The most common feedback I get from my book Consulting 101, or from this blog, comes from experienced consultants. Invariably, they say something like, “That’s great advice. I wish I had known this ten years ago.”
Many of them have stated that they had already learned many of the lessons the hard way. In an effort to save some new or aspiring consultants that pain, I will try to provide a sort of “top ten” things to do in your first year. Hopefully, this will get you off to a successful first year of consulting.
1) Communicate professionally
Consultants coming right out of college often experience a culture shock. In college, things are casual. You communicate primarily with friends in a very casual way. Texting and email include abbreviations and a casual tone.
If you are entering consulting from another industry, you may have not dealt with customers. You may have also had a more casual communication style within your company.
In consulting, whether you’re dealing with colleagues, a manager or a client, a more formal tone is sometimes required. You don’t have to resort to old English formalities. But texting abbreviations and calling others “dawg” are frowned upon.
The best approach is to observe how fellow consultants communicate. View their written and verbal communication to various audiences. Be aware that you could model someone who is unprofessional in their communication. Model those that are most respected.
2) Complement your skill with a consulting attitude
Consulting firms don’t just hire someone who is good at marketing, computer programming, or some other specific skill. They want someone who is an expert at a professional skill and has a can-do attitude. They want to hire someone who seeks challenges and opportunities to excel. They look for someone who will seek others – colleagues and clients – to mentor them and share their knowledge.
They do not want someone who will work heads-down in their area of expertise and only do what they are told to do.
3) Focus on problem solving
Consultants do their fair share of doing what they are told. They have bosses within the firm and at the client. But a consultant is expected to do more than just what he or she is told.
A consultant should try to exceed expectations. The best way to do that is to focus on solving problems. A typical employee at the client will often work until time to go home. If a particular problem is not solved, they figure it will always be there tomorrow morning. A consultant will stay until the problem is solved.
Additionally, if a consultant is given a task, he will make sure he understands the problem at hand so that he does not just what he is told, but to ensure that he is solving the problem.
4) Control your emotions
Consulting can have stressful moments. Clients have high expectations for the rates they pay and are not afraid to put pressure on the consultant. As a consultant, you may be doing your best. But the client doesn’t think it is good enough.
A client may throw you under the bus in front of his boss or have you rework something that you spent several hours developing. Some may be nice to your face and then send a nasty email, copying a large group of people.
A good consultant will keep his or her emotions in check instead of retaliating.
5) Think strategically
Consultants should always focus on the big picture. When you develop a daily to do list, every item should be a tactical piece of a vision for the long-term strategy of the engagement and, ultimately, your career.
There should be a purpose for everything you do and say. Whether you are working for a client or the management at your firm, there should be an end goal in mind for every activity.
6) Network internally
You may work for a large firm or a small boutique firm. It is important to get to know the people within your firm, whatever its size. Know the decision makers as well as your peers. If possible, get to know skills different people have.
Knowing other people will get them to know you. Decision makers that know your skills will think of you when a project comes along requiring those skills. Peers will know when to turn to you with questions. Knowing the skills of others will help you know who to turn to for questions when you have them.
Knowing others and having others know you will increase your exposure and, as a result, your chances of success at the firm.
7) Network externally
Join organizations that will give you the exposure to meet other people in your area of focus. If you are a technology consultant, network with other people that work in technology. Knowing people at prospective clients can allow you to help your firm’s sales team get meetings at your contact’s company which could translate into sales for your firm.
Once you start working at a client site, network with your client counterparts. You never know when those contacts will come in handy later in your career. Whether you are selling services or looking for a job, having a healthy network will always come in handy.
8) Learn how to sell services
Many consulting firms have sales teams that focus on just that. However, every consultant at every level is responsible for sales. This could involve introducing the sales team to a contact you have at a prospective client. Alternatively, you may introduce an existing client to additional services your firm provides, which could help them solve a business problem.
Many consultants visualize the stereotypical used car salesman and think of sales in a negative light. Selling in the consulting world is about developing relationships, listening, learning about the client’s issues, and trying to help them solve their problem.
Your sales focus should be less about how much your firm can make off of a deal and more about how you can help the client.
9) Develop a thick skin
As I stated earlier, expectations are high. And to make matters worse, you are supposed to exceed expectations. You may expose yourself to criticism from the client or from within your own firm. Some of your fellow consultants may be competitive. You may find that no matter how hard you work, someone else gets more credit.
Whatever your source of frustration, it is best not to let things get to you. You will certainly fail and you will probably face some form of criticism for it. You will certainly work hard and you will probably be outdone by someone who just worked a little harder.
Don’t let failures bother you. Learn from them. Move on and don’t give up.
10) Deliver value
When you are assigned a task for a client, stop and ask yourself why it needs to be done. Determine why it adds value to the project and focus on that value while you perform the task.
Determine the purpose of the project as a whole and why it adds value to the organization. Let that value drive how you prioritize your tasks and the purpose behind how you do each task.
If you focus on how everything you do adds value to your client, you will deliver value on a consistent basis. That spells success for your client. It spells success for your firm. It ultimately spells success for you.
What have you done to ensure success in your first year?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com