Archive for the ‘Professional’ Category

The core of consulting

Posted: May 18, 2007 in Professional

The Core of Consulting

Contractor: a person who contracts to furnish supplies or perform work at a certain price or rate.

Consultant: a person who gives professional or expert advice: a consultant on business methods.

Consultants and contractors are 2 terms commonly heard in IT. Ask many IT managers what the difference is and the most frequent answer will be, a consultant costs more.  Indeed, many times this is the case. But why? In Charlotte, NC you can pick up a contract employee, expert level in ASP.Net, Winforms, and SQL Server 2005. Someone who can sling as much code as the best consultant, for $90-$100 an hour. A consultant with the same level technical expertise, $150-$200/hr. So this begs the question, what is it about a consultant that should compel a company to spend that money?

The core difference between a true consultant and a contractor lies not in the technical expertise, but in the end goal. A contractor’s motivation is to make their hourly rate, to perform their service, to make as much money as possible. Yes, a good contractor will perform their job efficiently, they will complete the project on time, and they will give a good pile of source code.  A consultant’s goal is different. Yes, a consultant like everyone else wants to make money. However, a consultants role is filled by removing their clients need for them. A consultant’s drive is to make their clients business better than it was when they began. To not only sling code, but to draw on their expertise, and experience to empower their clients to stand on their own, to do their jobs better.  The value to the client lies in this motivation and a consultant who keeps this in the front of his mind will have no lack of clients. As consultants we should always be asking ourselves, “What value am I bringing my client?”, “How am I making their business better?”.

Any consultant who has been on their job more than a few months will have a few horror stories to tell that they have heard from their clients. Stories of consultants who have let go of the core values of consulting and abused the trust their clients put in them. Personally, I have paid the penance for many of these types of consultants at various clients. I have come into clients with all eyes on me waiting for me to rip them off. I have felt the mistrust, had my value called into question. I have been sucked into many a political war within my clients organization. It can be a tough field, and it can wear you down. The key to it all is to never lose site of the core values, the guidelines that should lead any consultant.

HONESTY:

No client will ever see the value in your service unless they can trust you. When you come into a client site with your higher rates, your certifications, your glowing resume, that will not necessarily get you trust. Trust is earned and being deceptive, secretive, anything other than utterly transparent and up front will guarantee that you will not win the trust of your client. Without trust, your entire value proposition is out the window and your rates are unjustified. Also, until consulting is done by robots, remember you will absolutely run into situations when you will not know an answer. Do not be afraid to say “I don’t know.”. Many consultants think they need to always have an answer. There are few more reputation destroying situations then when a consultant produces a rectally generated answer and is called out by a client on it. Such a situation can irreparably damage a client relationship and an entire firm’s reputation. While you can easily remove your ignorance on a topic with a book, web search, or training, you cannot so easily rebuilt your reputation, so guard it very carefully.

CUSTOMER FOCUS:

This is a buzzword thrown around every board room in the world. So what does it mean? Looking back at the consultant’s motivation, customer focus means you are their champion. You are keeping them in mind while you are performing your contracted tasks. You are also keeping your eyes and ears open. You are looking for ways they can improve things. Areas you know you can help them in. You are identifying bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and needs they may not even realize they have. You are also looking for dangers. You are the expert, you need to act like it. This does not mean you are an eager little sales monster running around trying to squeeze anything you can from your clients like juice from grapes. Remember though what you end up with is crushed grapes and you will not get any more business from such a client. It is a fine line that is easily crossed.  Before you run to a client about any needs you have identified in their organization stop and say “How would filling this need benefit my client?” and consider this along with your own cost. A client should have no doubt that you are in their corner.  You need to be engaged with your client. Be openly interested in their business. How they do things, WHAT they do. Personally, I have made it a point to request tours of every manufacturing facility for any business I have work with. To engage with project sponsors on their business focus for Insurance, health care, amusement parks, banking, and many other verticals, on my own time. I have seen clients describe with pride what their company does and gotten a solid knowledge of their value proposition to THEIR clients. Once you have that knowledge you will know how to help them not JUST in your project but as an entire enterprise. You can relate your suggestions to that and you can provide value to those suggestions in terms that are meaningful to them. You do this and you not have to worry about sales.

