I was recently at a client that had a lot of issues. Business was great. They had a lot of customers. They were experiencing a lot of growth.
But because of that growth, they were beginning to hit the limit on their ability to serve their client base. Their servers were starting to hit their limits. They had a lot of manual processes.
Those processes worked well for them when they were smaller. But now, manual processing was causing bottlenecks. A lot of work went to the IT team as special requests. IT was bogged down with these requests, which caused delays of several weeks for seemingly simple requests.
When the client acquired a new customer, there was extensive setup involved. They needed to define custom reports and load new sets of data. All of this processing created a logistical nightmare that could take several weeks.
Where to start?
The business team wanted to be more self-sufficient from IT. Instead of submitting requests and waiting for them to get to their task in the queue, the business wanted a simple tool to set up the customer, load data, and create reports. But there were so many areas that needed work, they didn’t know where to start.
Have you ever started a day where you had so many things to do, that you struggled to get anything done? You could list the items out, but that only highlighted how much you had to do. It seemed to make it worse.
You might have been so overwhelmed that you thought writing out a list would simply take time away from doing the real work. If you feel so inundated with work that you don’t have time to organize, that’s a sign that you need to get organized.
If you do take the time to make a list, you might go through that list and prioritize it. When the list is long, it’s hard for me to prioritize in a sequential process. How do I decide what is 2nd most important and what is 3rd?
For long lists, I’ll prioritize in categories. “A” items are of top priority. “B” items are important, but not critical. “C” items are nice-to-have.
The next step is to estimate how long each task will take. This allows me to do a mini cost/benefit analysis. Let’s say something I thought was an “A” item will end up taking me six hours. I can do four other “A” tasks in the same amount of time, so I’ll do them instead.
This seems easy enough with personal daily tasks. It’s much more complicated when a business division is trying to make these decisions. It’s more difficult to determine which tasks have more value. It’s harder to estimate the cost of making each change.
An independent third party can come in and make independent assessments of the cost and benefit of each task. They can present their findings to the business to make the final decision on what should be done and what can be tabled for later.
Imagine a consultant coming in for you at the end of each day to help you organize and prioritize your upcoming overwhelming day for you. Maybe that’s overkill for a daily to do list. But it’s just what some business organizations need to make the right changes at the right time.
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
Our family was watching a movie the other night. One of the actresses was familiar. My wife and I had seen her before. We sat there racking our brains for a few minutes when my daughter finally blurted out that she was in a TV series we used to watch.
We looked over and saw her there with her iPhone in hand. She looked the actress up on IMDB and found it. It hadn’t even crossed our minds. But my daughter saw no need to waste time, effort, and frustration messing around trying to determine an answer that was at her fingertips.
It made me realize two trends that are taking place. First is the fact that the millennial generation (those born during the decade leading to the change of centuries) automatically thinks of Googling, IMDBing, or Wikipedia-ing the answer.
Those darned kids
Some old-timers may complain that this generation doesn’t figure anything out on their own. They have to look it up. They’re never going to remember anything.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing. If it is a fact that you can look up, why not. There is a saying in consulting that you have to be smarter than Google. This means that you can’t be a good consultant if you just know a bunch of facts. The client can Google it and get that much.
To be a good consultant, you have to be able to take those facts, combine them with your knowledge, and be able to solve problems that apply to your client’s business.
Millennials aren’t hurting themselves by looking up facts. They’re getting a head start on the information. Then they will be better prepared to solve the problems.
The second trend is the fact that we find computing everywhere. Going back to just the early nineties, people had personal computers. But any software that was loaded probably came from a 3½” floppy disk – or a stack of them. We used computers for word documents, spreadsheets and games like Leisure Suit Larry.
In the mid-nineties, the internet became available for public use. It gave us access to the outside world through our computers. It gave us access to shopping and a lot of information that was previously more difficult, if not impossible to access. But we still needed to go to our computer to find it.
In 2007, Apple introduced the first iPhone, which led to the smart phone generation. Three years later, they introduced the iPad, blazing a trail for tablets from many other companies.
