The Consulting Process You Follow Is Both Your Own Insurance And That Of Your Clients. It Shows Both Of You That You Have A Clear Way To Achieve Results
With consulting projects it is often hard to “guarantee results” because there could be many factors affecting results, including the clients’ own cooperation.
But while it’s hard to “guarantee results” it’s easy to “guarantee a top class process” that can do the maximum towards getting results for client projects.
That’s why clients set so much store by how a consultant will use steps of progress towards delivering on a project. When the consultant is both professional and clear on his process methodology, the client gets reassured that the consultant has given success a very good chance.
At Solohacks Academy, we believe that the process methodology a consultant will pursue must be used as a very powerful selling tool. It can make a client feel he is in good hands. He gets satisfied that there will be a method to the project execution and there are clear deliverables and accountabilities spelt out. If the plan is followed, the results should follow.
1. The ENTRY stage is when the potential client first approaches you with a problem
Before we begin, let’s understand what exactly an engagement with a consulting project usually entails. The client approaches you with a problem. Your principal job is to collect and analyze all available relevant material. You then give the client your insights and recommendations for solutions, and get approval to beta-test a chosen solution. The test run is measured and succeeds to provide proof-of-principle. You can then give the client a long-term implementation plan using your tested solution as its basis.
You may get involved in the long-term implementation if you have the resources, but usually, you allow the client to pick an implementation partner who can carry out your recommendations. Your important contribution is to provide the solution idea, with demonstrated proof that it can work.
Given that this is the usual process in project engagements for any consultant, there are ten steps to follow to go through all this for your client on his problem area. It all begins with the ENTRY phase when the client comes to you with a problem. There are some key pointers here on how to handle this stage:
- Don’t assume the client is a novice. He has had the intelligence to spot his problem and come to you with it. Respect the fact that he is showing his willingness to solve this problem.
- Don’t try to stereotype the client’s problem into a type of problem you already know. Let him tell you the contours of his specific problem, Every problem is different even if it sounds similar to what you have seen before. Listen fully.
- Tell the client you will need all the materials he can offer you to study the problem more deeply, at a granular level. The materials will help you know if the client’s stated problem is the real problem – or just a symptom of an underlying deeper problem.
- Tell him that in addition to his materials, you may need to do your own research into his competitors, or do interviews with him or his teams or customers, to get more depth of understanding – and he will need to facilitate this process.
- Set up a schedule for receipt of client materials, some time for you to do your own research, and some time for brainstorming and analysis of the problem from your side. Give the client a date for the next meeting.
- Also use this opportunity to tell the client about your entire consulting process and all the steps it will entail. Make him realize how you work and why that will benefit him. Give him a rough indication of the time it will all take, without firming up anything till you’ve seen all the material.
- Most importantly, tell him you are partners in this project, and the schedules and results will be affected by how much, and how promptly, he responds to your needs for more information, approvals, etc.
2. The CONTRACTING stage is when you decide to structure out the engagement
During the ENTRY phase you have used the chance to tell your client about your entire consulting process and all the steps it includes. In the second CONTRACTING phase you will need to put all this into a contract. Only after the client signs and approves the contract should you start spending time going through his materials, doing your own research, or thinking through the potential solutions.
The contract often is a legal requirement as well as a financial one. It is also a schedule of intended progress. So the sections in the contract must be explicit on all these points:
- INTRODUCTION TO THE CONSULTING PROJECT: What is the work involved? What is the issue the client wants solved? What are the opportunities, pros, and cons of solving the problem?
- GOALS AND OBJECTIVES OF THE CONSULTING PROJECT: What are the project goals and objectives? What are the expected outcomes? What is the margin allowed for results variance?
- ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES DURING THE CONSULTING PROJECT: How will you and the client approach the problem together? What are the roles and responsibilities of each of the parties?
- INFORMATION REQUIREMENTS FOR THE CONSULTING PROJECT: What information will be needed for the project? What are the formats in which this information will be needed? What information gaps exist, and how will they be filled with research by the consultant or facilitation of interviews by the client? By when should all information be in one place, so that analysis of it can begin?
