Consultants get a bad rap: out for their own gain, focused on billable hours rather than client value, willing to take on any project for a dollar (no matter how impossible to deliver), and beholden to their own success rather than their client’s. Having been a consultant for 10 plus years, I agree with this perception. I’ve run across precious few fellow consultants (and even fewer firms) able to move beyond this short list of vices to do more and deliver real value for their clients.
Yet there’s another way to be a consultant and to run a consulting firm, one that not only serves clients, but can be profitable and more sustainable, because your clients will be clients for life. Becoming a valuable consultant like this isn't overly complicated, but it requires a commitment to one of the highest principles there is: love your client. Doing so isn’t a front to cover how you really feel about your clients or an attitude meant to get business, but should be a real affection for them, their goals and their success. It can’t be faked, because as anyone who's ever been on the buying end of consulting can tell you, you can smell insincerity a mile away.
Sounds simple, right? But getting there, especially if you’ve been accustomed to consulting as usual, can be a challenge. So how do you begin?
The first step is forget about the money. Your firm can’t be successful if you don’t deliver value to the client. And client value and being profitable have nothing intrinsically in common. You can make money and deliver no value. Conversely, you can deliver client value but be unprofitable. So how do you align the two?
In some ways, this depends on your firm culture (e.g., how willing the firm is to support serving the client rather than billable hours), but it depends mostly on how you approach the client: do you put delivering value to them over and above your firm’s profit? Although this may appear to be an either/or choice, it rarely is. Working for client value will always be more successful in the long term, whether measured by profitability, client satisfaction or engagement with a client over the long haul (or a combination of all three).
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Care About the People
The second step is to develop a true concern for the welfare of the people on your client team, i.e., their professional goals and aspirations and the strengths and weaknesses that will impact how (and whether) they reach them. With this, you can not only position the outcome of your engagement to positively impact your client firm, but also the individuals who, ultimately, are responsible for your success at that firm.
And if these people wind up leaving for other opportunities, know they’ll remember your concern and will bring you in if possible to do work for their new employer.
The last step is to forget about selling and focus on solving. Ask anyone who’s had to hire consultants regularly: a strong white boarding session that defines challenges and sketches some possible solutions is worth way more than even the crispest, most professional sales presentation or marketing deck. The ability to listen, frame a problem, and spitball solutions is always going to be the most valuable thing you can do for a prospect or client — a sales or marketing pitch almost never is.
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Change the Firm
So far so good, but doing these things as an individual employee of your firm can only go so far. If you want to serve clients and deliver value on a consistent basis, you’ll eventually need to reorient your firm at the enterprise level to the following priorities:
- Client service,
- Employees and their families,
- The bottom line.
Honestly, without this order of priorities as a part of the way business is done, it’s difficult for a consulting firm to truly serve clients. In fact, most firms have the complete opposite order of values: bottom line trumps all, no matter the consequences to clients, let alone their employees, who have little chance for a satisfying work life balance. And employees who have a poor work life balance are too busy bemoaning their fate or pumping dollars out of their clients (or both) to truly drive value for their clients or sustainability for their firm. And they certainly aren’t focused on loving their clients or figuring out how to make their client’s employees successful.
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Change Is Possible (and Rewarding)
Faced with the realities of working conditions at most consulting firms, I know these sound like lofty-seeming goals, but they are attainable, both personally and on the enterprise level. I’ve had my fair share of difficult projects, as well as those that have gone south and failed to deliver the value we promised. But more often than not, I get to go to work every day and serve clients, deliver value, and leave it better than I found it. And having been in situations where I did so far less frequently, let me tell you, it’s worth the effort.