What is consulting? A high-impact service delivered across a wide variety of specialist domains. But all consultants have a common interest: To leverage their skills, knowledge and experience to get the best for their clients. This is something that countless people, from management consultants to software developers and even travel agents do almost every day.
And there’s a common set of principles that can help you to do that. After all, if you want to make it big, you’ll have to satisfy your customers, learn to fight your corner, take the views and expertise of others on board and structure interactions with clients as efficiently as possible.
With more than 25 years of professional experience directing consulting engagements across the globe, Samir Parikh has distilled these principles into The Consultant’s Handbook.
Consultancy is a term that’s become grossly inflated in recent years. Today, it’s hard to get a handle on what it really means.
So let’s start with a definition.
Consultancy means using two ingredients – your expertise and experience – to help your clients realize their goals. These pillars can support a basic consulting proposition.
You can see how this works by imagining an architect who’s been commissioned to design a house. The architect uses two things to fulfill his client’s brief: his architectural knowledge and his experience building similar houses.
Whether you lean more heavily on expertise or experience varies from situation to situation. If the architect is fresh out of school, he won’t have much hands-on practice behind him and will emphasize the things he learned during his studies. On the other hand, someone with 20 years in the industry is likely to lean on a wealth of experience from past projects.
But there’s also another aspect to consultancy – harnessing the collective efforts of your organization to act in your client’s best interests.
This is especially true of bigger consultancy firms. An essential part of their brief is deploying their networks and resources as efficiently as possible to address a client’s needs.
They achieve this by cultivating a knowledge-sharing culture. Databases and networking help pool information about previous cases and make it available to those who need it.
Finally, there’s the question of how interests align. The consulting company’s interest may be to sell the client additional services, but this may not be what the client needs.
As a consultant, it always best to act in your client’s best interests. Focusing on short-term gains will end up annoying clients and undermining their trust in you. That means jeopardizing future collaborations.
Most importantly, acting in their interests preserves your consultancy firm’s credibility. That’s not as gratifying as instant profits, but it’s integral to your company’s long-term success.
Say you’re the manager of a company that’s deciding which consultancy firm to hire. How would you feel if the consultants you’d invited for a preliminary meeting turned up not knowing any of the basic information about your company? Not great, right?
That’s why any consulting assignment should always start with thorough preparation.
Of course, getting to grips with the nitty-gritty takes time. How deep you dive into the details depends on various constraints and the nature of your first meeting.
So if you’re short on time, aim to research your client’s company, their key issues and some possible solutions – call it basic preparation.
That’s usually a matter of no more than two hours. Here are the things you’ll want to take into account.
First off, the company’s locations and the industry and market in which it’s active. Next up: basic financial information like revenue and profits, its business units, competitors and product palette. Finally, you’ll want to read relevant press releases and learn the names of key executives.
Commit that to your memory and you’ll be well-placed to follow the conversation and understand your client’s needs in your first meeting. This makes a good impression. Knowing the basics means your client will take you seriously. Turn up underprepared, by contrast, and they’ll start wondering if they’ve made a mistake.
If you’re working on a bigger project, you’ll need to delve a bit deeper and conduct a more detailed preparation, meaning basic preparation plus some extras. These include strategy, aims, notable trends in the industry, company history, sales channels, more advanced financial data and customer feedback.
Lastly, there’s engagement-specific preparation. That’s a way of preparing for a meeting on a specific topic. Sometimes your client will invite you to a meeting addressing one particular issue. That could be team performance or efficiency in a certain area.
In those cases, your prep work will need to go beyond familiarizing yourself with the company in general – you’ll also need to be ready to deal with the issue at hand.
That doesn’t just mean research, however. A great way of preparing yourself is to think of useful questions that you’ll need to ask as well as anticipating what your client might ask you.
Whatever field you’re offering your consulting services in, there’s one essential thing you simply cannot do without: trust.
That’s why it’s so important to position yourself as a credible source of professional advice from the get-go.
So how do you that? Well, start with a well-crafted personal introduction.
This doesn’t mean selling yourself and your colleagues by claiming how fantastic you are.
What you should be doing is providing an objective overview of your experience and what you can bring to the project. That means making distinct claims and backing them up with evidence.
Lay out how many projects you’ve completed and how long you’ve been consulting. Telling it like it is makes your introduction much more tangible. It can even pay to formulate the exact words that you’re going to use beforehand so that you’re well prepared.
Make sure your introduction is also relevant and concise and you’ll be onto a winner. Your client will know you’re not wasting their time and will get a good picture of how your experience and expertise fit their needs.
But it’s not just yourself you’ll be introducing – it’s also your organization.
You won’t be working on your client’s project alone, so it’s a good idea to introduce your team and explain how its skills are suited to the work at hand. Include references to qualified people who will support the work behind the scenes, if needed.
Or simply ask your client if they have any questions about the credentials of your organization after your brief summary. Answer these questions well and you are bound to build credibility.
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