What major skills are employed by top-shelf consultants who not only seem to survive but actually thrive in today’s demanding work environment? Of paramount importance is the consultant’s desire and dedication to understand the client, their business, the problem at the deepest level, and a sincere work ethic dedicated to providing the best possible solution in a timely matter.
Every successful project consists of two basic building blocks: managing the project and managing client interaction. Successful project managers are skilled at managing both dimensions while using consulting skills that serve as the mortar to join the two together. But not all skills are created equal nor are they equal in terms of the value they bring to the client or the project. Proven consulting concepts, techniques, and tools to help us gain an understanding of the variety of skills employed by successful project management consultants, determine what’s really important to the client, and manage those expectations from beginning to end.
Introduction --- What Consulting Skills Are We Talking About?
Project management is moving into a new realm. Clients are demanding that project managers meet their strategic and business objectives in less time. This demand places greater emphasis on the project manager to employ skills more commonly used by business consultants. But what skills do consultants have that other business-savvy project managers don’t have? I have talked with many managers in corporate America, and I have asked them why they seek out consultants to do work that could also be performed by one of their employees. Most managers state that they need someone to dig deeper into the problem. According to Naomi Karten, many business managers have made it clear that it also desirable for their employees to start “…managing expectations, following up with clients, anticipating future needs, and staying in closer contact with their clients. In short, they want their employees to move from the role of order-taker to that of skilled service provider.” (Karten, 2006, ¶5).
In most cases, consultants are new to the environments in which they work. They must strive to get up and running as quickly as possible on each new project as well as provide value every step along the way.
How to Manage Your Client’s Expectations
What Does a Client Expect?
In order to provide value, consultants need to know what their clients expect. In an online journal hosted by Webizus (2002), they suggest that clients have these basic expectations:
Convenience and comfort
Most importantly, clients expect to conduct business with a consultant who will be convenient and easy to work with. This means the consultant must be considered low maintenance, can hit the ground running once they arrive, and require minimal supervision and hand holding.
An understanding of their business and to adapt to their business cycle
Clients expect that consultants should understand their business and business cycles. Consultants who make an effort in getting to know business processes of the client are of great value. They do this by conducting market research online or at their local library before they interview or start the engagement. They may also engage in informational interviews as soon as possible with a myriad of stakeholders once they start working on the project.
Continual and broad communication
First and foremost, consultants communicate well with their clients. This means that the client should always be informed as to what is happening with each project. Keeping in constant contact with the client makes the consultant look credible and trustworthy - and a regular feedback loop such as weekly meetings and written status reports also help to avoid any unpleasant surprises later on in the project.
Successful consultants also communicate with everyone. I have always stated that great project management consultants fulfill the role of Chief Communicator. As such, it is important for them to interview and actively communicate with all stakeholders involved and determine what type of personalities they are dealing with. From this, it can be determined who has the ability to torpedo the project’s success. Once identified, a plan must be established to minimize the negative affect these players may have on the future well-being of the project.
Today’s businesses run with tremendous speed. How many times have we experienced bosses who say that they want it done yesterday? With speed-to-market pressures constantly before us, it is paramount that a consultant works quickly. Clients demand speed - speed in problem solving, communication, and execution of work.
Every client expects the service to equal their investment in that service. Good does not necessarily mean cheap but clients scrutinize whether or not the money being spent achieves some return on their investment. It is important that you be perceived as providing a level of quality that matches their investment in your services.
Clients expect to be treated with respect. This may be an obvious point. After all, who does not want respect? It is not uncommon to find that certain employees may not share the same level of excitement about meeting their client’s needs. This is a lack of respect. Respect comes in many forms which include: honest and direct communication, digging deeper into the problem, showing up on time, meeting deadlines and milestones, and being one step ahead.
I would like to assert that there is one more critical factor not mentioned in the schema offered in the Webizus article, and it is the role that fear plays in the decision making process.
One of the best understood aspects of human nature is our tendency to fear the unknown. Marketing people have known for decades that fear sells! So too, great consultants know how to assess what their clients fear most and how to develop public and private tactics to address these fears. Everyone involved with the project has some fear about what can go wrong and its impact on their professional career.
Talented consultants will ask probing questions to identify these fears. They may not be able to identify the root cause of these fears, but at least they will be cognizant that these fears exist, and once identified a plan can be developed to mitigate them. One technique often employed is the use of a detailed risk analysis. From this a comprehensive risk management plan can be used to manage these fears when and wherever possible.