This mobility allowed people to create applications (apps) specifically for use on these mobile devices. Combine this with the millennials’ comfort with mobile devices and the internet. More mobile apps drew more people to use them. More people using them, bred more apps.
Now, it is expected by many for a company to have a mobile app. Moreover, the expectation is that it be informative, entertaining, and rewarding.
The mobile app should provide information about the company’s products and services. It should be fun and entertaining, preferably with a game that can be played that relates to the product line. Finally, the app should provide badges or some other reward that the user can collect to purchase products or redeem for some other value.
Mobile apps have become “loyalty tools,” enticing users to return to the app on a regular basis. Continued use is designed to seduce them to purchase products, share their experience with others, and develop a loyal customer base.
Other apps allow the user base to collectively provide their content. Apps like “Yelp” allow individuals to rate their experiences with restaurants and other retail stores. A user in an unfamiliar location can use the app to find a nearby hair salon or a pizza restaurant. Based on the rankings of previous patrons, they can find what they’re looking for and select a retailer with high user rankings in minutes.
Crowdsourcing is used in real time also. Traffic apps like “Waze” allow users to provide up to the minute traffic information to update users of police locations and traffic backups in the same area. This allows users to avoid congested areas during their commutes.
IT: Integrated instead of involved
Companies are finding that information technology is no longer a support function. Instead of taking orders for a new order entry system, IT is working with marketing. The company’s marketing strategy is tightly integrated with IT. A mobile app should not be treated as an add-on feature. It is part of the company’s overarching go-to-market strategy.
A company that “scrapes the screen” of their website to make it mobile-friendly will miss the boat. Users aren’t looking for the website on their device. They want an app that was intended for device use and for device users.
A great opportunity for consultants
Any new trend in technology is a boon for consultants. When the World Wide Web was introduced in the 90s, it was a windfall for consulting firms who had developed web development capabilities.
When Google began changing their algorithms for search engine results page rankings, search engine optimization (SEO) became the big target. SEO consulting became the next in-demand opportunity for the consulting industry.
Now it is mobile. Mobile strategy and mobile application development are the latest opportunities for the consulting industry. It is one of a number of areas that companies will need help figuring out over the next several years.
Disruptive technologies like mobile cause many businesses to step back, re-plan, and change direction. These disruptions are what keep consulting firms in business, as long as they stay up to date with those disruptions.
Is your company computing everywhere?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
I had lunch with a former client the other day. As we talked, I realized how different our careers had evolved. We both got our undergraduate and MBA degrees at the same universities. But he got a corporate job and I chose consulting.
By looking at his LinkedIn profile – and his face – I would guess him to be around 50 years old. He started working at his company right out of college and has worked there his entire career. By contrast, I’ve worked for seven different firms in about the same period of time.
While his approach to stay at the same company over the course of his career is becoming less and less common these days, it is almost unheard of in consulting. I was once at a large consulting firm for six years and people asked me why I stayed so long.
It highlighted the fact that managing one’s career in consulting has some unique considerations than other occupations.
The sky is the limit
When you graduate from college, the world is your oyster. The potential is entirely up to you. Large corporations and consulting firms come to most universities and try to recruit the top graduating students. Those students have to make a lot of decisions for their life. One of which is whether to go into consulting or the corporate world.
You may not have the option. Consulting firms usually seek the top ten percent of students. Some only go to the top schools to recruit. If you didn’t go to a selected school, or didn’t get good enough grades, you may not be considered.
Consulting firms also hire experienced people. If you aren’t able to get in as a college grad, you may be able to get a corporate job, get a few years of experience, and reapply.
One of the bigger differences you will see in consulting is that it is usually a series of projects. Clients usually hire consultants to help them run a project. Consultants may serve on a project for a few weeks or months and move on. You may get assigned to a multi-year project where you’re at the client for an extended period, but that’s fairly rare.
Most projects have a deadline and interim milestones where work products need to be completed on time. Many consultants find that they are always on a sprint to meet one deadline or another. When the project is finished, or your work on the project is finished, it’s on to the next project, probably at another client.