- THE TEN STEP CONSULTING PROJECT FORMAT AND HOW IT WILL PROGRESS: What steps of the project will progress, one after another? For each step, what are the indicators for the start and end of the step? What deliverables can be expected at each step? What time allocation will be needed for each step?
- WORKING STYLE AND COMMUNICATION ARRANGEMENTS: How will the consultant and the client keep in touch? How often? How will communication glitches be reduced? In what formats will meetings and presentations take place? What are the redressal mechanisms to be built in to mitigate or iron out communication issues?
- COSTS OF THE PROJECT: For each step what will be the costs payable to the consultant and to other third parties (if their tools or resources are needed)? How and when should these payments be made? What is the maximum leeway given for payment delays? How will cost escalations be calculated if costs are not paid for in time by the client?
- LEGAL CLARITY ON THe CONTRACT ISSUES: In the event of termination, what process needs to be followed by either of the two parties? In the event of disputes and arbitration, what process needs to be followed by either of the two parties? (Here it would be wise to get a thorough vetting of the proposal by your legal eagles).
- THE IMMEDIATE NEXT STEPS TO BE TAKEN: If this contract is approved, signed, and sealed (with due payments upfront), what will be the immediate next steps i.e. what will be the granular schedule for collection of all pertinent materials?
3. The INQUIRY stage is when the consultant gathers the materials needed to begin
If the client has approved and signed on your contract (and paid-up any upfront fees to signal the start of the consulting project), you can proceed to the INQUIRY stage. Here the objective is to gather as much material as possible that could be of value to finding the problem’s solution.
There are usually three banks of materials you will need to collect and peruse:
- You will need to collect all paperwork and electronic data, accounts, performance metrics, and other recorded communications available with the client. Make sure the client applies mind to the material despatched to you and doesn’t just “offload everything” on you. You need to insist that the client must vet the information sent to you for pertinence to the problem at hand. It must be the latest recorded data (supported by historical data if that makes better sense). And it should not include confidential data unless the client has approved it to be sent to you. You cannot be held liable if data that should not be given to you is indeed given to you without application of thought. You must also set a deadline for data collection and despatch to you.
- You will need to do intelligent external research on your own. Study the client’s market, target audiences, competitors, and technologies. See their latest and past behaviors, and performance parameters, to the extent they are applicable to the problem. Look at the overall market trends. Read up as much as you can on how the industry, in which the client exists, will impact the client’s own problem going forward. Get the macro picture of the client’s context in the market.
- You may need to interact closely with many of the client-side staff or customers, hold individual interviews of depth, and hold some group sessions as well. The objective would be to uncover the gaps between mandated and actual practices followed. Don’t actively look for flaws in the client’s system, because any such biases will not help. Instead, record factual information. Deal with the “why” of the way things are done later. First get to know how the client’s system works, who are its key stakeholders, and how do they inter-relate and cohere within the internal processes. See if they are working towards the same goals, and how they vary in their beliefs of how the problem at hand can be solved.
4. The ANALYSIS stage is when the consultant interprets the gathered material
This fourth stage is when all your expertise and experience as a consultant will be called upon. You have to read all the minutiae of the data sent to you or collected by you – and then analyze it, and mine for insights that could help solve the client’s problem. Most often, the mistake consultants make here is to try and hasten their internal processes to arrive at answers too early. The mind, though, needs time to digest what has been fed into it, and after some time of subliminal thinking, answers and innovative solutions may emerge.
At this stage of ANALYSIS, what can help you do a most satisfying and valuable job? Here are three pointers:
- Treat every client’s problem as unique. Don’t look at other people’s similar problems and retro-fit the client’s problem to those to see if the same time-tested answers will fit. When you first look at the data in front of you, see it all with impartiality. Don’t see patterns where there are none, just because you like to see the order in the midst of chaos. Don’t force any strait-jacket thinking style on your mind. Just absorb information as it is, without trying to tweak or decode it in any particular way.
