The Successful Consultant: Six Experienced Consultants Share Their Best Practices
A successful consultant has more than just wicked technical skills. Consultants exist within the client organization, but outside the bounds of client employees. It can be tricky belonging while keeping yourself at the distance needed to finish a project. This balance is necessary to be a great consultant and requires both skills and observation of best practices. In this article, six experienced consultants share their proven methodologies for successfully navigating the waters between employee and consultant.
When a consultant steps into a client site, their attitude can make or break the situation.
- First impressions happen multiple times. Our first impression is with the client manager, but we will continue to make them with a range of personnel during our time with the client. It could be a different department, a different team, or even the C-level executives of the company. Always be aware that first impressions count, and people measure not only you, but your company by that impression.
- Calm capability is contagious. A consultant who exudes an air of calm capability lets the client know they can help and that he or she has the experience to gain skills rapidly. Calm capability lets the client know that the consultant believes in themselves which allows the client to believe too. When the consultant is calm, it spreads.
- Humility is best. Consultants are hired for their skills and experience. Being arrogant about the situation or criticizing decisions of the past are a sure way to have your engagement cut short. No one likes a know-it-all.
- Remember everyone grows in their skills. No one writes perfect code right out of the gate. The code base represents the skills of the person who wrote it at the time it was written. Tearing apart and ridiculing old code may humiliate the programmer, who might be the person sitting next to the consultant.
- Resist pushing for scrapping and starting over. When faced with an existing code base, everyone will agree there are issues within it. However, code that has been battle-tested and functions - even if not optimally - and has more value than an ephemeral concept that is months away from deployment.
On Being the Expert
Consultants are hired as experts. What happens when the expert does not have all the answers?
- Understanding the business. Even as an expert, a consultant is not expected to know it all. Asking lots of questions is crucial to gain a deep understanding into the nuances of the client’s business.
- Ask for technical help. Consultants often come across situations related to their primary project where their technical skills might not be as strong. Or perhaps the client wants to know about the latest and greatest. Either way, asking for help from others in your company and within your client team is a good way to get to a solution quickly.
- Answer with confidence. If you are not confident in the solution you are presenting, be honest with your client and do what it takes to be sure in your answer. Having a “definite solution” you don’t feel confident in is worse than not having an answer at all.
Good communication is the foundation of every client relationship.
- It’s not just the words. A successful consultant will know how to say the things that need to be said. Body language, tone, and word choice can make or break a communication.
- Communication methods can and should vary. Depending on the circumstances, sometimes a phone call is more efficient than a chain of emails. A quick question could be sent over instant messenger, but never a complex situation and an answer that is needed so work can continue should be pursued, and not left to languish in voice mail or email. A successful consultant knows how to choose the right communication method to fit the complexity, urgency, and type of situation.
- Document everything. A successful consultant will know what they did on any given day. Consultants, unlike employees, will be required to account for how they spend their time. Documenting verbal decisions through email gives the client a valuable reference tool. Keeping detailed project notes can help answer questions about system statuses and missing data. In addition, full documentation protects the consultant and his or her company from less-than-ideal situations.
On Meeting Needs
Consultants see a variety of situations and project durations.
- Consultants are brought in to fill a need. The consultant might be engaged because of a shortage of staff, experience, or both. The successful consultant will determine the need, and work accordingly. If it is a shortage of staff, he or she will learn how to work within the team quickly. If it is a shortage of experience, they will leverage their experience and ability to learn to help the client.
- Explain the options. There is never a single solution to a problem. A consultant who provides options, along with pros and cons, provides more value than one who provides a single solution.
- The decision is ultimately the client’s. Even when a consultant disagrees with a decision, he or she needs to be able to provide the objections, and then move on. Sometimes the only thing that can be done in the face of a client decision is document the options provided and the decision made.
On Managing Time
Consultants are paid to manage their time well.
- Consider dependencies. If a project has internal dependencies, throwing more bodies at it will not make it go faster. Nine women cannot have a baby in one month. Knowing those dependencies that are bottlenecks and recognizing where additional hands can help keeps the successful consultant on a realistic plan.
- Consultants are paid for the value they provide. Employees might surf the internet, shop, use social media, and more during their workday. Consultants need to make sure that they bring value to everything they do, and not engage in frivolous activities.
Consulting requires more than technical skills. From communication to attitude to time management, a successful consultant knows that the job is more than just code, data, or design. All of these skills are necessary for the consultant to be an outside expert yet still part of the client team.
About the Authors
Jay Agnew, Chuck Bryan, Brian Hamilton, Laura Moss, Erin Mullinax, and Matt Sargent have all worked for multiple consulting firms, and currently work for Marathon Consulting. Their combined consulting experience spans over a century; and their expertise covers everything from cutting-edge apps, user experience design, legacy system support, project management, and data warehouse design.