EGO-LESSS EMPATHY:

 This is closely related to customer focus but is so critical that it bears separation. First thing, the engagement is not about you. As a consultant, you will find yourselves periodically in difficult situations within a client. You will end up in situations as I mentioned earlier where you will pay for mistakes or fraud that other consulting shops have done to your client. You will have your integrity and competency challenged. An awesome way to win a client over is to weather this type of situation like a rock. This can be difficult but if you can keep your ego in check, and empathize with your client a bit. Your project sponsor may have taken quite a beating, had their own career threatened by going out on a limb with another firm, or they may be doing that with your firm. Get an understanding to what other shops have done to them. Learn some of the background behind your firms involvement. Frequently you will glean some information of the behind the scenes discussions that brought you onsite. You may even learn some items about your client’s specific culture that prevent you from repeating other firms’ mistakes. Take the beating, and stand firm on your core guidelines and you will win most clients over and prove your value proposition to them.

PASSION:

Most good consultants I have come across have a sincere passion for what they do. They have a passion for helping manage, architect, develop, test, and deploy their solutions. They have a passion for pushing a positive impact into their clients business. Much as a little league coach has a passion for coaching their team members into better players, a consultant takes pride and sincerely enjoys the positive impact they have on their clients business. A client can feel passion, they are drawn to it. They feed off of it and it energizes them.  It gives them an almost unexplained comfort and excitement for the projects and encourages them to re-engage with a firm over and over. It can be unstoppable and get you through some really challenging projects. It can also help insulate you from burn-out which can be a real career killer in the consulting business. This does not mean you hang from light fixtures, or work through a 24 shift smiling and whistling (that can actually get you killed on some client sites). But it means you keep your eyes on the prize, and appreciate the positive impact you will be bringing to the client. ANY technical skill can be taught, passion for the field can’t.

INTEGRITY:

This rides hand in hand with honesty and is critical. A firm’s reputation can be built solidly on a foundation of integrity and honesty, and it can also be completely destroyed by a lack of it. To give an example, while on a client site, I was placed in a cube directly across from a conference room utilized by the board and very high level management on a regular basis. Unfortunately, they frequently left the door open and when they didn’t the walls were so thin you could easily hear them. Shortly after being put in this cube, the board of directors went into the room and began talking about the consulting firms they were considering for a number of huge projects. Obviously they were discussing my firm and our competitor. It would have been easy to sit there, and listen to the discussion. Maybe help my company grab a competitive edge going forward. After all, they are the ones who put me in the cube. I got up, went to our project sponsor and informed him of the part of the discussion I had heard and advised him to move me to another cube where I would not be picking up business confidential information out of that room. Shortly afterwards, their maintenance crews replace the walls and doors and made that room completely sound proof. We won more than a years consulting contracts with them for our firms integrity. Integrity sells, it breeds client trust, and it is a critical component for any consultant.

 

So, now that we have defined the core characteristics of a good consultant, let’s take a good look at some key points to keep in mind during any client engagement. It is critical that a consultant understands their role in the universe. Granted, depending on the size of your shop, the lines between roles may blur a bit but in general these following key points should still hold true. We’ll tackle what can be the most difficult balancing act to being a consultant first.

A consultant is not a salesperson

There is many a consulting manager who may take offense at this statement. However, I think it is critical a consultant understand, like the object orientated technology they work with, the people in their organization all fill a role. These roles all have different focus points and goals. While overall they all exist to serve their consulting shop, the ways in which they do so, differ.

A sales staff is paid by commission for a reason, they are sales focused. They are driven to reach their sales goals, to get enough business to keep the consultants in their organization fully utilized. They attend sales and partner conferences, they look to ways to build alliances with other companies to drive sales higher. Hopefully, they too try to build a good chunk of their own value on meeting customer needs, but they also need to be focused on making the dime, for any reason because someone in the organization needs to have that focus. This is why their compensation is based on commission their sales numbers or their performance metric, and that is how they are evaluated by the organization.

