Every now and then, it’s good to remind ourselves of the basics. I’m not referring to the fundamentals of sales and marketing, but to the essential behaviors that separate the best consultants from everyone else.
You’d think it would be easy to generate a list of those behaviors, but it’s not. And your list and mine could be entirely different.
Still, it’s worthwhile to try. My current list (which is in no particular order) stops at ten. You can probably add more, and I hope you will.
1. Keep Your Own Counsel
The most successful consultants are decidedly independent thinkers. I don’t have empirical evidence for this, but I’d guess that they reject (or modify) about half of the advice they get from others.
They’re wary of people who tell them how to dress, what pen to use, and how to determine who in an organization can (or can’t) make a buying decision. They consider all of the advice they get with a healthy dose of skepticism and subject everything to a reality check before making a change.
2. Generate Ideas When They Matter Most
By now, we’ve all heard the echoing message that the path to winning in consulting is being a so-called thought leader. That label is so pervasive that it’s lost all meaning. And according to studies, much of the material claimed as thought leadership isn’t particularly thoughtful or worth following.
We should all spend time thinking about the “next big thing” and what the future holds. But what clients really want is practical and workable ideas–when they need them. That’s what you should focus on: creating ideas and alternatives that clients can use to address the issues they face right now, even if those ideas don’t aspire to the lofty status of thought leadership.
For successful consultants, the timing of an idea, whether big or small, is what makes the difference for their clients.
3. Aim for Share of Mind–Not “Share of Wallet”
It’s always unsettling to hear service providers talk about their plans to snag as large a share as possible of a client’s consulting budget. Once they create a revenue target to secure a specific “share of wallet,” the result is a not-so-subtle, undesirable shift in their mindset.
Instead of concentrating on the client’s goals, their own revenue goals take center stage. That puts selling first, and client service second. If achieving a revenue goal drives your thoughts and actions, clients eventually sense this and the barriers go way up.
The best consultants look for innovative ways to open their clients’ minds before asking them to open their wallets.
4. Kill the Metaphors
If you’ve been around this business for long, you’ve probably heard someone refer to selling as a hunt, or use other inane metaphors to describe a sales effort. In that sort of thinking, a sales opportunity is a chase or a game, and clients are the prize.
The language of sales is full of such counter-productive language. One seller characterized his company’s sales strategy as “you eat what you kill.” Another referred to a prospective client as a “wallet with legs.” We have “hunters” and “farmers.” The list goes on and on.
Of course, few people probably really view clients as prey, but words affect our thoughts and behavior. So if those metaphors get into your head, don’t be surprised if clients keep you at arm’s length. You’d do the same if someone treated you as if you had a target on your back.
Successful consultants think about serving clients, not hunting them. They facilitate problem solving instead of farming. They think of revenue generation for their businesses as shared value with clients, not as a win-lose game.
5. Commit to the Art of Consulting
Every successful consultant is a subject matter expert in something. The really great ones have also mastered the process of consulting.
Most people can define and manage a project, but that’s just table stakes. Consulting is most often about the nuances of creating influence when you don’t have authority, leveraging the skills of others who may not support what you’re doing, and speaking with total candor when it’s not in your self-interest to do so.
Every discipline is part art and science. The leading consultants commit to mastering both.
6. Be Confident without Arrogance
Few clients will hire (or follow the advice of) a consultant who doesn’t possess that intangible ability to set people at ease. Your confidence communicates to clients that things are going to work out.
More than a few consultants, though, have found that their confidence can get the better of them. They’ve taken on work that stretches beyond the boundaries of their capabilities. Usually, the result isn’t pretty.
There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, which the best consultants recognize and respect. They know when to back off. If you’re tempted to venture into unfamiliar project territory, check your justification for doing it. Are you being confident or arrogant?
7. Be Transparent before the Client Asks
The best consultants know that what may seem trivial to them can be a deal-breaker to a client. For instance, you may have partnerships, affiliate agreements, and other financial arrangements that are a small part of your business. But in your client’s view, these relationships could be a big problem.
Maybe you get a finder’s fee for introducing others to your client. Or maybe you receive a commission if you recommend a specific product or system.
Be direct with your clients about anything that may influence your opinions. And do it early in the client relationship. You’ll find that it’s far simpler to prevent misunderstandings by making early disclosures.
8. Reject the “Under-Promise and Over-Deliver” Strategy
You’ll hear consultants suggest a strategy of deliberately under-promising what they’ll deliver to a client so they can exceed the understated expectations when a project wraps up.
Successful consultants don’t stoop to this tactic, which is manipulative, cynical, and consultant-focused. If you find ways to bring extra value to clients along the way, fine. But deliberately understating what you’ll deliver is worse than foolish.
Be honest with your clients about what you can and will deliver. Collaborate on an expected result and deliver it. If the agreed-on value of the project is high, you’ll create a delighted client–and a long-term relationship–by meeting that expectation.
9. Start Strong to Finish Ahead
Lots of people will tell you that what’s important is how you finish, not how you start. Of course, the end result of a project matters, but the most successful consultants know that it’s a lot less painful to finish a project if you do a good job launching it.
Once you sell a project, everyone is antsy to get going. But before you do, be certain that you and your client are clear about objectives, scope, work plan, and fee arrangements. Then, clarify how you’ll work together, who will have responsibility for specific tasks, and how you will define “done.”
And don’t forget to agree on how you’ll disengage and how you’ll know if and when you have met the client’s expectations.
10. Be Collegial (to Everyone)
Most consultants are good at managing their relationships with client decision makers and influencers. But some fail miserably when they work with support staff and even with colleagues. We’ve all got a story or two about insensitive consultants running roughshod over anyone they considered to be beneath them.
The best consultants realize that ours is a high-touch, human relations business. Every person, regardless of level or status, deserves to be treated with respect. Remember, consultants succeed only if people willingly follow their lead.
Add to the List
What other behaviors have you observed in highly successful consultants?