Consultants should be aware that they are only as good as their last project. Providing good work occasionally will rarely work out well. Consultants need to be at the top of their game at all times. Clients expect it and the consulting firm expects it.
You have great skills? That’s nice
So you think you should get a job in consulting because you have an advanced technical degree or some expert skill in some technology. That’s nice, but it’s not enough to make you a good consultant. Consultants need to be top performers and manage their career accordingly.
Consulting is a growth industry. When a project is sold to a client, the firm immediately begins looking for more opportunities to sell more projects. If someone at the client leaves for another company, they immediately begin seeking consulting opportunities at the individual’s new company.
Consultants are expected to grow as well. If you are a software programmer, you will be given more and more responsibility over time. You may have people reporting to you, or be put in the role of a technical lead. Doing the same thing for most of your career is rare in consulting.
Learn from failure. You will inevitably make mistakes throughout your career. Rather than hiding them and forgetting about them, learn from them. It’s hard to grow and learn if you don’t take advantage of your mistakes and learn from them.
Continuing Education. You may work for a firm that sends you to training and professional conferences on a regular basis. If they do, take advantage of it. However, it is your responsibility to stay up to date with your skills. You will have to do the minimum of reading books, blogs, and articles to maintain your skills and remain aware of the latest trends. You may also have to attend training at your own expense. Consultants more than most occupations need to be willing to invest in their own career advancement.
Up or out. Moving up to the next level is something that is on most every consultants mind. In other industries, one can find a job they like, that they may be good at, and work in that job most, if not all of their career. It’s true that many others are climbing the ladder, but it’s a personal choice. Many consulting firms have an unwritten rule that you should always be moving up. If you’re not, you must be complacent. Firms will often weed out the ones that don’t have the ambition or the ability to grow to the next level in their career.
Although it is rare these days to find people who work for one company for their entire career, there are plenty in existence. The thing I’ve noticed about these people is that, if they do have a LinkedIn profile, they have very few connections. People who stay in the same job with no intention of looking for a job, see no reason to use the networking app.
I once knew such an individual. I looked him up and saw that he did have a profile. But there was no picture and he had only 27 connections. A year or so later, he lost his job due to a merger. I now see that he has a professional picture and over 300 connections.
LinkedIn is a great tool for networking to look for a job. But waiting until you need the job is almost too late. Your network should be a pipeline. You meet people and develop quality relationships with them. You help them out with efforts like connecting them with others and providing articles they may be interested in. Someday, if you need them, they may be able to help you out.
But networking is about more than just a job search. Companies are always looking for quality people. Having a strong network can help you help your company with staffing and recruiting. If you meet someone who would be a good fit at your organization, you can have some say over the people you work with.
Business development is another reason to develop your network. In consulting, everyone is responsible for some sales. Even at the lowest levels, you are expected to have contacts that you can introduce to the higher levels. And the more you advance, the more you will need to seek out your contacts to develop new business.
When you think of Nike, it may evoke images of their famous swish logo or perhaps Michael Jordan. Those images are due to the intentional marketing of Nike. Just like Nike and Coca-Cola, you have a brand. It might just be the unintentional result of your personality.
Smart consultants are intentional about their brand. They have defined how they would like to be perceived by others and behave in a specific manor to perpetuate that image. Consultants know that their credibility is an essential component of success. They need to be seen as credible internally by the bosses and their coworkers. They must also be seen as credible with clients. Having a personal brand strategy helps the consultant be seen in the way they desire.
While professionalism is important in many businesses, it’s critical in consulting. Consultants are usually under the watchful eye of clients. In an effort to be seen as credible with clients, consultants must act professionally. This includes the way they dress and how they behave with the client. It includes responding to client requests promptly and showing up to meetings on time.
Another aspect of professionalism is knowing when to play politics. Consultants will deal with politics within their firm and at the client. Politics generally occur when people have conflicting priorities. A professional gets involved in politics only when necessary. Using politics for political self-gain is a short term strategy that usually won’t work for the long term in consulting.
Being successful in consulting involves a lot more than having a skill. It’s less of a matter of what you do than how you do it.