Don’t get me wrong, a consultant does not walk around the work blind to the sales cycle. They frequently partake in pre-sales calls, product demos, and in identifying needs within the client; they are identifying sales opportunities for their organization. If a consultant holds to the core values, then they will greatly aid the sales team, they will drive repeat business and help shorten the sales cycle. They will learn to present demos and pre-sales presentations in ways that demonstrate the value of what is being sold in terms the client can understand. The will be their sales staffs best friend. However, as a consultant you will not set rates, you will not make deals.  Each role is a cog in the machine that makes up their consulting company. As mentioned before, as a consultant, you goal is to focus on your customers, to empower them to do their business better, to at least in terms of the current project, remove their need for you. It is a very fine line sometimes that differentiates you from the sales team, but it is a separation that must be made. Amongst the horror stories I have heard from clients is the consultant that runs around trying to squeeze every last dime out if them regardless of the actual value that it brings to the client. There are few quicker ways to hose a client’s trust in you than to convince them, through your actions, all you really care about is shaking them down for a dime. Without trust you lose the value proposition a consultant brings, and you lose the validation for those bill rates.

 

Do not forget about the primary customer

                As a consultant, working for a consulting shop, it is critical to realize that you have one primary customer. That is your employer. Your continued employment is dependent on the company name printed in your paycheck. It is important to look at your employer in many ways the same you would look at your other clients. You need to be honest with them, carefully train and build your skill set to provide the maximum value to their client base. You need to identify ways you can help to improve the ways they do business, and step up and “volunteer” to do this, keeping in mind that while your employer may not pay the bill rates, they do pay your paycheck so your volunteer work, is not really volunteer work. Not only is this good for healthy career growth but it is an awesome way to internally work on building your consulting skills. It is a poor consultant, and eventually an unemployed one, who thinks they can exercise a clear unfettered focus on the clients and completely ignore their employer. Be honest with them, deal with your employer with integrity, share the passion that you have for your career, sometimes it is infectious. Deal with your employer and co-workers with the same ego-less empathy you extend to your clients. Unless you are an independent you are not the only person working hard, stressing out, etc. Keep that in mind and do not ever overinflate your importance.

                When it comes to your employer, you need to be transparent in your communication with them. They cannot and will not fix anything they do not know about. Your employer should be no more surprised than you are about the direction a project takes. You do not need to feed every little detail to them, but you should be giving your direct manager enough information about an engagement that they are well aware of at least the general direction of the project. In addition, if you put in your notice, your employer should not be too surprised by this (unless they are denial). They should not be unaware of any issue that specifically leads to your resignation.

                This is not always an easy item and occasionally there can be times when your specific client needs conflict with the company you work for. This is another area that transparency with your employer becomes critical. If you disagree with a policy or a specific situation that you feel puts your commitment to your employer and your clients in conflict, you need to address that with your employer as soon as possible (and keep the ego in check).  It may simply be a misunderstanding, or there may be a very good reason for a policy that creates the conflict. Either way, it helps your employer to evaluate their policy when they know where it conflicts and it assists you in dealing with your clients when you know the reasoning behind it.

The point is, you will have serious issues maintaining a healthy relationship with any of your clients if your relationship with your employer is in a bad state. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, the vast majority of times it will in some way impact your work with the client. If there is a major philosophical rift between your beliefs in how to do your job and your employers, it may be time to consider a new position (and re-evaluate how what questions you ask during your interview process). You cannot battle your employer and serve their clients appropriately. You also cannot just ignore you employer and operate autonomously. You will generate client expectations that vary greatly from what your employer will meet. In the end you will be setting your client and your employer up for a bad experience and that is simply unacceptable, and unfair to both of them.

