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Service is our business

August 17, 2010

I was having a conversation recently with a good friend and fellow consultant, and we were discussing just how important client service was for running a successful consulting shop. If you hang around consultants for any length of time, you’ll hear a lot of talk about pre-sales, i.e., the time spent building a relationship with a potential client before you have a contract in place. You’ll hear heated debates about how much “free” consulting to provide, how much of your IP to share, how much time to spend face-to-face, and when to “cut the cord” because they’re not going to sign a contract.

We both agreed that this mindset is fundamentally flawed–it turns consultants into something  like the beleaguered salesmen in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (coffee is for closers, etc.). But in reality, the mindset of a true consultant should be much closer to that of a physician than any kind of salesman.

The most important thing we agreed upon was that there is no such thing as potential clients, only clients. Having a signed contract does not magically turn someone from a prospect (for whom you do only as much as it takes to get them to sign a contract) into a client. Rather, as soon as you sit down to have a talk with someone who works at another organization, they become your client right then and there.

Think about the physician analogy: if I’m a doctor, sitting having dinner out in a restaurant, and someone begins choking on their food or collapses clutching their chest, my first concern is not to make sure they’re insured or can pay for treatment; it’s to intervene and save their life. In fact, if I sit there and do nothing, at some point I’ll be called to account for why I didn’t intervene, because society considers that person to be my patient in some capacity simply by the fact that I’m in the same room with them while they have a medical need.

Similarly, when I’m out in the world, speaking at conferences, chatting with a fellow business passenger, and so on, and the discussion turns to a business problem they’re having, they become my client. Full stop. Regardless of the fact that we have no formal, contractual relationship–and will likely never have one–I have a duty to serve them by keeping their best interests in mind throughout our interaction.

But what about providing your services for free, giving away IP that’s been built up over years of professional practice, and “cheapening” the work you do by providing it to someone over coffee on a plane?

To me, this is a non-issue: the real value consultants bring, if they’re doing their job correctly, is not IP, trade secrets, or some other bit of knowledge shared with a client. The true value of a consultant is in the relationship they build with a client, the side-by-side work in the trenches during an engagement, the work they do to leave an organization better than they found it…including the team members who work on the project.

If it were only as simple as some killer piece of IP or 100% effective trade secret, the world would be a better place (at least for consultants). The truth is that consulting is a lot like software: success is determined in large part by what you do with the software rather than the software itself. You’re better off with a mediocre application implemented well than a great application implemented poorly.

As consultants, having strong IP is of course important, but it won’t lead to a successful engagement without a strong client relationship and consultants who are focused on service. To my mind, making this your number one priority as a consultant allows you to forget about all the other distractions and get the job done right, every time.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010 7:47 am

    Beautifully said. That kind of attitude can go far to eliminate the adversarial sort of relationship with the client that sabotages a lot of consulting projects.

    Paige

  2. August 18, 2010 7:24 am

    Perfect.

  3. August 18, 2010 7:33 am

    Paige and Doug – thanks for the kind words!

    Cheers,

    Joe

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