Attitude. It’s important to have a positive attitude as a consultant. He must approach everything with the can-do attitude of a good problem solver. Negativity and a pessimistic attitude that we are all doomed whenever a problem occurs will rarely result in success.
Be prepared. Like a good scout, a consultant is prepared for anything. Going into work every morning can bring about new and unexpected challenges. Being prepared for anything to happen will help you deal with those unexpected moments.
Flexible. A consultant can find out on one day that he’s being taken off of a project and be expected to be in another city, for another project the next day. Consultants should be flexible enough to make quick changes of their assignments at a moment’s notice.
Focused. Someone who meanders through his day and through his career should probably not try consulting. Consultants should be consistently engaged and keep a strong focus on work at all times.
Leadership is one of the most critical skills a consultant should carry. Clients look to their consultants for leadership in many aspects.
Decision making. Consultants need to be decisive in how they will lead projects. Clients may have the final say in many decisions that they make for their organization, but they lean on the client to provide sound advice to help in those decisions.
Mentoring. Consultants have a lot of business and industry knowledge to share with clients. It is important for them to share that knowledge to make the client better at what they do. They also need to share their knowledge internally to help develop the next generation of consultants and leaders.
Problem solving. Consultants are generally hired to solve a problem. Consultants should seek out business issues and enjoy solving problems.
Consultants rarely become consultants because it is a job. Consultants recognize it as a career. The successful consultant approaches that career in a strategic fashion. Managing your consulting career successfully involves planning, developing a network and behaving in a manner which clients and coworkers take you seriously.
What mistakes have you made that have helped you learn about managing your consulting career?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
Michelle bristled as she looked across the conference room table at Chris. The client presentation was going well. That wasn’t the issue. Chris sat across from Michelle staring into his phone, typing messages and smiling on occasion.
Chris was in his first year of consulting. Michelle had spoken to him several times about using his phone in meetings. This time was different. There were clients present.
She was tempted to ask Chris a question about the presentation to humiliate him, but that would just make the firm look bad. Instead, she waited until later that morning when they were back in their own building and she called Chris into her office.
“What did you think of our presentation today, Chris?” She asked.
“Uh…I thought it went well,” Chris replied without much enthusiasm.
“Were you listening? Because I couldn’t help but notice that you were using your phone throughout most of the meeting.”
“Oh,” Chris replied sheepishly. “That was just a quick text conversation I was having. But I was listening to the presentation.”
“It wasn’t all that quick from my observation. And regardless of how long it was, or whether you were listening, it wasn’t the best impression we could have given the client. You can’t do that stuff in front of clients.”
“I’m sorry.” Chris said quietly.
“Chris,” Michelle said as she leaned in to him, “we’ve talked about this before. If you can’t control yourself with your phone, you may have to turn it off for meetings or leave it in your car.”
“Okay,” said Chris. “I won’t do it anymore.”
Michelle looked him straight in the eye, “I hope so Chris, because this is the last time I’m going to warn you.”
Success in just about any business requires good communication skills. It’s even more important in the consulting industry. Consultants have to have stellar communications skills to communicate with each other and with their clients.
There are many aspects of communication that a consultant must consider.
Pay attention. Unlike Chris, in the example above, it is professional and common courtesy to put electronics, and anything else that may distract you from the conversation, out of the way. Meetings take the collective time of everyone in attendance. Don’t be rude and waste everyone’s time by distracting yourself from the discussion.
Have an agenda. If you are in charge of running the meeting, you should prepare an agenda and share it in advance with all invited participants. This gives them advanced notice of the meeting’s purpose, and the topics you plan to discuss. It will let them know if they need to prepare anything for the meeting. If someone else is in charge of the meeting, ask them if they have an agenda. It might prompt them to prepare one.
Stay to the agenda. Whether you run the meeting or not, it is professional courtesy to stay on topic with the agenda. If you – or anyone else – want to discuss something off topic, suggest that it be put on a parking lot to discuss in case there is time at the end of the meeting, or to schedule another meeting for it.