Assessing Consulting Skills
Consultants not only have to be one step ahead, but two or three steps ahead, and critical thinking is a crucial element to this process. To state that critical thinking is the only skill great consultants use would be lie, but it is the primary intellectual component upon which all other skills are based. Proactive thinking versus reactive doing will assure success. There are many skills that are necessary to be successful.
Listed are just a few skills sets that are regularly employed by consultants:
- Planning and decision making
- Expectation management and problem solving
- Communication, feedback, and interpersonal relations
- Strategy formulation and implementation
- Performance evaluation and behavior modification
- Conflict resolution, influencing, and negotiating
- Managing expectations and perceptions of performance
Not all skills are created equal. Some skills may be more valuable to the client while other skills have greater value to the project. In interviews with numerous top-level consultants, I have developed a matrix which demonstrates which skills or attributes are believed to have higher impact and greater value-add to those involved with a project. The Consulting Skills Impact Matrix (Exhibit 1) is divided into four specific quadrants which show where value can be achieved and consists of: basic value, client value, project value, and what I have come to describe as the synergistic value quadrant – the extension of the other three.
As you can see, the PMI membership is of basic value to the organization or the individual, but PMP certification is of greater value to the project. It may not be considered as valuable to the client. However, skill sets like formulating a strategy for success and using collaborative decision making processes are of the highest value to the client and to the project – representing a synergistic skill set that is highly coveted by project sponsors. The ability to facilitate learning and provide long-term solutions is also highly desirable and resides at the top of the spectrum. Why? Because if implemented successfully these skills can result in an organization that performs better and is self-sustaining.
Experienced consultants strive to compare their effectiveness in each of the skill sets or attributes in each part of the matrix. It is recommended that they evaluate their strengths and weaknesses against each. The result of such an exercise will result in developing a plan to minimize each weakness and build upon individual strengths.
The most successful project managers I have ever known have always acted like consultants – employing the above skill sets wherever they go. And by doing this, they become invaluable to everyone. I jokingly refer to great consultants as spackle - individuals who always seem to fill in the gaps in any organization they serve. Great consultants have a knack of making this seem natural, but there are some techniques they are actually utilizing in the background.
Managing Client Expectations - Eight Fundamental Consulting Objectives
Great consultants always develop a plan of attack for managing client expectations. A fundamental model for doing this (Exhibit 2) was developed many years ago by Arthur Turner in an article entitled “Consulting is More Than Giving Advice.” He asserted that consulting consists of the following model (1982: p121):
In this model consultant’s strive to provide as much value as possible early on in the process – steps 1 & 2. It is human nature to want to hold off in producing work that may be considered incomplete, but in a consultant’s mind any deliverable is better than none. They know that it is better to produce deliverables that are timely and considered “good enough” rather than waiting for “perfect” deliverables. Finding out what “low-hanging fruit” deliverables exist and delivering these as soon as possible gives the consultant more room to examine the big picture and determine a course of action for the larger, more complex work to come.
In steps 3 & 4, the consultant should be developing a thorough knowledge about the workings of the client company and its services. Also, they should be thoroughly engaging the client during the examination of the problem(s) and devising of the solution(s). Turner states “…when clients participate in the diagnostic process, they are more likely to acknowledge their role in problems…” (p. 123). He continues to assert that because of this, clients are more likely to turn to the consultant for assistance to help them in developing objective alternatives and solutions to their problems.
In steps 5 & 6 the consultant facilitates the implementation of the solution and assures that buy-in is occurring at all levels of the implementation process. Should the consultant step out of this facilitation role, he or she may be seen as less effective because it is feared that objectivity has been lost – which is considered one of their largest value propositions to consulting. It is also advisable for consultants to see problems as opportunities for greater client interaction and a way to build trust. Consultants who are able to solve most of the client’s problems promptly experience a greater amount of client confidence towards them.
Finally, in steps 7 & 8, consultants strive to provide value that is long lasting. This should not to be construed as exceeding the client’s expectations. In fact, it is the consultant’s primary duty to provide creative, lasting solutions. Some would argue that this is a self-defeating strategy for consultants because they may be working themselves out of a job. Rest assured, if they have done their job correctly, there will always be more project work waiting for them.
