The idea of consulting is typically associated with an individual with certain specialized skills that makes him an expert in an area. While the term “consultant” is generally associated with high profile areas of specialization, other kind of areas fit rather well into the definition of a consultant.
A close friend was recently sharing his experience where he needed to call in a plumber to a fix a leak behind a wall, however; he also went about researching the internet about how to solve the problem. Not to mention he used certain keywords while searching like “cheap ways”, “quick ways” and some more. He also searched for specific information about how plumbers have a tendency to exaggerate the problem towards generating a high margin. As it was time for the plumber to arrive, he was ready with how the problem should be fixed, what tools would be needed, how he would ensure that the fix was successful and steps he would take to shield himself from getting ripped.
The plumber who seemed like a master in his trade had other thoughts. He was quick to diagnose the problem and suggest the fix which obviously was different from what my friend was expecting. During this period, the plumber was patiently listening to all the research that was done. There was some back and forth and the plumber left without fixing the problem.
Human mind is constantly engaged in the activity of forming opinions about people, society, profession etc. We try to appear smart, knowledgeable and experienced in the most unknown territories. This isn’t necessarily because every human knows everything but because we feel uncomfortable with how the person in front of us will perceive us if we said “I don’t know”. At the same time, this behavior does change in situations when the outcome has a higher degree of risk involved. For example, talking to a doctor about a possible fix to an ailment, we tend to trust the doctor to make the right decision with the end objective of a successful and full recovery. We do not even want to confront the doctor if what our research suggests is otherwise.
While organizations like to have control over what and how consultants solve problems, consultants needs to exhibit certain characteristics and ethics to justify the value for the price paid. Below are some characteristics that identify great consultants from the rest:
- Listen – A consultant’s first strategy to build confidence is by listening and paying close attention. The 5 stages of listening (receiving, understanding, evaluating, remembering, and responding) supported by active listening (a technique that required the listener to provide feedback of what he or she hears to the speaker) help in empathizing with the situation and subsequently providing solutions or asking relevant questions.
- Comfortable saying “No” – The fact that consultants are experts in their field gives them a upper hand in making recommendations that are based on skills, knowledge and experience. This also implies that addressing the problem in hand using the right means takes precedence over other measurements including doing things a certain way to keep the client happy. As an expert, a consultant should feel comfortable to disagree with the customer and provide evidence to support it.
- Align strategic goals and measurements of success – Engagement of a consultant suggests that a certain expertise is needed in order to address a problem which the organization is unable to address by itself. In such a scenario, it becomes vital to understand the strategic goal behind engaging a consultant and the measurements of success both long term and short term. Often these discussions never take place and consultants are asked to follow orders and paint a picture that is expected.
- Challenge and persist – Great consultants don’t give up. They accept frictions, unforeseen circumstances and negative feedback, they learn from them and they move on. They will analyze and learn from every setback in order to prevent it from happening again.
- Do not get ahead of yourself – Being a consultant in a specific area does not mean that one works on the same set of problems. For example; the symptoms for the doctor to diagnose a problem can vary from patient to patient. A doctor cannot afford to assume that the second patient has the same problem as the first one given that the symptoms are same. Think and assess before giving a reference to how you faced similar challenges in the past and how they were addressed. Assessment of the problem along with creative thinking should happen before influencing the solution approach.
- Expose problems and facilitate solutions – Consulting done by providing immediate solutions to problems is done with an intention of creating dependency. A great consultant refrains from providing solutions and instead helps in exposing problems so the organization can solve the problem itself. It is impractical for a consultant to get into a problem solving mode having been with the organization for a short period of time. Instead, a great consultant will use enquiry and facilitate conversations to expose problems so organizations can find the best possible solution(s).
- Have a exit strategy – A consultant needs to have a well defined exit strategy which should be looked at all along the duration of the engagement. Exit can be a result of a successful solution of a problem or completion of the engagement or a realization where the consultant cannot fathom the value to be added. Either way, exit at the right time goes a long way in building trust with the customer and ensuring a long term relationship. As it a said, the greatest measurement is success if by how soon a consultant can work him/herself out of a job leaving behind a organization that is self sufficient.
- Maintain transparency – Consultants need to feel comfortable sharing both the good and bad news. Consultants are bought in for a reason that things are not working in the first place. Given the high rates consultants get paid, some consultants refrain from or delay sharing bad news with the client assuming they will address the problem without bringing it to the notice of the customer. The fact is that most issues exposed sooner than later. Consultants should establish transparency as the key criteria of their relationship with the customer right at the start of the engagement. If this is done, a bad news will not come as a surprise for the customer and will only help in building trust and ensure ongoing collaboration in addressing issues and risks.
- Accept you don’t know it all – Not knowing everything is normal, however; accepting that I do not know everything is difficult. No matter how experienced or qualified a consultant is, s/he will run into situations where the consultant might not have a opinion or an answer. This isn’t necessarily bad news. Acknowledging that I do not know something and then making an effort to research the solution elevates the relationship and provides opportunity to learn something new.
Consulting in the area of business, technology and other recent areas of innovation has forced other business like staffing to get into the consulting fold. Individuals and so called consulting organizations have started using the term rather loosely. While this has resulted in smoke around who consultants are what they do, it is important that consultants practice the above characteristics to bring some credibility back to the professional of consulting and help organization realize the benefits of value consultants offer.
If you are a consultant who exhibits a characteristic not captured here, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. Happy Consulting..