I was once in a difficult consulting situation. I was hired by a consulting firm to take over as a program manager for a program that was already about 25% complete. Their original program manager was leaving for another opportunity. This program was for a large client with whom they had an established relationship.
The key stakeholder had an excellent relationship with my predecessor. He and I only had 4 days for the transition. In that time, I saw how the stakeholder and my predecessor had developed a deep and trusting relationship. The stakeholder even threw a going away pizza party for my successor. That is a luxury not often given to external consultants.
I could see I had some big shoes to fill. On top of all of that, this program was involved in some technologies that I had little experience with. While my predecessor talked in depth of these technologies in some of the meetings I observed, I realized that he was well ahead of me in that area.
Adding to all of this was the fact that I was new and unknown. I was not just new to the client. I was new to this firm that the client trusted. He may have given me some “trust by association,” but very little.
I knew I had my work cut out for me. I had done it before. I knew I could do it again. I just was not positive that I could do it here for this particular client.
What is a trusted advisor?
I have a plumber friend named Brian who has helped me in a couple of sump pump emergencies. If there is even a hint that my sump pump has a problem, he is the first person I think of. To me, he is a trusted advisor in all things plumbing and sump pump related.
The goal of every consultant is to become a trusted advisor. To me, that means that you are the first – or nearly the first – person the client thinks of when an issue or problem arises. This can happen quickly, but it rarely happens overnight.
The first time my sump pump failed, the carpet in my finished basement was soaked. I called him on a Saturday morning, and he came right over. He helped me get the water under control. He went with me to the store to buy a new sump pump. He then installed it. He did not leave until everything was set. He even gave me some referrals for some restoration companies.
Brian dropped what he was doing and went over and above the call of duty for me. He made me think I was the only priority in his life that day until everything was under control.
As a consultant, I wanted to be the same thing Brian was to me, to my client. I put a plan together to do just that.
One of the key prerequisites to becoming a trusted advisor is to know your stuff. If my plumber friend did not know how a sump pump worked, he could not have fixed it or installed a new one. I would have figured out quickly that he was not going to be able to help me much.
A consultant needs to know about the client’s business. How do they create value? How does that department fit into the client’s overall strategy? Why are they doing this project now?
The consultant also needs to know the technology at hand. What is the technology? How does it work? How is it being used to add value for that client?
The first hurdle for me was to begin learning. I needed to learn about the client’s business and how this director fit into the client’s overall strategy. I needed to learn about his management style. How did he like to be communicated to? How frequently and what information? I got some of this from the transition with my predecessor. I also had one-on-one meetings with several team members to pick their brains on how the project was progressing, what they thought were critical issues, and any insight they could give me on the key stakeholder.
I also needed to become a quick study for the technology. I worked with some of the technical members of the team to bring me up to speed. I also read. I read a lot. I downloaded podcasts and audio books on the technology to listen to on my commute to and from work. I read online articles. I read any literature I could find at the client site. I also listened. In meetings with technical team members, I would listen to what they said. If there was anything that I did not understand, I wrote it down and either asked them about it later or looked it up.
After a few weeks, I was still far from an expert, but I could feel myself getting more comfortable with my knowledge each day. I continued to read and ask questions to develop deeper knowledge and understanding.
Be their problem solver
If you are knowledgeable on a topic it can be a big help. But it is only helpful if you put that knowledge to use. If my plumber knew every detail about sump pumps but never showed up or refused to fix the problem, his knowledge would be wasted. The key is to take that knowledge and help the client solve problems. For me, it was multi-faceted. I needed to take all of the technical information and combine it with what I had learned about my client’s business. I took what I had learned about my key stakeholder and how he liked to be communicated with. I needed to learn about the political landscape to know how to communicate with my client’s peers and superiors.
All of this information had to be combined to push the program forward. Showing positive progress every week showed the value we were adding. Every two weeks, we would report an update to the CIO of the company. This needed to be crisp and concise to make my client look successful.
If you can take your knowledge and make your client successful, they will continue to turn to you to help them solve their problems.
This may sound a bit trivial, but it is important, at least helpful, to be likeable. I remember after being at the client for about three months. I was feeling more and more comfortable about all that I was learning. I felt I was making progress in helping the client solve their problems. But my opinion of it was not the important one. I was getting positive feedback from my client on the progress. But I was not sure I was in trusted advisor territory yet.
This client was on a large campus with multiple buildings. We often had to walk to other buildings for meetings. I was walking back from a meeting once around mid-day and ran into my client in the parking lot. We chatted for a minute or two and then he said, “I was just about to run out to get some lunch. Do you want to join me?”
I thought that was a good sign. We got into his car and went to lunch. We talked a little business. We talked about our families. We had a very pleasant time. I may not have fully graduated to trusted advisor, but I had turned a significant corner.
Over the next several months, I organized team lunches and happy hours to commemorate large milestones. I felt the client become more comfortable with our success. I felt him become more comfortable with me.
After a year and half with that client, I ended up leaving the firm for another opportunity. My firm hired someone to take my place and I spent about a week on transitioning to him. I got a good feeling from my client when he referred to the program’s progress with my successor. On my last day, he sponsored a pizza party for me.
How have you developed yourself as a trusted advisor?
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
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