This is part two in a five part series this week, Moving into Consulting 101.
Today's consulting topic is friendly advice on how to handle yourself in front of clients, as a consultant. Not always are we welcomed with open arms by clients as an expert-level savior. Oftentimes we are met with hesitancy, withheld facts, skepticism, or outright defensiveness.
We need to win over clients' trust if the engagement is going to be pleasant, much less successful. We also need to avoid landmines by tactfully operating as guests in the clients' workplace, or in a pandemic, in their headspace.
The Tact of a Consultant
Use first person plural
Avoid aligning yourself inside the client's environment. Whether it's Devs vs DBAs, or Sales vs Ops, or Management vs Employees, don't pick sides. By all means avoid Consultants vs Clients. When talking about the client's problem, say "we" a lot - it immediately puts you on "their team."
You need to get past any "us vs them" or "big scary consultant" mentality quickly. So use language that puts you on their side right away: "we need to get those backups running again" or "we need to take a look at xyz" or even retrospectively, "what were our requirements for this program?"
Try to win clients over with your subject matter expertise, but avoid presenting it in a way that makes anyone look bad. You'll win more clients over, especially at the end of a long day of troubleshooting or health checking, if you've not made any of them look bad to their coworkers.
Don't blame-storm on their behalf
Beware of landmines in your discovery (see previous), and when you find one, try to disarm it without creating an enemy inside the client organization. Never ask "who did this?" or "who set this up wrong?" In fact, avoid trying to identify "who did what" as much as possible. Just focus on the what.
If someone admits their mistake: "I set this up this way because I thought..." turn the lesson to be learned to the whole group. Don't single out people for correction, don't make someone the culprit or the martyr. Always use that first person plural: "So what we need to do is..."
Should a client need to know who is to blame, they'll figure it out well enough without your help. If they insist you point a finger, do so in your documentation, not in person, and do so by referring to a job role, not a name.
Show me a client employer whose server admin wasn't doing database index maintenance, and I'll show you an IT Manager that wasn't staffing tasks to skills, or properly investing in training for their employees.
Unless you've been brought in explicitly to be the executioner, a consulting engagement is not the time to put yourself in the middle of that existing conflict.
- I've made fast friends refusing to publicly execute the party at fault.
- I've won over developers with a positive, helpful explanation instead of a punitive lecture.
- I've made allies and new business partners out of sysadmins that I could have publicly shamed.
- I've had clients thank me for not blame-storming and finger-pointing, because nothing good really comes of that.
Root cause analysis doesn't always have to name names for innocent mistakes and oversights. Again, the client will do all the executions needed with or without your help.
Stay uncontroversial at client sites
I was onsite at a client when one of their employees in a group asked me what I thought about guns. (Insert your own hot-button political topic here.) I casually turned away and said something like, "Nahhh, hey, let's get back to this database." In hindsight I was glad. Their beliefs got shared aloud anyway (of course), and their beliefs were extreme.
If you wouldn't bring it up in polite company at the dinner table, don't bring it up with clients, and don't take their bait. I had no chance of emerging from that conversation without creating some distracting animus. Staying out of that conversation entirely was the only way.
This occurred many times to me, actually. It was much better that I maintained that professional distance and a productive client relationship in each case.
Don't engage in political or religious conversation with clients. Don't talk about how to raise kids, what to do with your money, or the outcomes of elections. Don't screen-share your browser bookmark toolbar or personal email inbox. Don't mention what news sources you follow. Today's world is extremely polarized, that's not your fault, but you must be aware. We have less and less in common with our political opposites. Don't let that invade perfectly good projects and business opportunities.
I've watched conference calls devolve when the right kind of arrogance catches wind of a political polar opposite, it's not pretty. I've had perfectly fine business relationships and project success with folks who I later learned had politics incompatible with my values. That's ok. I'm not asking you to compromise your morals or ethics — I never had to — but you can prioritize the project over stumbling into a minefield.
I'm also not asking you to cover. Bring your whole self to work. Covering — hiding parts of your identity that don't fit into a mainstream in order to avoid negative bias — is a completely different topic. What I am suggesting is that for this short engagement, stick to business while being proud of yourself and being memorable. Let's be frank - consultants need to be as business-focused as possible. There is a time and place for clients to get to know you better, if they deserve to.
I'm not telling you to "read the room" and blend in with the attitudes and tempo of the clients. If you can, great. But "reading the room" and "dressing the part" too often means "be a straight white male or an unusually intelligent oddity, please." I did most of my consulting in the American deep south, and this is what most rooms looked like.
Certainly, you should try to find a consultancy that aligns with your personal and career goals, and that allows you to bring your whole person to work. When collaborating internally and not on client sites, I hope you find executive leadership and management that holds high standards of ethical and moral behavior, as well as inclusive policies and practices. Perhaps your consultancy builds trust by matching donations to your favorite non-profits and charities, or partnering with and hosting your community involvement. You can't always ask the same of your clients.
I know this topic doesn't seem like breaking news in today's divisive politics-as-creed society. But now, as a consultant, more than it was when you were an in-house employee, your restraint against delving into personal conversations is required.
Common client-facing concepts in consulting:
Covering = Hiding parts of your identity that don't fit into a mainstream in order to avoid negative bias. Everyone has likely experienced covering at some point in their careers, for a variety of reasons. I have lost multiple great colleagues in consulting because they were tired of feeling like a phony trying to fit in. Consulting should not be one uncomfortable trial after another of putting on the masks of someone else. If you don't feel comfortable in the work environments where your consulting work brings you, talk to your manager, start a dialogue, and see if this consultancy is the right fit for you. For more resources and awareness, see: Harvard Business Review: Help Your Employees Be Themselves at Work and Deloitte Analysis: Inclusion survey: Uncovering talent.
One team = If you've ever worked in a restaurant, you know that the wait staff blaming a chef or a chef blaming the manager looks bad for the whole restaurant. Similarly, blaming other colleagues or teams in your consultancy, blaming your PM, or blaming sales won't buy any credibility. It might feel good to absolve yourself from personal accountability, but it's not a win. To clients, you represent a company with a contract, not a set of individuals. Your consultancy will probably succeed or fail on this project (and the next contract) as a team. You'll need to practice accountability and acting in the client's best interest while keeping some conversations internal. There may be key moments that will test your resolve when deciding who to include on an email or chat message. As we discussed, be solution-focused and 86 the blamestorming.
Self-deprecation = Humor has its place. Self-deprecating humor might be the exact opposite of what the client is looking for. The sales exec or project manager can joke all they want about not knowing anything technical, but not you, the consultant. For the most part, being congenial and winning over a room with charisma, asking questions, and good story telling are great skills to have. Being comfortable addressing a room of clients and making them smile is a valuable comfort level to have. But spare them the humor about how you "can't even balance your checkbook". They're paying money for your services, don't given them pause.
This is part two of a five-part series on Moving into Consulting 101.
- Moving Into Consulting 101 - Part 1 - The Patience of a Consultant
- Moving Into Consulting 101 - Part 2 - The Tact of a Consultant
- Moving Into Consulting 101 - Part 3 - The Hours of a Consultant
- Moving Into Consulting 101 - Part 4 - The Process of a Consultant
- Moving Into Consulting 101 - Part 5 - The Tensions of a Consultancy
Got comments, questions, or guide for your fellow consultants? Comments are welcome below.
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