Email is probably the most common form of communication used in the business world. It is also one of the biggest time wasters. People spend a lot of time during each day sorting through emails, reading them, responding to them, and taking action based on the messages received.
One of the great advantages of email is that you can type it up, review it, and reword or correct what is incorrect before you send it to the intended recipient.
Few people go to that rigor. Most people type from a stream of consciousness and click the send key without much thought. The result is vague subject lines that don’t provide any information about the content of the email. Content can be so brief that the recipient has to spend time trying to figure out the request, or they have to reply back asking for more information.
On the other side of the spectrum, people will send a long, wordy email that causes the recipient to read through it and formulate a response.
Emails should be short, but provide enough information to get a point across. Subject lines should provide the reader with the topic, the main subject of why you are sending the email.
Always address the recipient by name. There may be others copied who don’t realize that the email may be intended for someone else and you are just keeping them informed. If possible, put your content into easy to read short paragraphs or bullets so the reader can scan it easily.
Get to the point and say what you need to without extensive and irrelevant information. If it requires a lot of content, it may be better to have a personal conversation.
Finally, proofread your email. Consider what familiarity the recipient has of the topic. Are you being too vague? Are you being too verbose, providing details that the person already knows? Make sure there are no misspellings and grammatical errors. It will distract the reader and reflect badly on you.
Most people, in an effort to be more productive, try to go through emails quickly. By following these steps for emails, you can help them be more productive, be more productive yourself, and communicate more clearly and succinctly.
Former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson used to cite a very simple approach to public speaking. “Tell them what you’re going to do. Do it. Tell them when you’re done.” It is a simple approach that can be applied to many other things including consulting communication. It is a simple way of keeping people informed along the way.
One of the best ways to communicate clearly is to communicate to people what they can expect and then live up to those expectations. People often have the best laid plans. They know exactly what they want to do and are certain that it will work perfectly.
But when it comes to executing those plans and nobody on their team has any idea what is going on, it can fall flat on its face. Plans are almost certain to fail when the rest of the team doesn’t know what to expect.
Communicate the plan. Consulting is often project based. As a result, there is usually a project plan that maps out what needs to be accomplished on the project. This can be as detailed as a thousand-line Microsoft Project plan, or a list of milestones that will be met. Letting all project participants know what the plan includes allows them to set reasonable expectations for the project.
Team member assignments. When team members are working on a project, they need to know what is expected of them. They should be informed of the tasks they will work on, when they are supposed to be completed and the level of quality expected. When the task is done, the team member should know how that completion is to be communicated.
Business stakeholders. At the beginning of a project, a project charter explains at a high level, what the project hopes to accomplish. This is the first step in letting the business know what to expect.
On a periodic basis, project status should be communicated to the business. This allows the business stakeholders to know how far the project has come, and what has yet to be completed. Daily communications such as emails and face-to-face communications should be clear and concise helping the business stakeholder to know what to expect from the remainder of the project.
There is the old adage that human beings have two ears and one mouth, so they should spend twice as much time listening as speaking. I’ve met few consultants that actually practice that. Many in consulting feel they need to justify their existence by spouting out on all that they know.
In reality, consulting should be a conversation. A doctor wouldn’t treat a patient based strictly on what his specialty or interest is. A good doctor listens to the patient’s symptoms, asks questions and listens to the patient’s answers.
A consultant should work in the same way. Many consultants have expertise in certain areas and try to cram a predefined solution down the throat of the client. This approach can create the wrong solution to the wrong problem.
Listening to the client’s issues allows the consultant to understand the problem before they begin to solve it. It also makes the client a partner in the solution.
The consultant is not expected to know everything. But when consultants act like they do, it can stifle listening and lead to a solution that doesn’t match the problem.
It’s the famous kindergarten grading system: Doesn’t work well with others. Few consultants can be successful if they can’t work with other people. Communication is essentially about one’s ability to collaborate.
Advisor, not a salesperson. Consultants often go into clients with the expectation that they are the expert. They go into sales mode and try to convince the client to implement a certain solution. Instead, they should assume the role of an advisor. Learn the client’s business, find out more about their problem, and work with them to solve it.
