In November of 2016, I left my traditional job for a consulting role at Magenic. I’d say this makes me new to being a “real” consultant. That said, even in my short time as a “real” consultant, I’ve recognized that many of the attributes required of good consultants were attributes I needed in previous Automation Architect roles. I’ve come to realize that many of my previous roles were actually that of an “in-house consultant”, i.e. a specialist who is a full-time employee.

One fundamental thing that I’ve found to be nearly identical between my previous gigs and my current gig is how I engage with my stakeholders, my clients.

When a client engages with a consulting company, they usually do so because they need expertise that they don’t have or that they don’t consider a core competency for their company. In this regard, the client is bringing in a business partner that they expect to work with in order to accomplish a business objective.

It’s often the case that the client has been previously unsuccessful in accomplishing the desired business objective. It’s also common that the client was unsuccessful when working with another consulting partner. The client is well aware of this so they don’t need to be reminded of it. In fact, it’s probably why we have been brought in as a new partner. The last thing that a client wants to hear from their new business partner is that they have made bad decisions or that they are in a bad situation. If we’re not careful, we may inadvertently make the client feel stupid; I think that’s about the last thing we want to do.

What are some things we may want to avoid saying to our clients?

  • This is stupid.
  • Who the hell made this decision?
  • You’re still on that technology? What is this, 2005?
  • Who ate a bunch of peyote and then designed this thing?

Sure, I was a bit cavalier with the items above. Few if any consultants would come right out and say any of them; those that would, probably wouldn’t be consultants very long. That said, it is easy to inadvertently convey those sentiments via our tone or word choice.

Here are some things we can do to help us be conscious of our interaction approaches.

Be positive

Generally, being positive is contagious; at the very least, being negative is contagious and we want to avoid negativity. It’s not fun to be around people with negative attitudes.

Be “context-aware”

We need to be cognizant of what’s going on in the client’s company, organization, and team. Did they have a bad experience with a previous partner? Are we interacting with a person whose code/design/product/baby we are possibly replacing? Is the team being forced to do something they don’t want to do by their leadership? Understanding the situation can help us navigate potential pitfalls.

Treat the engagement as a partnership

Remember that in most cases we have been brought in as a partner, not as a “boss”. Sometimes, a client may beg us to tell them what to do, but that’s not the typical case. More often, they have an idea that they want help exploiting or a problem they want help solving. It’s up to us to work with them to help make decisions and create solutions that fit what the client actually needs.

Persuade, don’t tell

Related to the item above, the client often has a preconceived notion of what they need; they conflate the concepts of what they need with what they want. It’s up to us to help them come to terms with the difference in those notions, so it’s incumbent upon us to convince them of the most appropriate business direction. If we become a trusted partner, clients are more likely to entertain approaches that they did not create themselves.

Use appropriate vocabulary

As one of my previous leaders often said, “Words mean things”. As consultants, we must quickly adapt to how our clients use vocabulary and, where feasible, persuade them to adopt appropriate vocabulary so that we increase our likelihood of talking about the same thing. Without this adopt-and-adapt mindset, we run the risk of either being seen as uncooperative know-it-alls.

Commiserate carefully

At some point, at least one person in our client organization will complain about something; often, he or she is the one calling the previous implementation or partner stupid themselves. While commiseration can be helpful in building trust, we must be careful about how we do it. People talk, word will get around. We must avoid causing problems by picking sides, being negative, or reinforcing bad behavior. Of particular note, when discussing a client’s previous partner we need to be aware of the context. It can appear unprofessional to bad mouth the competition. Additionally, the previous partner may not have been bad or incompetent; perhaps they just weren’t an appropriate fit for this particular client.

As consultants, it’s our responsibility to teach, guide, and help our clients achieve their goals while helping them avoid potential problems. Keeping this and the previously introduced concepts in mind can help us avoid causing our clients to feel stupid, inadequate, or incompetent. No one wants a partner that makes them feel bad about themselves.

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