Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How to be a Good Consultant

Three Important Lessons from 20 Years in the Trenches

This year, I celebrated my 20th year in business as an independent consultant who provides marketing communications strategy, consultation and content to companies. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what makes a good consultant, both from “on-the-job” training and from watching other consultants.

Delivering great work – on strategy, on time and on budget – is of course job #1. But I’ve also learned that how you deliver the work – client service – is equally important.

Before I started my own company, I worked for several public relations and advertising agencies, where I had an opportunity to learn about client service from some of the best. These include people like Bink Garrison, Ned Carboni and Ray Welch at Quinn & Johnson/BBDO, and the legendary PR man Bob Strayton. Conversely, in the last 20 years, I’ve also seen some pretty dumb behavior from other consultants. This been equally instructive.

Here are three important lessons that I have learned. (Although I am writing about marketing consulting in this article, these lessons apply to any kind of consulting where the product you are selling is ideas or expertise, such as management consulting or architectural design.)

Always tell the client what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear – Clients count on me to bring an honest, unemotional outside perspective to their business and to tell them straight – even if it’s “bad” news. In presenting bad news, it’s important to be succinct, well-prepared with backup points for your argument, and ready with a solution. The one time (many years ago) when I broke my own rule (emotion got in the way), the outcome was painful for everyone involved. I have learned to balance passion for the client’s business with a dispassionate perspective. Clients need – and deserve – both.

Don’t talk down to the client – Just as I’m smart about my business (communications consulting and writing), my clients are smart about their businesses. When I am hired, it’s usually because my expertise fills a gap in their expertise. That’s why I consider myself a partner to my clients, not a nanny or a tutor. Other consultants don’t always think this way. They treat clients as if they were children.

For example, when attending a seminar recently, I overheard another consultant tell her client: “To coin a phrase, we need a pain-killer not a vitamin.” This phrase – pain-killer not a vitamin – is so old that it’s a business cliché. To pretend it is original to the speaker both insults the client’s intelligence and undermines the consultant’s credibility.

Then there was the consultant who started his presentation about social media with the statement (spoken very slowly): “You are going to hear me use the word ‘con-ver-sation’ a lot today.” The concept of “con-ver-sation” in social media has been broadly covered in books, business magazines, newspapers and Internet media – only an awakening Rip Van Winkle could have missed it.

Good consultants put information – including clichés and trends – in the right business context for the client and his business. Treat your client as a partner and don’t waste his time. Determine his level of understanding about a topic before assuming he knows nothing about it – and start from there.

Beware of "Not Invented Here" syndrome - My job is to provide clients with the best possible solutions for their problems. Most of those ideas come from my head or my past experience, but not always. Great ideas are everywhere, and many of those ideas are free. Applying ideas from elsewhere in a strategic way can often create a solution that delivers great value for less cost than “100% invented here.” Yes, I may give up some income, but I am in the business of delivering creative solutions, not freight.

If I do adapt others' ideas, I always give the source credit. The fact that an idea has worked successfully elsewhere adds credibility to my recommendations. And citing the source protects my credibility (unlike Mr. “Con-ver-sation” above).

For example: David Meerman Scott’s best-selling book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, is a great source of ideas for many companies. I have used some of David’s techniques in campaigns for clients, with excellent results. When using his techniques, I always credit David in front of my clients; in fact, I have given his book to many clients as a gift. The smarter I can make my client, the better we can work together to produce great work. And the longer the client stays my client, in my experience.

And now, a special bonus lesson…

Always be on time for meetings - I landed one of my first clients in the agency business because my competitor arrived late to his presentations. The client loved my presentation, and the ideas and recommendations I presented later worked very well for the client. However, one of the first comments the client contact made when we asked why we had won the business was: “Agency XX was late for the meetings.” Often, it’s the little things that make the biggest impressions on clients. And this story made a lifelong impression on me.

Of course, there are dozens of client-service techniques and rules of conduct that I’ve ingrained in my business over the last 20 years – and now use instinctively in my daily work. But these four lessons in particular have been important ones for me.

What have been your most valuable lessons?

1 comment:

  1. Great article - very true. My philosophy is that I work with my clients not for them and I emphasize that we are a team working towards the same goal - increasing their bottom line (which in turn increase mine.)I do have to do a lot of hand holding of my clients which is why they choose me over a large billing company.