How to Succeed in Consulting: It's All About the Client Love

A version of this post originally appeared on the CMSWire blog.

Consultants get a bad rap; mostly for good reasons. That can change.

It's always said that consultants are out for their own gain. Or that they're focused on billable hours rather than client value. Or willing to take on any project for a dollar (no matter how impossible to deliver). Or beholden to their own success rather than to their client’s.

Having been a consultant for more than 10 years, I agree with this perception. I’ve run across precious few fellow consultants (and even fewer firms) able to move beyond this short list of vices to do more and deliver real value for their clients.

Yet there’s another way to be a consultant and to run a consulting firm—one that not only serves clients, but can be profitable and more sustainable, because your clients will become clients for life.

To be a great consultant, you have to love your client.

Becoming a valuable consultant isn't overly complicated, but it requires a commitment to one of the highest principles there is: Love your client. Doing so isn’t a front to cover how you really feel about your clients, or an attitude meant to get business, but it should reflect a real affection for them, their goals, and their successes. It can’t be faked, because, as anyone who's ever been on the buying end of consulting can tell you, you can smell insincerity a mile away.

Sounds simple, right? But getting there, especially if you’ve been accustomed to consulting as usual, can be a challenge. So how do you begin?

First off, prioritize value over money.

The first step is forget about the money. Your firm can’t be successful if you don’t deliver value to your client. Moreover, client value and being profitable have nothing intrinsically in common. You can make money and deliver no value. Conversely, you can deliver client value but be unprofitable. So how do you align the two?

There are other, newer reasons to focus on client value. The shift toward SaaS technology is starting to have an impact on modern consultancies like system integrators (SIs) and managed services providers (MSPs). Indeed, the entire modern SI business model may very well disappear. (See “Will Office 365 Destroy Consulting?” by my colleague, Lane Severson.)

Secondly, develop concern for the welfare of the people on your client's team.

The second step is to develop a true concern for the welfare of the people on your client teami.e. their professional goals and aspirations and the strengths and weaknesses that will impact how (and whether) they reach those goals and aspirations. With this, not only can you position the outcome of your engagement to positively impact your client firm, but also the individuals who, ultimately, are responsible for your success at that firm.

And if these people wind up leaving for other opportunities at other organizations, know that they’ll remember your concerns and will bring you in, if possible, to do work for their new employer.

Third, forget about selling; instead, focus on solving.

The last step is to forget about selling and focus on solving. Ask anyone who’s had to hire consultants regularly: a strong whiteboarding session that defines challenges and sketches some possible solutions is worth far more than the crispest, most professional sales presentation or marketing deck. The ability to listen, frame a problem and spitball solutions is always going to be the most valuable thing you can do for a prospect or client—a sales or marketing pitch almost never is.

(For a full discussion of why a clear, well thought-out articulation of your audience’s particular problem will always win the day over demos or sexy screenshots of all the wonderful things your product does, see my blog post, “Presentation Tips That Skip the Software Dog and Pony Show.”)

To change attitudes about consulting, your firm also must change its priorities.

So far, so good—but doing these things as an individual employee of your firm can go only so far. If you want to serve clients and deliver value on a consistent basis, eventually you’ll need to reorient your firm to the following priorities—and do so at the enterprise level:

  • Client service
  • Employees and their families
  • The bottom line

Without this order of priorities as a part of the way business is done, it’s difficult for a consulting firm to truly serve clients. In fact, most firms have the complete opposite order of values: Bottom line trumps all, no matter the consequences to clients—let alone the firm’s employees, who have little chance for a satisfying work/life balance.

Employees who have a poor work/life balance are too busy bemoaning their fate, or pumping dollars out of their clients, or both. They should, instead, drive value for their clients or sustainability for their firm. And these people certainly aren’t focused on loving their clients or figuring out how to make their clients’ employees successful.

Change is possible (and—surprise!—it’s rewarding)

Faced with the realities of working conditions at most consulting firms, I know these may seem like lofty-sounding goals, but they are attainable—both personally and on the enterprise level. I’ve had my fair share of difficult projects, as well as those that have gone south and failed to deliver the value we promised.

But more often than not, I get to go to work every day and serve clients, deliver value and leave things better than I found them. And having been in situations where I did so far less frequently, let me tell you: It’s worth the effort. 

Rich Medina
Joe Shepley
I’m VP and Practice Lead, focusing on developing Doculabs’ InfoSec practice and its applications in a wide range of industries.