Strategies for Early Success
Our project management consulting firm has developed some no-fail strategies that each consultant uses with every client. Without giving away all the trade secrets, there are a few strategies that can be easily shared and used on your next project.
Create a Quick Organization Chart and Contact List A.S.A.P.
If you do not know the project’s players, you cannot fully understand the problem! So, we recommend that every consultant create a quick organizational chart. If you are new to your organization or have undergone reorganization it wouldn’t hurt to do this even if you are fairly familiar with the organization. Get to know every key player who can make or break your project. Setting up a small coffee or lunch break with each new project stakeholder is a great way to break the ice and break down barriers. During these informal meetings it is recommended that you do not engage in conversation that is heavily involved in office politics. Consultants are like Switzerland, they stay neutral! These small, informal meetings also break down professional barriers and allow for more honest exchanges of ideas. Remember, keeping confidence is tantamount to success. Learn how to keep a secret!
Also create a contact list in a spreadsheet as soon as humanly possible and hang one on your office wall and put another in your organizer or save the electronic version to your PDA. If you are running late, you can notify someone quickly as to your status and expected time of arrival. This leads us to our next item…
Punctuality is more than just attending meetings on time. In a Webizus article entitled “Managing Client Expectations” they assert “…punctuality is highly valued - especially if it is consistent. Delivering a service on time improves the vendor’s credibility and trust in the eyes of the client. It is also respectful! Strangely enough there has been a study claiming that clients are more happy when the service is delivered on time than before it - probably indicating that a before time delivery might indicate haste and lack of completeness in work to the client.” (Webizus.com).
Create a Mini-Charter to Quickly Communicate What is Known & Unknown
Many project managers get trapped in waiting too long to publish their project charter. The trap lies in waiting for all the information to be gathered and perfected before publishing this document. In some cases this may be too late, and the resulting work (scope statements, assumptions, constraints, etc.) may be already off track or out of date. If so, time and effort may be wasted trying to re-work this document in order to bring it in line with current expectations. One way to offset this problem is to create a mini project charter as soon as possible. Gather what you know in the following areas: background, goal(s), objectives, scope (in/out) and associated deliverables or artifacts, milestones, assumptions, constraints, issues, and critical success factors. Review this information with every stakeholder as many times as required and seek to clarify your understanding, and then revise it often. In this step alone, you should be utilizing almost every skill outlined in the section Assessing Consulting Skills (above)
Determine Steps to Quickly Address Fears
During the process mentioned above, more questions will arise than there are answers. Consultants are only concerned with project questions at this point. They will work with friend and foe to continually develop continuing set of “next steps” until a point in time when a fully-functional project schedule (WBS) can be developed. They will also work at assessing risk as soon as possible and develop a plan of attack early on. The best consultants always assess risk in order to diminish their client’s fear. They will communicate their future plans to the appropriate audiences and work with them to fine tune their approach against expectations and avoid future conflicts or the development of adversarial relationships.
According to Peter Block (1981, p.154), “Although sometimes consultants and clients may act like adversaries, their feelings and concerns are frequently complementary. These are some common client fears that correspond to similar consultant fears, (and) there are three that can bring you down.”
As demonstrated, consultants must be concerned with the project-related political and interpersonal issues that will need to be addressed in order to achieve success, but they must not get trapped by them. They will need to address these issues throughout the life of the project in a direct and diplomatic fashion by keeping their cool and using their emotional intelligence to know what alliances to make (or break) and which battles to fight. The worst thing a consultant can do is get emotionally involved. If things start to get out of hand, they must determine when and where it is appropriate to involve executive management. They will then request that executive managers assert their authority and apply appropriate pressure to address behavioural and organizational problems.
Successful completion of a project should not be a surprise especially when all of these steps are taken and the appropriate skills are applied.
Conclusion --- Who Takes Credit?
In the end, determining the value of consulting services can be difficult. The wish is to attribute all of the direct cost savings or improvement in performance to the consultant. Determining the value of a consultant’s service is important, but most often an exaggeration of the contribution to a solution results in an inflation of its worth. “In many cases, consultants are predisposed by role and personality to self-inflation. Clients want someone to lean on, someone who seems to have answers to unsolvable problems. With all this, the instinct to take credit is even more understandable.” (Block, p. 322). The best consultants are those who give away credit and recognize the contribution of their team and the positive influence of their stakeholders. Sure, it may seem that the consultant applied some magic, but in reality it was all assessed and managed from start.