- After you have thoroughly looked at the contours of the data before you, it’s time to question “why” at every stage of the process the client normally follows. Use the “5 Why Technique”. This technique was perfected by Japanese automotive giants to delve deeply into issues, to gain a better grip on the layers beneath the surface of the problem. In the “5 Why Technique”, you begin by asking, “Why is this happening?” or “Why is it done this way?” Then you get an answer, and ask “why” again for that answer. You go on to ask “why” five times to the successive reasons you get. Usually by the time you get to the fifth “why” you may understand the deeper issues underlying the external symptoms.
- Don’t become judgmental about the client or his people just because you slowly begin to understand the culture and psyche of the client organization. Every business has problems and that’s why they need external brains like yours to help them sort out their problems. They are too close to the situation, and too absorbed in daily activities, that it becomes tough for them to stand apart and analyze what they are doing and why, and how results can be improved. You are in place to give them a chance to see their situation from a macro viewpoint, without judging whether their methods are good or bad. You are here to help them correct what is going askew and to enhance or strengthen what is working well. Give clients and their staff a feeling that you are here to make them better than they are and not to pick holes or lay blame at the door of anyone in the team. When you are analyzing their problems, it is critical to gain trust, or your solutions will always be treated as “from the outsider who knows nothing about our business”.
5. The FEEDBACK stage is when the consultant shares his findings and insights
The moment you schedule your FEEDBACK session with the client, most clients have a mixture of both fear and anticipation. If they have battled long and hard with their problem, they look forward to hearing your optimism that a solution is possible. At the same time, they are beset with latent worry, perhaps, in case their problems make them look silly or incompetent, or your solutions are way too expensive and outlandish and outside their comfort zones or culture to implement. How you reassure clients that you are one of them and want to give them your feedback and insights that are do-able, is where your art of communication lies.
There are a few steps here you can take to make everyone readier to accept your feedback and insights:
- Try to get not only the CEO of the client company but also his key stakeholders into a joint meeting when you can present your feedback in a professional way using slide decks. This can be a virtual meeting too.
- First, go over all the gathered data and get everyone’s assent that the data was right, to begin with – and ask them if they like the way you have sorted the data in a way that it can be analyzed more easily. Take them through your analysis process.
- Then proceed to show them how you have interpreted the data and tried to separate the immediate issues of the problem from the long-term issues of the problem. Every problem needs both – some immediate Band-Aid to stop further bleeding, and some cure that is more permanent for the problem. So the best way to present your findings is to show the factors that address immediate issues and then show the factors that affect long-term implications or corrections.
- Always make your analysis and finding reflect your assessment of the facts and data, and not the people behind it. Don’t say, “The Finance Department is the area where the crux of the problem lies”. This type of feedback gets hackles up. Instead, you could say, “When the data arrives at the Finance Department’s door all mixed up, it creates an extra burden on them”. This way to explain your findings always wins people over to agree with you, since you are showing empathy and compassion.
6. The CHOICE stage is when the client and consultant assess options, make choices
In the same meeting when you are presenting your feedback and insights you will have set up expectations of your solutions. This is the CHOICE stage when you have to show that there can be alternative ways to solve the client’s problem, and every way has its pros and cons, its costs and benefits. The idea here is not to come across as the know-all with the single perfect solution. The idea instead is to give the client’s team a bouquet of possible solutions so that they can participate in the choice of a solution they feel more capable and confident of implementing.
At this stage follow a few caveats on how to present the solution alternatives you have:
- Show people the solutions you may have, but also invite the clients team to come up with some solution alternatives of their own. They may not have seen the data as you have, and some solutions may occur to them also, after hearing your presentation of the findings. Co-opting them into the solution-listing process is a great idea.
