When it comes to your work as a consultant, working directly with your clients to understand and solve their problems, the preceding chapters contain the most important lessons I know. In this final chapter of the “Consulting” section of this book, I’ll share a few brief discussions about a few other important lessons.
Seek first to understand, then be understood
When I was a younger, hotshot consultant (who didn’t really deserve to be called a consultant), I often made bad decisions or said stupid things because I didn’t understand everything there was to understand about a problem and a solution. For instance, I told one client that they should clearly be using a Unix system instead of the IBM System/360 they were using, because Unix was clearly superior. The only problems with my assertions were (a) the person I said this to was the System/360 administrator at the company, and (b) the software they used to run their company only ran on the System/360. That was the last day I worked with that client.
I encourage you to listen to your client’s problems, make notes, and repeat your understanding of their problems and goals back to them before attempting to offer any sort of solution.
Learn to assess people quickly
When meeting people for the first time, either in a sales meeting or in a project meeting where you’re meeting new people, learn to assess people quickly. In sales meetings, ask yourself, “Who’s the real decision maker here?” Very often it’s not the senior person.
In all meetings, keep an eye out for how people behave, and try to “feel” if people are:
- Can-do, get it done people
- Big talking, no-action types
- Passive, “I wish I was somewhere else” types
- Someone who is friendly to you
- Someone who is unfriendly
- Someone who seems to have questions or concerns
The people with unspoken questions or concerns may sink you later, after the meeting, so I recommend always asking something like, “Are there any other questions?”, and then looking around the room, specifically looking at the person (or people) you’re concerned about.
Beyond those generalizations, keep an eye out for people’s:
- Hot buttons
“Hot buttons” are especially important in the sales process, which I’ll discuss in the Sales section of this book.
It’s very important to deliver what you say when you say you can get it done. If you say, “I’ll get it to you by Friday,” deliver it on Friday. Better yet, deliver it Thursday. The first important thing here is that someone may be counting on you to deliver it at that time, and if you don’t, you’re creating a problem for your sponsor. (You’re just one link in a larger chain, and you just broke the chain.) The second important point here is that you’re building trust in your relationship; you’re delivering what you say you can deliver.
Don’t waste time
As I’ve mentioned before, don’t waste time, especially your client’s time. If you’re “on the clock,” billing by the hour, keep it moving. I once had a customer tell me a long joke while I was working, almost ten minutes long. When he finished telling his joke, he suddenly said something like, “Oh crap, that joke just cost me $50, didn’t it?” Regardless of what people say, they’re at least subtly aware that you charge for your time.
“Best practices” and “Lessons learned”
In the software industry I’ve found that the best managers want to know about things like “best practices” and “lessons learned.” They’re always looking for ways to improve. Keep an eye out for the best practices in your industry, and share what you learn with your clients.
When I was a hotshot young consultant I was pretty good technically, but I knew very little about business. You can get away with this early on, but I recommend learning about all things business, things like invoices, AR, AP, and SWOT analyses in marketing. As a problem solver, you’ll also find some interesting charts and thought tools in the “Six Sigma” world, and standard ways of representing flowcharts and business processes in the Unified Modeling Language (UML).
Keep it positive
When I grew up, my dad wasn’t exactly the most positive person in the world. Rather than build me up, he was more of a drill sergeant, and it was his way or the highway. As a result, I ended up reading books from Zig Ziglar and others to help improve my own attitude. In his books, Mr. Ziglar wrote something I found to be very true, which I’ll paraphrase here:
People who are successful don’t like to associate with people with bad attitudes.
It sounds a little corny now, but he said that people with negative, can’t-do attitudes suffered from a bad case of “Stinkin’ thinkin’” and a “Hardening of the attitudes,” and I’ve found that to be true. When you deal with clients who have climbed the corporate ladder to become successful, or built their own businesses, you’re dealing with people who have conquered a lot of odds and obstacles, and I can assure you, most of them have positive, can-do attitudes, and if you’re a Gloomy Gus who constantly speaks in negative terms, or brings up problems without also offering solutions, these people will avoid you.
As an exercise to improve your own attitude, I strongly recommend paying attention to what you say, and when you say something negative, make a mental note, or better yet, make a note in a notebook of whatever it was you said. Once you start paying attention to what you say, you’ll be amazed at some of the things that come out of your mouth.
Don’t talk about clients in public
As a final point, even if your contract allows it, don’t ever talk about clients in public. You never know who’s friends with who, or who might be listening.
As I wrote in my book, How I Sold My Business: A Personal Diary, I won a deal that was worth several hundred thousand dollars because I overheard a loud-mouthed, drunken competitor bragging about a deal he thought he had won. Until I heard him talk about that deal, I didn’t even know about that potential client. I have several other stories where we “found” new prospects because of similar situations.