Leaders as team players. Many associate leadership with barking out orders and punishing anyone who disobeys or disagrees. Managers shout out orders, leaders get things done. A leader isn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and pitch in to get a job done. A leader facilitates a solution, getting ideas from the entire team and coming up with a plan that everyone can get behind.
The ability to work with others to solve problems together is collaboration. It is how people solve problems better. It involves communicating clearly, listening, and utilizing every team member’s skills to get to an optimum solution.
Consultants are challenged to succeed if they have poor communications skills. At its very essence, consulting is about communication. Consulting is about problem solving. Few business problems are so simple that one person can solve them in a vacuum. If a consultant does not communicate clearly to her team and to her clients, she can’t solve complex problems and won’t bring value to a client.
How well do you communicate as a consultant?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
Sergie is a mechanic that I trust with my cars. When I take it in for a problem, he’ll suggest an inexpensive adjustment to see if that solves the problem. If that doesn’t work, he’ll try something more. I know that he has my best interests in mind rather than thinking about how much money he’ll make in the deal.
It made me realize that he was really my auto repair consultant. What if every consultant followed the six steps that Sergie does with me?
Explain the impact
After Sergie runs an analysis on my car, he gives me a call and explains what is wrong with it. He knows that I don’t know an overhead cam from a drive shaft. Instead of taking advantage of that, he explains how it impacts the car’s performance. That helps me make a decision on what to do.
When a consultant identifies a problem, it is important to explain, not just the business or IT problem, but how it has potential to impact the business in the short and long terms. When the client understands how it impacts the business, they can seek the most effective solutions.
Understand client’s priorities
Sergie has asked me how much longer we plan to keep an automobile. He’s asked how many miles we usually drive a car to work. That helps him understand how much and how we use our cars. That helps him give informed advice that will be most helpful for us to get the right solution.
A consultant should understand the client’s strategy. He should know the clients priorities and goals in order to help achieve them. By knowing where the client is going, the consultant can give advice that leads them down the right path.
When Sergie calls after I drop off a car, I know how the conversation is going to go. He’ll explain what is wrong in language that I can understand. Then he’ll list out a number of options. Some are simple stop-gap resolutions. Some are a lot more expensive. For each option, he explains the advantages and disadvantages. He’ll explain how the fix could affect the resale value and how long the solution is expected to last.
Consultants are paid to come up with solutions. They should provide clients with multiple options and explain the pros and cons of each one. Each option should be presented in a way that is clear and understandable for the client.
Make a recommendation
Once he explains all of the options and the pros and cons of each, Sergie often has painted a picture of a no-brainer. I’ll usually state what sounds like the right option and he usually agrees.
Sometimes, it’s not a clear solution. If he sees me struggling to decide, he’ll make a recommendation based on his knowledge of how we use our cars. He’ll explain why he thinks that’s a good solution. Then he patiently answers all of my questions and waits for my decision.
No matter how decisive a client is, or how well he knows his business, decisions can be complex. A consultant who knows the client’s strategy can best make a recommendation and explain why it’s the best decision. The client will most likely have questions. The consultant should be well-informed to be able to answer each question.
Implement according to the customer’s preferences
Once I make a decision on my car, my loyal mechanic implements the solution according to my directions. I’ve never gone against his recommendation. But if I did, I have confidence that he would do what I think is best rather than what he believes.
A consultant has to do the same. Clients often agree with the consultant. Sometimes they agree after some minor modifications. Other times, they may disagree completely for a variety of reasons.
The consultant may disagree. He may voice that disagreement. But the client’s wishes trump the consultant’s opinion. Solutions need to be implemented according to the client’s wishes.
How do you help clients make decisions?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
“I’m just a programmer. I’ve only been brought in here to write code for this client.”
That’s the general attitude I’ve gotten from many consultants on past projects. Some consultants just seem to forget that their really outsiders.
There is a double standard. Employees have their assignments. Their employers have expectations for them. When employers bring in consultants, they usually have higher expectations for those consultants.
