If you mention to someone that you are a consultant, you tend to get a wide variety of responses. You can usually tell immediately whether the person has had a good experience with consultants by their response. If there is a pregnant pause as they try to think of something positive to say about consultants, it’s a sign that they are not impressed. If they abruptly change the subject, they either don’t know what consulting means or they have already decided that they hate you with a passion.
Like being a used car sales person, a proctologist, or any other profession, there are good ones and bad ones out there. The bad ones do a better job of giving the profession a bad name than the good ones do in creating a positive reflection. Over the years, I’ve found that consultants can essentially be boiled down to three types.
Condescending consulting approach: “I know because I’m the expert.”
I was once at a client that wanted some of their applications to be audited to determine how effective they were. My firm brought in our resident expert on the subject. He came out to the client and spent a few days reviewing the existing platform of applications.
When he finished his review, he met with a couple of the executives to give his report. Their existing applications were old, outdated, and, in his mind, completely obsolete. He didn’t mince words telling them how awful he thought their systems were.
Not surprisingly, the executives were more than a little sensitive about such criticism of systems that some of them had led to implementation. One executive began to question him. He asked if, even though their applications were old and there were new ones out that were more robust, don’t their existing software packages at least serve their needs?
The consultant didn’t even answer his question. He said something to the effect of, “You need to listen to me. I’m the expert.” Perhaps saying “Shut up” would have been more diplomatic.
The executive politely allowed him to finish, thanked him for his time, and then told the management team with the consulting firm to never bring their “expert” to their site again.
Clients turn to consultants for their expertise. They expect consultants to be experts. If the consultant uses their expertise to shut the client down and not allow the client to provide input and ask questions, the client will not tolerate the consultant’s arrogance for long.
Submissive consulting approach: “Doing what I’m told.”
Some consultants are brought on to supplement an existing staff for a temporary period of time. Although these people are called consultants and they have some expertise, they are really on site as an extension of the client’s employees.
Contracting consultants like this are often called “staff aug”, an abbreviated term for staff augmentation. This is essentially the practice of hiring a temp to do some work. This is the difference between hiring someone to mow your lawn and someone to design your landscaping.
Staff aug consultants do specific tasks under the direction of a client manager. When their contract ends, or when their assignment is through, the client sends them on their way. Hopefully, the staff aug consultant has another client lined up for which he or she will do some similar work.
Collaborative consulting approach: “Have you considered this?”
The third and final type of consultant is one who collaborates with her client. The consultant is sought out for her expertise. She provides it after listening to the client and his business issues.
An expert consultant has sufficient background in education, business experience and problem solving skills. Working with the client, she will listen to the issue, ask follow up questions, and determine the root cause of their problem. She will draw from her experience and training and make suggestions. With each suggestion, she will provide pros and cons regarding how it could affect the client.
Once suggestions are made, the collaborative consultant might give her recommendation for what the client should do, or leave the decision up to the client.
The bottom line is that a good consultant should strive to become a client’s trusted advisor. Being condescending will do nothing to establish trust. Doing only what the client tells you to do will not make you his advisor. Providing your expertise to the client and helping them solve business problems – and doing it with humility – will endear you to them to you. The client will develop enough trust with you to seek your guidance without your need to sell. It’s all about the relationship.
What type of consulting approach do you usually use?
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
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.