Over the last 20 years I have been on both sides of the client-consultant relationship.
The majority of this time I have been, or acted on behalf of, the client in property and business development. The minority of the time I have acted as consultant in roles covering information technology, property and business development.
Regardless of which side I have been on, I have had my fair share of experience with consulting across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors in New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
From the clients perspective I have distilled the success of a consultant down to one key ability.
The ability for the consultant to read the clients mind!
This may surprise the most disciplined of us who pride themselves in writing detailed consultant briefs to extract exactly what they think it is they want to know. However, when I am the client exploring relatively high risk and innovative work, the consultant offers me the most value when they can think ahead and tell me what I need to know, before I have to figure out I need to know it.
I am happiest when the consultant is proving to me what I need to know and then giving me solutions or answers in a form I can easily use.
Consultants who can seemingly read minds get my repeat business.
All too often as a client I am underwhelmed by what consultants present. Perhaps consulting follows the 80/20 rule like real estate agency, where 80% of the value/money/production is made by the 20% top performers. Whatever it is, there are a number of attributes that I believe are indispensable to being a great consultant. These attributes give me the impression the consultant has the ability to read my mind:
Communicate instantly, early and often. Communicate to the client before they have a chance to formulate an opinion of what they think they need to know. Don’t leave the client guessing if you know your stuff or not or are even interested – certainly don’t assume you are the only consultant they are going to contact.
Don’t give the client time to discuss their requirements with your competition. Even in a formal procurement process make sure you communications are spot on. Once you pass a formal procurement selection process, ensure you cement your credibility with superior communications. Regardless of how busy we seem, clients like me need to be communicated with instantly, early and often.
A recent example is when I asked for two valuation opinions on the potential sales pricing and velocity in a particular market. One consultant came back to me instantly with a yes, thanks we will get straight onto it and the expert consultant will be in touch. That was great however the ‘straight onto it’ didn’t come for another week and by that time the other consultant approached had already given me a list of options to choose from, their delivery dates and costs and we had negotiated the brief. The first consultant’s eventual response served to confirm pricing and the brief of the other. Both had similar expert abilities, it’s just one did a lot better on communication.
Know the target audience. The client has instructed you to consult, lets say on a research project. A key first step is to establish exactly where this information will or could end up and who is likely to read it. Further how is the information going to be presented up or down the food chain?
Very few consultants are good at this, many simply make assumptions and run the risk of providing a very good report, but in a basically unusable format for the client’s real information transfer requirements.
For large corporations and especially government departments, the client who asks for the report is very often only one of many who will use the information within it. Clients are happiest when the consultant can provide their advice in a format that is easily transportable within the clients organisation, whether it is up to boards or down to operations staff. If the client gives little guidance on this and you have to make an assumption, then choose to present your advice in a few alternative formats (without using this an as excuse to charge more).
On receipt of multiple formats, at least one of which can be forwarded to the ‘boss’, the client may think you have simply read their mind.
An example where anticipating the reporting requirements of the client became very important was when I was consulting on Internet Collaboration software. It was only after a serious amount of trial and error and learning from how my clients presented the information I gave them that I gained an insight into how valuable knowing the audience requirements actually was. In many cases my client was a project director for a hospital or prison project and to get my software approved for use often required board approval. The information I gave to my client, the ‘project director’, was rather detailed and a lot more about the how the software can be used to reduce cost and run a project rather than the why a board should consider approving its use.
Initially I relied on the project director to take my detailed information and prepare their own presentations to their boards. However the information was complex and the project director had done their own unskilled or at least rushed job of the presentation – if I was lucky I was called in to save my fee and present directly to the board.
I subsequently learned to change tact and presented my clients, the ‘project directors’ both detailed proposals, showing the how you do it (and I made it very specific to their project) and also board presentation ready bullet point value propositions – something they could simply forward on to their decision makers.
There was some additional work upfront, but it effectively meant a lot less time to secure the job and a higher chance of success. Working on the client side in the government, the ability for consultants to provide effective summaries and summaries of summaries in presentation ready format makes presenting the consultants findings to executives, committees and boards for decisions all that much easier.
Always include next steps. Don’t leave it up to the client to figure out where they may have to dig deeper to learn what next to do. Don’t assume what the client asked for is all the client actually needs. Typically for exploratory briefs, what is required to be known is as much about discovery based on the consultants first report as anything else. Next steps helps prime the client to think ‘this consultant has read my mind on what we now need to explore’.
Add that little bit extra. You have prepared an excellent report for your client, it is based on a wealth of experience by experts in their fields and follows all appropriate procedures for ensuring accuracy and minimizing liability. It is the perfect report, just what the client asked for, however it does nothing to distinguish this consultant as providing additional value from any other consultant.
Whether it is the most regular forms of written advice like a geotechnical survey or a valuation, it’s the bit extra that can make a very happy client – as soon as the client thinks I should have thought of that, they then actually start to own the idea and then reinterpret this as the consultant reading their mind!
One example where the consultant did a good job in this regard was when in a quite basic report they added a couple of lines under each heading that looked at the research in relation to the context of our overall business objectives. They were never asked for this opinion and disclaimed it heavily, but those few lines set the consultant into a new league of being able to offer additional value to our work. All the consultant had done is compared our local approach to best practice in the UK and highlighted the differences and made a logical albeit subjective position on the potential financial implications.
That going the extra mile made me feel like the consultant had read my mind. They put into context all the issues we face and how we should attempt to qualify and quantify a solution.
Make it easy. When I was trying to indoctrinate New Zealanders’ into professional membership with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors I was faced with trying to consult candidates through a very complex range of options to ensure they had the best chance of success. It was unnecessarily difficult and it appeared the more options you provide candidates the less their ability to decide which one to pursue – the end result being less new professional memberships sold.
The solution we found was simply make it very easy for our clients. Rather then give clients endless options and an insurmountable amount of work to figure it out, I literally helped clients put their CV together, found the RICS pathway that best fit their experience and sorted out the clients best way to membership before advising them. The work and time exhausted on endless sales calls and followups for candidates to figure out a complex system on their own much was much better channeled by more upfront one on one work. This resulted in a significantly shorter sales conversion oeriod.
The other side of making it easy, is to make sure highly technical and data driven information has a plain English summary directly related to the objective included. There have been a number of times as a client I have been lost in the consultants detail with no idea how to link this information to a solution for our business objectives. Typically the best thing the consultant can do is break the information down and then link each component explicitly to the solution the client is searching for in a single sentence.
When a client can easily work with the information the consultant has produced, the client feels as if the consultant is on the same wavelength. The client is happy, it’s as if the consultant has read their mind.
For consultants ESP or mind reading may be nothing more than taking the extra time to understand your client, asking how they have to on-present the information, not limiting your yourself to industry assumptions, giving that bit extra to make the clients life easier and finally give them some insight where to go next.
A happy client is typically a well paying client. It is more than likely that the consultant who can read their client’s mind will be the recipient of the client’s next fee paying assignment.