In preparation for returning to a world of consultancy, I’ve taken time to consider “What makes a good Consultant?” and I’ve done this from a client’s perspective because at the end of the day it's their opinion that counts.
So what should a client look for in choosing a Consultant to work with their business?
It's not an exact science and every situation is different. I have highlighted five factors that I believe make a good Consultant. By themselves each of these do not stand in isolation. They are interconnected, complementary and have to be viewed collectively.
Ask the right questions
A Consultant has to be able to ask the right questions. Until you really understand what the client wants to achieve you cannot realistically start working on the task in hand. It may be that the client themselves is unsure of what their goals are and part of the task will involve helping them to establish these.
I always start every assignment by asking two crucial questions. “What do you want to achieve” and “Why do you want to achieve this?”
Knowledge and experience to manage not just consultant
Two important distinctions have to be drawn between knowledge and experience and managing and consulting.
Knowledge can be acquired relatively easily, experience cannot. Experience is knowing how and when and where to apply the knowledge.
Similarly consulting involves providing advice, guidance and insight to the issue in hand. Managing, in the consultative sense involves implementation, delivery and ultimately being accountable for the advice given.
I’ve worked in HR for 40 years, half of that time at a senior level so have got both experience and the ability to manage consultancy projects.
Empathy with the client
When you are working with a client, particularly an SME client, invariably they are inviting you to become involved in something which is very personal to them; their business. Therefore it’s important to have empathy with them.
An effective Consultant is one who invests time in building a relationship with a client, understanding their motivators and what makes their business a success. Taking time to find out this important information will lead to a better working relationship with the client, thereby allowing for a better job to be done. Going in, doing the job and getting out as quickly as possible is to my mind not good consultancy.
Demonstrably I understand the importance of empathy. If the client does not believe that you “get” their business and what they want to achieve they will not “let you in” and likely you will not succeed.
And in building meaningful relationships with clients, more work will follow.
In my experience managing HR situations and issues irrespective of the business sector in which they occur are not dissimilar. The objectives are often the same and the tools to undertake the task, policies and procedures etc, are probably similar also.
What differentiates the task in hand is how the Consultant approaches this in terms of the style they adopt. To win the confidence of the client you must be seen to be speaking “their language” to understand the organisations culture and what makes it tick. The ability to do this will add to the Consultant’s credibility and make undertaking the assignment in hand both easier to achieve and more enjoyable.
During my time working in consultancy I likened myself to being a chameleon, understanding the importance of adopting a different style and approach to achieving the objective, always doing so in a style that reflected the culture of the client’s business.
Having the confidence to challenge
Finally and following on from understanding the importance of asking the right questions, a good Consultant must have the confidence to challenge the client and if necessary seek to influence their decision making.
A client looks to a Consultant for advice, to be able to draw on their knowledge, experience and skills in managing situations. That’s why they are retained.
A “yes man” is only of very limited value to a client. A good Consultant will challenge, ask difficult questions and encourage the client to be absolutely sure that what they perceive to be their objectives are what they really want to achieve. Often it isn’t.
Unless this important step is undertaken the Consultant runs the risk of working towards the wrong objectives and in the eyes of the client it being their fault that they have not achieved what the client wanted to achieve.
On many occasions I have pushed back and challenged, particularly when managing disciplinary situations. It’s not always made me popular but more often than not it’s resulted in what the client really wanted to achieve being achieved.