Consultants are expected to be experts. Consultants are usually paid at a higher rate. Never mind that consultants have overhead costs. Whether the consultant is independent or associated with a firm, there is still health insurance and vacation time buried in the rate. Continue reading Client Relations for Consultants→
Career minded individuals always seem to be trying to chart out their next success. That may include striving toward the next promotion. It could mean making more money. It could mean simply making more people happy.
Whatever your definition of success, most of us set goals and strive to achieve them. That pursuit can be fraught with landmines. We face political pressures that force us down other routes. We struggle to balance family and our personal lives with our career goals. Sometimes things just don’t go our way. We have to exercise flexibility and go a different direction at times.
All of these, and many other factors contribute to career risk. You can receive setbacks and never recover. But all of these factors are external. Your greatest career risk actually lies within. Continue reading Your Greatest Career Risk→
Things looked bleak in the depths of the great recession. Many major firms collapsed and went out of business completely. Some were deemed “too big to fail” and were bailed out by the U.S. government. For the surviving firms, layoffs were rampant, resulting in unemployment peaking at 10% in late 2009.
Effects of the Great Recession
Companies that were shedding employees also cut major projects, resulting in consultants being shown the door. Many consulting firms failed. Others survived by reducing their own staffs.
Unemployment in the U.S. hovered in the upper 9% range for over a year. In late 2010 it began a gradual descent. As of May of 2015, unemployment was down to 5.4%.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average grew nearly 30% in 2013 followed by a more modest 10% increase in 2014.
Throughout the recovery, use of consulting has increased as companies, gun-shy of committing to permanent hires, continued to hire temporary staffing. Now, as the recovery turns into a stronger economy, companies are beginning to have the confidence to hire full-time employees.
Additionally, companies are investing in new projects. As long as they can justify an adequate and fast enough return on investment, organizations are turning to their large backlog of work that they were too risk averse to attempt over the past several years.
Translation to Consulting Success
This bodes well from many aspects. The willingness of the business community to make large investments in staffing and projects should translate to additional growth in the economy.
Additionally, investment in projects will almost certainly mean that companies will turn to consulting firms for help. Traditionally, firms do not rely on existing staff to implement large projects. Consultants are usually brought in for their expertise in the particular subject. Consultants are also temporary workers. They provide the needed guidance and extension of staffing needed during a major project. As the project winds down, the consulting staff is gradually ramped down and the project is handed over to the full-time staff for ongoing maintenance.
The existing staff is heavily involved during the project. Full-time employees act as subject matter experts (SMEs) on the project, providing consultants insight on the company’s proprietary knowledge and processes. As the project winds down, full-time employees take on a larger responsibility of the project, eventually assuming full ownership as the consultants phase out of the picture.
Challenge to Consulting Firms
The continuing decline of the unemployment rate is generally a good thing. It is the sign of a growing economy. However, as the unemployment rate becomes lower, it becomes a concern for hiring qualified people to do the job.
Hiring by client organizations results in fewer people in the market. Competition for qualified workers becomes stiffer. There are some who have concerns that we will get to a point where we are at full employment – a 0% unemployment rate.
While some may look at that as some utopian accomplishment, where everyone in the market is employed and productive, there is a downside. With full employment, we risk ceasing to grow. New investment is stifled because organizations can’t hire people to do new work.
The predicted problems of full employment may never come to fruition. But as the unemployment rate becomes smaller and smaller, consulting firms will find themselves competing more with each other – and with their clients – for qualified knowledge workers.
The growing economy is cause for great celebration for the business world in general. It is also a positive sign for consultants that they will experience continued growth. Like any type of benefit, there are challenges. Consulting firms will have to learn how to compete in the hiring market to acquire adequate staffing in order to serve their clients.
Their own success as well as the success of their clients will depend on it.
How is your firm preparing for a more competitive market?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
I’m intrigued with the popularity of vampires and zombies these days. Just doing a simple search for vampires on Amazon.com provides over 51,000 book titles. A search on zombies provides another 24,000. Netflix offers many titles under each category as well.