Manage your Value

                The good old “V” word. To a consultant this is what it is all about. Keep in mind, your rates are going to be significantly higher than a contractor. It is up to you, not your employer, to prove that value. Certainly, an employer can enhance your value with solid laptops, labs, training, a solid set of base classes, standards, email technical support, IM, etc. but these are just tools. It is the consultant who turns the tools into value, adding them to his/her own value. You should honestly look at yourself in the mirror at regular intervals and ask yourself, would YOU pay your rates for the work you are doing? Would YOU hire your firm for that second engagement? If your client turned to you tomorrow and asked you to justify your rates from his point of view, could you?  It is absolutely critical you help your employer sell YOU by making yourself more valuable to them. Talk to the sales staff, the consulting managers, the company president about the sales pipeline, this will give a good indication to what you will be working on in the next few months. Talk to your clients about where they are looking in 5, 10, 15 years. Identify the key technologies, skills, etc that will shape the future of your career.

                As an example, in 2001-2003 when the golden era of custom built ASP.Net based web applications was coming to an end, many consultants I worked with tried to rage against the death of that area of business. They loved architecting, and coding these systems. They spat at the notion of learning this new set of MS based products coming out in the world. SharePoint, BizTalk, Commerce Server. They refused to be a “Product” guy. I had a chat with my consulting manager and found SharePoint was in high demand, A checked my ego and began to learn it in earnest. In 2004-2005 we got bought out by a large firm who laid off more than 50% of our staff. None of the SharePoint or BizTalk folks were in that group. Not only that, we were the only people who qualified consistently for quarterly utilization bonuses. Not one of us was under 90% utilized and many of us were 100+% utilized. There were actually internal tug of wars over SharePoint and BizTalk folks because so few had adapted to the skill set. Those fights continue today in many organizations.

                It is not about what you want it is about what the clients want. A consultant constantly realigns their technical skills to meet the needs of their client base. Sometimes this means coming out of your comfort zone and learning new technologies, maybe moving away from technologies that you really liked. If I would have even tried to guess the impact BizTalk Server and SharePoint would have on the market 5 years ago, I never would have seen demand rise as fast as it has.  As I stated before, it is not about you, it is about the clients and what they want or more importantly (since sometimes they do not know what they want), what they need to maximize their business.

Maintain Professional distance

While it is important to foster a healthy relationship with your clients, always be careful to maintain a certain professional distance with your clients. On the surface, it may sound like good customer service and focus to get as personal as possible with your clients. However, this is an area that can turn ugly quickly. It can be tough enough to maintain a decent professional relationship sometimes, when you throw in the emotional ramifications of a personal relationship, you can easily end up over your head, or in litigation.

This does not mean you walk around calling you client “sir” or “maam”, or Mr./Mrs. Smith. Be authentic and personable but be careful how much of your guard you let down.  You do not ever want to completely let it down. Remember your purpose there and remember who you work for.

I was on a project where a senior architect with my company came within a breath of a physical altercation with a clients architect because they he did not way too personal with the client. Remember, at the end of the day, it is still a job, it is business, and you should be careful to keep that in mind.

Be careful to try to avoid a situation where you delve into the conversational danger zones with clients. The biggest dangers are religion and politics. Keep in mind you are there representing your company, your endorsement of a particular political or religious affiliation could easily be tied to your company’s endorsing the same. Some clients do take it to this level regardless of how delicate you attempt to be, just be very careful.

Another key point to remember while maintaining this distance, do NOT under any circumstances bring any issue(s) you may have with your employer into a client engagement. It is none of their business and really is a violation of the trust your employer puts in you to do so. In one of my previous companies, we had a team whose members were extremely unhappy with our company. They went on a multi-million dollar project we fought for months to win, and openly bashed our company. Some even went so far as to discuss interviews they were going on. It only took 2 months for the client to decide they no longer wanted to pay invoices and kick all our staff out the front door. If you do not have anything positive to say about your own company then do not discuss it. I would also suggest you follow the guidelines in the section on your primary customer (your employer). Also, when talking about anything positive about our company avoid specific figures, details on benefits, etc. I have had clients try to glean this information in the hopes of using it to negotiate rates on a future engagement.

 This balance can differ by client, by consultant, and even on different projects within the same client. It is a very grey area and really is something you need to evaluate as you move through an engagement. Should you run into a situation where you are concerned about the distance you have maintained, discuss with your peers or immediate manager for guidance.

