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Taking the plank out of my own eye

August 31, 2011

My last two posts have cast a critical eye on the RFP process, pointing the crooked finger of judgment first at ECM vendors and then at ECM buyers. Convenient for me, since I fall into neither of these groups.

But in the last post, I promised to scrutinize the team I play for: management consultants. Although, along with Doctors Without Borders, the Make a Wish Foundation, and The United Way, we management consultants are making the world a better place one project at a time, we do have some areas for improvement…

#1. Forgetting that client service is our primary reason for existence

Of course, your firm needs to sell services to stay in business. A doctor also needs to sell services to stay in business. But the orientation of a doctor isn’t the sale of services, it’s patient health (or at least it should be). And as a consultant, your primary focus is on serving the needs of your client, not selling them stuff.

And by the way, “your clients” don’t only include the folks who are currently paying you. “Your clients” include anyone you have a meaningful business conversation with. Think of it this way: if a doctor is having an anniversary dinner with her husband, and a patron at the table next to her collapses on the floor, that person is her patient. If the doctor were to ignore the person’s medical needs because she’s not getting paid, she would be called to account sternly for that decision.

It’s no different if you strike up a conversation on the plane with your seat-mate and begin talking about ECM or if you pay a sales call to a prospect–they’re your client and you have a level of responsibility to act in their best interest from the get go, not just when the meter starts running.

Does that mean you do free work for them? No. But it does  mean that you advise them based on what’s best for them, not what leads to sales for you.

#2. Thinking that the client is always right

If this were true, they wouldn’t be paying you to work with them. Quite the contrary, they’ve engaged you precisely because they want you to tell them where they’re wrong…and then help them figure out how to be right.

This means that you need to be able to say hard things to your clients, some of whom are big personalities like CXOs…the kinds of folks who have often been right and may not like being told that they’re wrong. And when you tell them they’re wrong, they may not immediately drop to their knees, grasp your hand, and thank you for enlightening them. They may promptly show you the door (or at least do no more business with you).

But that’s the price of serving the client before all else–and, besides, if you think that CXO is mad now, wait until you “yes” her, get more business, and then have to explain X-hundred-thousand dollars later why the project delivered no value, made her look bad, etc.

Do yourself a favor and be straight with her up front. You’ll do the right thing by your client, and you may even get a call thanking you down the road when that CXO realizes that you were brave enough to shoot straight even though it meant you would lose business.

#3.  Being narrowly focused on the terms and conditions of the SOW

For all my talk about serving the client no matter what, the fact is, when you do consulting, you’re doing business. And part and parcel of doing business successfully as a consulting firm is having a clear, mutually agreeable articulation of the scope fo the work to be done, i.e., an SOW.

A quality SOW has a big impact on the success of a project: it’s the foundation for setting realistic, shared expectations and providing a touch point for making sure that everyone maintains shared, realistic expectations on both sides of the table throughout the engagement. All good stuff.

But the SOW can also get in the way of serving the client if the team is too narrowly focused on satisfying the letter, rather than the spirit, of the SOW. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say the engagement is for an ECM business case and the SOW stipulates that the deliverable will be in the format of the client’s official cost benefit analysis (CBA) spreadsheet; halfway through the project, you realize that the client can’t get you enough metrics to populate the CBA spreadsheet.

If you stick to the letter of the SOW, you’ll raise all sorts of red flags, escalate to try to get the numbers you need, push the schedule, etc. All solid, Project Management 101 things to do. Gold star.

But the reality is that, if the client doesn’t have the numbers, all of this won’t magically make those numbers appear. All it will do is sandbag the engagement, frustrate the client, and get you no closer to delivering a compelling business case, which is what you were hired to do after all.

If instead you try to serve the spirit of the SOW, you’ll ask yourself, why did the client hire us to do a business case in the first place? The answer, of course, is to get approval and support to do something. So your first (and only) priority is to make sure they get approval and support to do whatever it is they want to do. If that means a PowerPoint or Infographic instead of  a spreadsheet, so be it; if that means you do an in person “business drivers” workshop instead of a document, so be it; but you need to get creative and collaborative with the client to make sure that you can revise the scope of work to get done what really needs to get done.

If you do that, you satisfy both the spirit of the SOW as well as the real needs of the client.

#4. Thinking that your intelligence is what makes you valuable

Yes, having smart stuff to tell the client is valuable, and more than likely part of why they hired you is because they were impressed with your intelligence. And no, you don’t want to disabuse them of that impression: at the end of the day, it’s very important that you be smart for your clients.

But your real value goes far beyond your intelligence. In fact, intelligence in a consultant is really just a means to an end, because your real value lies in helping clients solve problems. After all, they aren’t paying you to say smart stuff, they’re paying you to get results for them, and that requires more than simply intelligence.

On any given day of the engagement, you need to navigate politics, facilitate others to contribute (even when they think they can’t or don’t want to), act as cheerleader, and be able to see the world from multiple perspectives (yours vs. client’s, line employee’s vs. manager’s vs. executive’s, client’s vs. their customers’, regulator’s vs. client’s, and so on).

Yes, intelligence is part of all these things, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’ll be successful simply by being smart: the road to delivering lasting client value is littered with failed projects due to otherwise-intelligent consultants stumbling around like bulls in a china shop.

The final word

I realize that listing fewer issues for my own profession than I did for either clients or vendors seems a bit suspicious, but hopefully some of you out there will keep me honest and jump in with suggestions of your own to get the conversation started…or maybe just some good consultant jokes (“How many consultants does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”)–whatever the case, I’m looking forward to what you all think!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2011 10:05 am

    Great list, Joe. I’d also add that it is important to take responsibility for communicating with our clients. If I do work for a client and it doesn’t meet his/her needs, I need to come up with the right questions so that I can better understand what my client wants.

  2. AndrésJans permalink
    September 7, 2011 10:17 pm

    Hi Joe, I´m just starting as a consultant and have 20 years standing on the other side, in the supply chain and business planning areas as a customer. So I perfectly understand your very accurate points. To build on them I can add: for #1 my approach is to offer a “free” diagnose to set up with a “tailor-made” solution that off course has its cost. I avoid to sell the “magic recipe” or a “one fits all” solution. On #2 an interesting way of looking at it is that you will put a mirror in front of the CXOs so they can see what they really are doing. I once heard that phrase and thought it really addressed the issue.I see #3 as a balance between what can be expected at the begining of the project and what comes up as you move forward (and possibly detect the lack of some data/information). And yes , as you say, do whatever it takes to solve the problem, may be at a different cost if necessary. #4 takes me back to the recipe concept, you can always impress wih what you have learned about the latest trends in a business, area or process but what I think you really need is the flexibility to be able to adapt to what your client needs , to how make him understand what is best for him and to help him implement the right solution in the right way.


  1. Who is My Client? | The Content Gardener

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