lies in the ability to empathize with your client. You need to put yourself in their shoes. Consider their side of things in every turn you make through the engagement.  Establish trust with them. A good way to do this, do not be afraid to say things like "I Don’t know." I can’t tell you how many clients I have heard bash someone for spewing ovious or outright lieing BS rather than say, I do not know and giving them a estimate for when they will know. You don’t need to know everything, remember they have bought into your support mechinism as well (your company, tools, etc). As a consultant you do not need ot know everything, just be able to show some confidence that you first of all are in control and will find them the answer they need (I usually will give them an explicit window of time in which I will get them an answer). More than anything, honesty conveys trust.  If they can’t trust in what you are saying, they cannot trust that you are going to get the job done. Another key to that, take integrity over revenue. I was once on a client site where our work load significantly fell to the point where they gave me "keep busy" work. I went up to their IT manager and advised him that I walk away for 1-2 weeks, and let the heavy work build up for me. Since his staff was more than able to manage the work they had given me, and I saw no justification for him paying the bill rates for the work he had given me. Yes, it cost me 2 weeks of revenue and utilization. That client bought into 5 more MAJOR projects after that. We did not have to compete with any other companies for them, we did not have to bicker ever again about a bill rate, an estimate, etc. He knew at that point that I understood his side of things and that I was there to do everything in my power to ensure his trust in me was validated and his projects were going to be completed.
      I feel compelled to note, I am not ignorant to the fact that yes, this can get expensive and yes their will be clients that abuse this type of thing. There will be those engagements where no matter what you do, no matter how good you are, expectations will be unreasonable and unattainable. These can be minimized by properly laying out expectations on your side, properly documenting, and having the ability to recognize those projects that fall into this category. If you have properly documented and planned everything, you can confront those clients with that reality as soon as it is recognized. There is no benefit in continuing with a project that has no realistic chance of success. It will leave a trail of devastation on your reputation that will not be worth any amount of revenue. You client will suffer and burn through countless dollars, and time in attempting to complete the project, those expectations will never be met, and in the end your efforts will be deamed a failure. In bringing up the situation and walking away from a project like this, you will be fullfilling the whole concept of customer service which is validating that trust. You will be protecting the client from of all things, themselves, and while they will likely engage one of your competitors, it is important to note that your flag will not be flying upon the shipwreck.
      So a couple important points in all that mess. First of all, keep in mind, the engagement is not about you, it is about those expectations, you have to meet those at any cost. Second, true customer service requires an investment. It is not in just sending those thank you for your business cards, the lip service, it is a true commitment to your clients, and having the guts to put their needs ahead of your revenue at times. In the short run, yes it may cost you some money. In the long run though, with the vast majority of clients, it will buy you repeat business at a reduced sales cycle and a solid revenue stream. Which are things that anyone in your organization appreciates.

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