Avoid Negative Viral Behavior and Discussion

Negative viral behavior is the term I use to describe behavior that tends to spread negative feelings and behavior throughout an organization. This includes negative discussion or slandering the client, client staff, project progress, your own employer, one of your co-workers, etc. or just generally being miserable consistently on a project. This type of behavior has a way of spreading like a virus across a company. It will severely impact morale, and frequently the amount and quality of work being done.  It can cast a shadow over the entire project while it is being done and after you are gone. It is important to remember as the “outsider” there will be a tendency for negative feelings for a project to end up being associated with you and your company. So if you were the consultant on the “project from hell”, that could negatively impact the clients perception of you and your entire company. I have seen this happen on projects that actually came in on-time, under budget, and exceeding expectations on scope.  That negative shadow can leave a scar on the client’s staff that they will remember and hold against you and your company for a long time.

The good thing about this type of behavior comes when you walk into a situation like this. This is because the opposite behavior can also be viral (although not always to the extent that negative behavior can). At the very least, it can result in your own reputation being elevated. A positive person in a sea of discontent is a refreshing break for those sailing that particular sea. This does not mean you walk around whistling gleefully unaware of anything negative on the project. That can make a client think you just do not care or are completely oblivious to the situation. It means you keep your professional edge. When folks start down a negative road you try to steer them towards the goals on the project. You try to keep them focused on the task at hand. Make sure you highlight the successes on the project and show a solid resolve to hammer at the obstacles in your path.

I was on a project on the east coast of the US that summed up the worst case scenario for any project that I had or have ever been on. Our project sponsor had a terminal illness and was generally in some level of pain most days (he had other things than the project in his head). We were called in to implement a project that has been scoped by another consulting company who happened to interview about 25% of the stakeholders and identified even a smaller percentage of the actual functional requirements to make the project work. The clients project manager, had a habit of pulling you into his office to tell you at length how much he hated his job and wanted to leave, on top of that he loved Linux, Java, etc  and hated anything Microsoft, being I worked for a Gold Certified Partner, I was a step above the devil to him.  It took less than a week for us to identify these issues. We spent 5 weeks doing a new scoping effort, all the time keeping a positive, business mentality. We tackled the scoping effort, probably put 10 miles a day on our shoes walking the building meeting with users, stakeholders, etc. We put out a new estimate that pushed the estimated cost of the project to 5 times the initial estimate from the other consulting company. We then got to present it to the board. 

While the board decided they could not afford the final real estimate of the project, they revealed to us that we had concluded the scoping effort in 1.4 the time the original company did. In addition, we had actually raised moral throughout the office with our unflinching can-do attitudes and our determined approach to completing the project. It helped inspire their staff to work harder and one had even called us “team Teflon“ for the way the stress seemed to fall right off us. To be sure, every member of our team was extremely stressed during that project. It was probably one of the hardest any of us had to ever do and more than once we found we had to actively work to bite our tongues and keep going.

The point is, by not delving into the negative feelings we were surrounded by, we were able to finish a very difficult project, and bring it to what probably was the best outcome we could have hoped for.

Analyze, Learn, and Recover from Failures

Managers do not always want to admit this, but as long as consultants are still human beings, and their clients are human beings, there will always be mistakes and failures.  These can come in many areas for many reasons, an incorrectly scoped project, bad estimates, unforeseen technical difficulties, staff turnover, or just plain old-fashioned mistakes. There is one very important thing to remember about a failure, it is a (hopefully rare) opportunity.

First, it provides an opportunity to prove to a client how good your customer service is. The true character of a consultant and company is exposed in how it deals with its failures. Recover from a failure with your client and make up for it, and you will find some serious customer loyalty. Ironically, it gives a client a high level of confidence in a consultant/company, when they know that even when they mess up, they will still be there to serve them and drive an engagement to a successful conclusion, regardless of what happens. Generally a client will tolerate some failures and mistakes, as long as they are not an everyday occurrence.  In the event a project completely fails as a result of some failure, then you can still salvage a client relationship on how you deal with your failure. Personally, I have gotten a tremendous amount of respect from client from simply stepping up and claiming my mistakes, then dealing with them. Nobody likes folks who insist on pushing the buck around, and wasting time rather than fixing the issue. Be honest, be direct, be effective and fix it.