- For every solution, mention what will help it work better or what will reduce its impact. Explain what the likely costs may be as against the likely benefits. And finally, explain what organizational changes would be called for in the implementation. Let people know the time, effort, cost, and benefits involved in each solution – so they are in a position to better evaluate the solution against the other solutions that are possible.
- Make it clear that since the problem must be solved as soon as possible, people have to quickly decide on a choice among the solutions to start working on. Hence the meeting isn’t an open-ended one when everything is considered but the choice of solution is left to another day. No solution is ever 100% perfect and never will be. Make people accept this truth. People must be ready to decide on an 80% solution that can then be tweaked to work as best as it can. Set these realistic expectations, so that people don’t think they have to decide on a 100% solution that will work itself out. It’s when they feel they have to make a 100% perfect decision that they tend to walk out of the meeting, postponing the decision for a later day.
7. The DECIDING stage is when client and consultant agree on the final route
The meeting for offering your feedback and insights and presenting a set of alternative solutions should ideally end with a DECISION. This is the stage we’re talking about now. The question may arise: Why is DECISION a slightly different kind of stage from the previous CHOICE stage? The answer is this. Alternatives for a solution involve divergent thinking – to bring up a plethora of possibilities. On the other hand, making a decision involves a convergent form of thinking, when many options are forsaken and one final solution is chosen as the best one to try out.
As always there are a few important considerations to keep in mind when you move people away from divergent thinking into convergent decision-making:
- If you are working with a group to arrive at a decision, it won’t always be that everyone nods in the same direction. You will never get an unequivocal “yes” for one unanimous choice, but it may be that the chief “decision-maker” – often the client company CEO – makes his decision after hearing the opinions of all stakeholders. Everybody airs their views, the boss takes it all in, and then based on his best instincts, he goes for one decision which the others agree to follow. This is why “decision-makers” are leaders. They are the ones who will enable you to get further with the consulting project. They have the authority to represent the collective wisdom of their team, distilled through a final decision they take.
- For any decision to work, the people who have to take the actions after the decision need to feel ready to act. It’s therefore important to involve the people who will be affected by that decision. Make sure people understand what their roles and responsibilities will be, and how their contribution to the implementation of the decision will be vital to the overall success. Make them feel like their commitment and intention to make the result successful is more crucial than the success itself, because the result depends on intention.
- Once a decision is made, be sure to go over once again its strengths and weaknesses, its pros and cons, its costs and benefits – and of course, it’s next steps. Make sure everyone is now mentally divested of other approaches and focuses 100% on the chosen decision for further implementation. It’s important to close out other decisions and let people know that they cannot go forward with multiple choices lingering in their heads. A final decision has been made, it can never be a 100% solution, but everyone has to do their best to make it happen as close to 100% as possible.
8. The ACTION stage is when the chosen route is put through a thorough test run
Now that decision has been taken, it’s time for ACTION the steps involved in the decision. Actions here are for a beta-test to enable proof-of-principle to be established. This is where the client and his team have to step in – because the consultant is in no position to act on behalf of the client. In many cases, clients are able to act, for they know how to action things within their business. The think-through is what they may have not had skills for and leaned on you. Occasionally, though, there could also be deep resistance to new actions in client businesses where too many people prefer the old way of doing things.
The role of the consultant should help energize and facilitate clients and their teams to perform the necessary beta-test actions, and to help iron out glitches that are bound to happen along the way. Here are three things to focus on:
- Encourage immediate action, so that the client is able to build on the momentum established in the DECISION stage. If the consultant relaxes, the client too will … so you have to take your role as the momentum-charger seriously. Otherwise, all the good work you have done at the INQUIRY, ANALYSIS, and DECISION stages will go to waste.
- The role of the consultant should never be to “do it for the client”. Many a consultant tends to jump in to give a helping hand, letting the client teams slacken. ACTION is not the consultant’s job to do. Any actioning is the client’s job. Find ways to coach your clients through their new actions rather than doing the job for them. If they are slow at learning the actions, don’t jump in “to save time” or because “more hands to the deck can help”. The clients should be expending far more energy than you. Your role is to counsel.