It might have started with the Twilight series, but I think that just fueled a fire that was already burning. The same goes for The Walking Dead series on AMC. I think it has just enhanced a wave that was already going
After more than twenty years on consulting, I’ve observed how consultants and clients interact with each other. They each have their own way of looking at the other. I’ve come to the conclusion that clients perceive consultants as vampires and consultants perceive clients as zombies.
Consultants are Vampires
Vampires are Blood suckers: We all know that a vampire needs to survive on the blood of others. Consultants are always trying to upsell. They want to add scope to the project and then sell that next project in addition. Billable hours and sales, at the expense of the client, are their lifeblood.
Vampires are aristocratic: Just as vampires have the attitude of coming from the upper echelon, so do consultants. They dress more superior and have the condescending attitude that they’re just better.
Vampires are nocturnal: Just as vampires only come out at night, consultants like to burn the midnight oil. Then, they come in later in the morning because of their late nighter. When the client comes in at 8:00 AM to ask a question, the consultants are nowhere to be found.
Vampires have psychic abilities: There are some vampire movies where vampires can read minds. Consultants are the same. In fact, whenever a client manager says something intelligent, the consultant says, “I was just about to say that.”
Vampires can appear as mist: Consultants do the analysis, develop the plan, and present it all into a nice PowerPoint presentation. Then they disappear as soon as the actual execution of the plan is to be performed.
A vampire has hypnotic power over his victims: Many a client employee whose boss has hired a consultant has probably wondered what caused them to hire that consultant. He must have been under the consultant’s hypnotic power.
A vampire can turn victims into vampires: Every once in a while, a consultant convinces a client employee to come over to “the dark side” of consulting. Many consulting contracts prohibit pilfering employees from either party, but it still happens. Before long, the new consultant is taking his former colleagues out to lunch trying to drum up new business.
A zombie is someone who has lost his or her sense of self: When a consultant first meets the client employee, he often finds someone who is entrenched in the politics and apathy of the organization. He’s there to put in his time and leave at 5:00. You consultants want to change how we do things? Why?
Zombies have increased endurance relative to normal humans: clients can endure long meetings in which their presence neither adds value nor is required. They go because they were invited. What else are they going to do?
Zombies have reduced or absent cognitive function: Clients know only their area of the business. If you want to know how another area of the business works, go talk to someone in that area. It’s not my job.
Zombies are Slow: Clients have no sense of urgency to implement change. They’re happy with the status quo. They show up late for meetings, or not at all. They practice passive resistance to hold up any chance of real change taking place.
Zombies are not dead, yet not alive: Client employees are present, yet they aren’t. They show up for work every day. They attend their meetings. But they are rarely productive.
Is Either Perspective Accurate?
Obviously, these are extreme perspectives that consultants and clients have of each other. Hopefully consultants aren’t that condescending toward their clients. Hopefully clients aren’t that cynical toward consultants.
But, these attitudes sometimes exist on both sides. Consultants can provide a valuable service to their clients if they face it with the right attitude. Clients can sometimes be resistant to new changes the consultant is trying to help implement. Maybe the client employees haven’t been convinced that the new changes are better than the existing ways of doing business. It is the consultant’s responsibility to convince them why the changes are better.
Consultants and client employees are often incented and motivated by different things. If the client employee wants to stay with the status quo and has no incentive to change, the consultant should work with the client to find ways they would like the changes. Will it make their job easier? Will it allow them to make decisions that will help them move up the corporate ladder?
Consulting, more than anything else is a communication process. Communicating change to a client involves communicating why the client should be interested in the first place. It is about the client.
How have you broken down stereotypes to convince a client to change?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
I could tell by the look on his face that the interview was over. I was sitting in an interview with a top tier consulting firm in my college’s career services center. The interviewer had explained what it was like to work there. He said there would be a lot of travel. It could be up to 100% travel if I was working for an out of town client.
My response was nothing short of sophomoric. I told him, “Oh, I like to travel. My girlfriend and I went on a trip last winter.” I told him a little about our trip for a few seconds before I read the look on his face. Continue reading Getting In to Consulting→