The very term “consultant” can elicit a guttural reaction in a lot of people, not unlike the words “lawyer” or “IRS auditor”. That is because if you have been in business long enough, you have undoubtedly interacted with a consultant or two. Maybe it was one leadership brought in and were told to work with. Maybe it was one you brought in to help evaluate a situation, chart a new course, or simply CYA. But just like lawyers and doctors and every other profession out there — there are good consultants, and there are bad ones.
The role of a consultant can be vital to a business’s success. They are there to collect and analyze data in a way that an outsider with relevant industry experience should be able to understand by providing insightful opinions, recommendations, and analysis that can lead to actionable steps, further leading to improvements or growth. Consultants may be asked to help with the business as a whole, or overarching strategy, and director, or more focused on individual roles, processes or deliverables. Essentially, they can serve as a troubleshooter to help improve the performance of almost any area within a company. More than often, consultants work closely with clients who are in the process of solving for an existing issue, making strategic, process and/or organizational changes, or evaluating and creating new initiatives and potential lines of business. They are there to listen, to collect information, to analyze, and then to present their findings to management, who will decide what to execute on and how. It oftentimes can be a stressful time in an organization when consultants come striding in. Here are some helpful hints to avoid bringing unnecessary stress into the situation, and some common mistakes and roadblocks that consultants make along the way.
Not Agreeing on Clear Scope
Right out of the gate it is critically important to make sure the consultant and client are on the same page with what they are trying to solve for. Often, the client thinks they know what they want, only to find out later on it was a different issue or a series of interdependent issues that needed solving for. It is incumbent upon the consultant to “listen, and trust, but verify and question.” Consultants eager to please the client can be hesitant to really ask “Is this the real problem we are solving for?” On the flip side, consultants pushing to make the engagement bigger, broader and more costly than management intended can be seen as trying to up their billable hours rather than a true partner in the exercise. Get agreement on what the scope of the engagement truly is, ideally that is all in the discovery phase and not billed. Then break that down into specific, tangible deliverables and timelines. That initial alignment is crucial to the success of the project and repeat business down the road.
Not Setting the Right Tone
It is quite common in the consulting industry, much like in law firms, that the partners and senior members bring in the business and the junior folks actually do the project work. There are some inherent flaws with that model. Sure, you would expect senior members to have the network and reputation to bring in new business and be able to sell clients on the expertise of the firm and ability to execute in a timely and cost efficient manner. But then the senior member disappears as a junior level consultant, or “newbie”, may be very excited to get to work with their first few clients and do a little more work than they should. This can backfire as time passes. Doing extra work and responding to emails very quickly will set the tone for the rest of the client’s contract. They will expect you to keep this same energy going and it could be seen as being taken advantage of. As you begin to work with more clients it’ll be hard to give all of your time to just one. To save yourself from this, create professional guidelines to set the tone of your services. Layout your scheduled hours and response times for all clients so there is no miscommunication.
Not Holding Clients Accountable
Whether it’s handing in paperwork past deadlines or working with invoices that are past due, many consultants don’t hold clients accountable for their actions. Consider creating consequences for clients who don’t follow your rules and deadlines. It’s common to fall behind every once in a while, but when it becomes a pattern, there must be consequences. If a client falls through with a business call that you prepared a presentation for, charge them for a percentage or even the full amount of what you were supposed to receive. Having these guidelines clear before working with a client will help you get the most time and work.
Holding Back on Contracts
It can be hard for consultants to start a new project that they are not confident in. Not offering contracts could cost you a lot in the long run. Understanding the importance of contracts and how they will benefit you and a client is the key. Instead of missing out on opportunities, sit back, and lay out a timeline for yourself. You’ll work at a better speed with all work and payments organized for you. Building up your contracts with clients takes time and dedication.
Pitfalls can occur in any career path, but knowing which ones are common can help you to avoid making the usual mistakes. Consultants should heed this advice to ensure they are on the right path for their career.
Erik Halvorsen is the Chief Business & Strategy Officer at FAR Biotech. As a result of his industry experience, Erik is an often sought-after public speaker, and he has served as an advisor to various hospitals and start-ups. He is constantly looking for new ways to improve patients’ lives while changing the broader healthcare industry for the better. He has been referred to as a “translator,” in that he has the ability to speak science with businesspeople and speak business with science people.