- In the set-up and performance of actions, several hurdles or setbacks will occur, for sure. Your job as a consultant is to tell people these setbacks are only to be expected, and no setbacks are unmanageable. Teach the client and his team to anticipate setbacks and innovate with solutions. This may be the most important lesson you can ever give any client.
9. The MEASUREMENT stage is when the route tested is analyzed on performance
After the beta-test actions have been taken, it’s time for MEASUREMENT, when you track the beta-test performance. It’s time to check if the solution to the client’s original problem has been met. Go over the basic measurement metrics you will need to see if the beta-test has solved the client’s original problem and has the figures to show for it. If yes, pat everyone on the back and say, “We’ve done a good job and seem to have found a viable solution”. If the results aren’t up to par, the “blame game” may begin which you must forestall at all costs.
Here are three things you can do, as a consultant, to get the most of the MEASUREMENT stage:
- Aside from measuring the overall results of the project, go through every action phase, one by one, to see performance at every intermediate stage of the actioned project. Look for difficulties encountered, and areas where performance could have been improved, with small tweaks of the action process. The end results are always caused by the cumulative successes at the different stages of the actioned project. So, identify strengths areas, and weak or difficult areas. Don’t just look for problems. Look for solutions for the weak or tough areas of action that are affecting the overall results.
- Make the client feel that the more weak action areas you are able to spot you are actually making the beta-test a success. It’s better to spot weak areas of action-implementation in small beta-tests than later when the action is rolled out at scale. So flaw-discovery and correction is a very important part of the consulting project. In fact, a near-flawless beta-test should raise some worries about, “Have we missed anything in our measurements?”
- Let the client team members never feel “responsible” or “judged” for poor actions. Always make it appear that despite their best efforts, actions have failed in certain areas – perhaps because the action plans failed them. Put the focus back on the action steps rather than the people entrusted to perform those actions. In fact, it’s a brilliant idea to co-opt the people in charge of the weak areas to say what they think would improve the action results. They have been at the spot where the hurdles were at their worst and have the first-hand experience of the bottlenecks. They probably also know best what else would work. Count on their feedback as most important to the project.
10. The ENDING stage is when there is now proof-of-principle to action safely at scale
Once everybody – the consultant, the client, and the client’s team – has a fix on the performance of the beta-test and the corrective tweaks needed to make the solution a better one, it all needs to be brought down onto paper. The nature of the test conducted, the metrics of measurement used to test performance of the solution, and the overall results gained must be documented. Likewise, you also have to document expected and unexpected hurdles encountered, and the solutions proposed for those. Most importantly, the document must elaborate on how the beta-test can now be adopted at scale in the client’s business to create a complete solution that ends the client’s problem. This document of results then needs to be circulated among all stakeholders to get their agreement on the final assessments of the solution.
Normally the official part of a consultant’s role ends here. But most consultants also go on to assist with the next steps of the process for clients, if their assignment contracts mandate they should do so. Here are three areas where consultants normally undertake to continue with for the client in the scaling of the solution:
- The consultant could help with the selection of the right vendors to carry out the full-scale adaptation of the solution across the client organization. Usually, the consultant helps the client by drawing up the vendor-selection criteria, going through the vendor interviews with the client, and offering his final review of the different vendors. Alternatively, if the client already has a chosen vendor, the consultant may offer to fully debrief the vendor on the larger project’s expectations, after going through all the results of the beta-tests with the vendor.
- The consultant could also continue to be part of the periodic review meetings when the client assesses the progress of the full project that the vendor is completing. The consultant’s additional inputs could help the client judge performance up to that review stage more accurately and unbiasedly.
- In the event that the vendor faces bottlenecks to the implementation of his larger project, the consultant could help the client’s team brainstorm on possible innovative workarounds. It is likely that the consultant, with his larger canvas of experience in similar situations with other clients, has some clever and cost-efficient ideas to contribute.
So What Are Your Thoughts? Do Share!
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