Another important opportunity is provided in analyzing a failure. Determine why it failed, how to avoid such a failure in the future, and disseminate this information around your organization. The old adage holds true, you will learn more from your failures than you will successes. Just do not make them a habit.

                  Cover Your “Assets”

There are much more crude ways to put this, but it is all about keeping an auditable set of footprints in what you do. Hopefully, depending on what vertical you are working in, the need to review this information will not be an everyday occurrence. However, when you do need it, having a track of what you have said and done, and what others have said and authorized you to do will save you a lot of pain and misery.

In the world we live in, if you are consulting you will come into a situation where this will save you. For various reasons, office politics, faulty memories, scape-goating, etc a perfectly clear and simple undocumented hallway discussion/decision can end up costing you a lot. You do not want to get into a he said/she said situation with a client. No matter who wins the argument, you lose.

Conduct business discussions/decisions in a manner that provides a clear record of what is being said and done. A few critical guidelines for this:

·         Do not conduct critical decision making meetings one on one verbally with no backup.

o   If this is not possible, write up a summary of the discussion and decisions made (and who made them) and have the other individual sign that summary before moving forward on any of those decisions.

·         Any critical work summary, or detail or authorization should be documented and preferably signed.

o   For some documents you may not require a signature, but having the client email it to you may help provide you at least a minimal safety net.

·         Save all project emails

o   I will create a folder for any and all emails on a project. I will save them all for the duration of the project, and then archive them off at the conclusion of the project and save the archive.

o   You never know when a seemingly simple and meaningless email to/from a client will end up being the one that saves you.

·         Strictly adhere to your company’s guidelines/standard on this area, especially if they are more stringent than your own.

o   While your own standards will evolve based on your personal project experience, your company’s will evolve based on a summary of all their project experience. If they are more stringent, there usually is a reason. Be a good idea to discuss it with your manager, to get a clear idea as to why and help expand your understanding.

·         If you are being asked to go into an area of discussion or decision that in any way concerns you as to legality/liability, STOP. Consult a manager or legal advisor and find out the liability/legality. Do not think you are alright, know you are. 

 

Another good thing about forcing a documentation trail is that by human nature, when someone is forced to write it down and sign for something, they will look it over more, give it more thought, double check their decisions. In short, you may catch a severe issue before it gets to become a problem. This is especially true for technical specifications, there are many times I have verbally discussed a proposed change to an architecture and when I got to documenting it, an issue with the change becomes clear.

Also, unless you have a photographic memory, it is likely you will forget something discussed. I make a habit of transcribing all my notes as well as items in my head from a meeting into a one note notebook. While I may lose a paper notepad, or forget ideas, issues, reasoning at the time, etc, I can always review my One Note notebooks. This has come in handy on many engagements.

“I don’t know”

This can be the toughest thing for a consultant to say. As a consultant you may have the notion that you should know the answer to every question.  This is an unreasonable and unrealistic expectation. No matter how talented you are you will end up in a situation where you are asked a question or series of questions you do not know the answer(s) to. This is even more likely for a technical consultant because we frequently work with newer, poorly documented technologies, with comparatively little experience to other older technologies. The fact that they are new means that there will be areas of that product and its functionality you have never used. There may be ways a client wants to use it that you simply have never even considered. It will happen over and over throughout your career no matter how well you prepare for it.

In this type of situation, the value of a consultant is found first of all in his/her ability to admit they do not know instead of blindly making up answers that sound good, or probable.  As a consultant you likely have access to material your client does not AND the bandwidth to get answers to questions you cannot answer. Also remember your value and be confident in it. You are there for your technical capability but also more importantly because of your field experience.  Feel confident in telling them you do not know the answer to their question, but for any of these areas, take notes and make a commitment to your client that you will get them a solid answer within a specific time frame.

