Being an Outsider at the Client Site

Written by lewsauder

March 8, 2011

outsider

Being an outsider at the client

One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from new consultants is the inability to fit in at the client site.  Going from client to client, they always felt like an outsider and never felt a sense of community.

I remember early in my career, I was talking to a client and he asked me what consulting was like.  I explained to him that I go to different clients and work on projects for periods of a couple of days to as long as a year. It depended on the nature of the client’s need and what they needed me for.  I explained how the work was different at each project and that I worked with a different group of people each time.

He looked at me as if I was crazy, “…and you like that?”

I was a little taken aback.  I did like that.  That was what attracted me to consulting when I was interviewing in college.  Once in, I was able to confirm that it actually was exciting to go from place to place meeting new people, experiencing new locations and corporate cultures, and solving problems.

It’s not for everyone

It was during that conversation that I realized that consulting wasn’t for everyone.  He liked the comfort and security of going to the same office and working with the same people everyday.  He couldn’t imagine changing his routine all the time like that.  I was just the opposite.  I couldn’t imagine the “Groundhog Day” monotony of having the same view for the rest of my career.

For more information, see Client Relations for Consultants

Being the outsider

I do admit that I often felt like an outsider.  I’ve been to client sites where they had special perks like company picnics or outings to local restaurants.  Sometimes they included consultants, but usually they didn’t. I always assumed that we weren’t included unless we were specifically told so. I had my own community with the consultants in my own firm.  As we finished projects and moved on to new ones, we didn’t see each other as often, but kept in touch and caught up at occasional firm meetings.  Then I would create a new sense of community on the next project.  It was just a more dynamic form of community than the clients enjoyed.

Another way we felt like outsiders was not being part of their cultural.  We would be in brainstorming sessions and someone within our firm would recommend a change to improve the client’s process.  We would get a smirk or a funny look and be told “that just wouldn’t work here”.  Culture is a set of unwritten rules that get followed by an organization, usually driven by internal politics.  If you’re not “in” the culture, you don’t understand until you’ve been on site long enough to be “culturized”. Consultants are often not onsite long enough to be culturized.

The outsider’s workspace

The worst form of feeling like and outsider is when the client assigns your workspace.  When consultants work at a client site, the client rarely has a lot of available office space available.  You tend to be assigned two or three to a cubicle, or they will take a conference room, put tables along the perimeter and have an entire team of consultants share the “war room”.

See my related post: 5 Things I Hate about Consulting

How you deal with that determines how well suited you are for consulting.  If you are adamant that you need your own office and want your privacy, you probably won’t last long in consulting.  However, if your underlying purpose is to solve problems and get the job done, you relish working with a team and can block out conversations of others while you work, can get your work done in cramped quarters and don’t need the status of your own desk or fancy office, you may be on your way to being a successful consultant.

Has a client ever made you feel like an outsider?

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.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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