 

Be a Consulting Chameleon

The old saying goes “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”, and to an extent this holds true. Before going onsite with a client or engaging in a face to face meeting, find out what their culture is like, and especially their dress. Your sales force will always dress a specific way, as will your corporate executives. It is appropriate to their roles. However, as a consultant you will work with, amongst the client and their staff. While it may seem petty, the impression you leave with the client from your appearance can be a hindrance to building a good working environment and establishing your value with the clients team. 

I am sure very few consultants who have had their jobs more than 2 weeks would wear sneakers with holes, and a beer T-Shirt to a client site or meeting. But somewhere in between that extreme and a Tuxedo you will need to pick a look that allows you to work comfortably with the client. You want to be sure you do not dress under them but you also do not want to dress over them. Either mistake can cost you in negative client perception. Dressing beneath them can give them the impression you don’t really take them seriously, or it can diminish their perception of your value. Likewise dressing well over them, first of all makes you stand-out. It may make them think you consider yourself above them, superior, or elitist. Either way it can make it difficult to intermingle and work with the client as a team.

From talking with clients at the end of an engagement, I have found a good point to be on this, is slightly dressed over the client. This gives them the impression that you are first of all taking them seriously, and second of all, that you are “one of them”.

In addition to dress, learn the culture and work with it.  Every office has a culture and while they can share similarities, every one is somewhat unique. There are dynamics to work out, politics to learn, that in some cases can make or break a project.

As an example, on a project I was on, the client team had an architect that was extremely picky on the ways thing needed to be done. On top of this he was slightly threatened by outsiders being brought in. As I came into the project, I found he had not been invited to a lot of meetings, not because of any controversy or any issues with him, but because logically, what we had been discussing did not directly impact him at the time. As a result, he found a way to slam almost every facet of the project architecture usually over very minor things.

We started inviting him into the discussions, allowing him input to the meetings. For almost all the meetings, he did not say a word, he would listen and nod. However, we found after this, he had no issues with the project architecture. We also found that pretty much throughout the enterprise the client staff was already doing this for the same reasons.

You will need to come in with a bit of humility, ask questions, learn the culture as fast as possible, and adjust your approach to use that culture to maximize your effectiveness. You will also find the client staff will generally appreciate this and warm up to your presence.

Expect to get burned, don’t get jaded

              This is one of the most frustrating parts of consulting, at least for this author. No matter how good you are in the core consulting skills, and no matter how well you hold to the guidelines you will get customers who take advantage of your focus on them. It is part of the business and a risk you take with consulting.  Sometimes it is just because they are clueless, sometimes it is deliberate. Either way, it does not feel good and it is sometimes very costly.

              This can be the client who uses you during a sales cycle to pull free work from you, and walks away without purchasing any services, the client who gets services and then skimps out on paying, the client who manipulates the document set to ensure a hole for scope creep, or who deliberately tanks a project for political reasons.

              The key here is to analyze the items that allowed a client to burn you. Once you get these together, determine what reasonable steps there are to mitigate the risk of this in the future and measure that to what level of customer service you are willing to sacrifice to implement those changes. It is all about what amount of risk you are willing to accept. Going out on a limb for a client, accepting some risk to meet their needs can provide huge payoffs. Generally, the bigger the risk the bigger the payoff. The inverse is also true about risk. The bigger the risk, the bigger the potential loss. It is a balance that each consulting shop must make for themselves.                 Remember though that the vast majority of clients are not going to fall into this category and it is acceptable to make some sacrifices and take extra risk for clients who have showed themselves trustworthy. One way to show a client how much you appreciate their business (especially repeat business) is to intelligently loosen some of the restrictions and accept additional risk in your dealing with them. Good customer service is truly lacking in many consulting shops and many times this is why. Good customer service costs money, it involves a level of trust and risk and any risk carries the potential for loss. The good clients I have dealt with though, recognize when you go out on a limb for them and they remember that. It is one of the potential differentiating factors that add to your value.

           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.
   Tricksters
           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.
  Selfish
      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.