Chapter 10: The clients speak: from a client’s perspective – Information Consulting

10

The clients speak: from a client’s perspective

Abstract:

This chapter focuses on the client perspective, delving into the successful and productive relationship between the consultant and clients. Based on an international empirical study, this chapter highlights the motivation clients have and how they find the right consultant. The ‘top five’ list of qualities that clients want from consultants is emphasised. Clients advise future clients about the critical issues of the client–consultant relationship.

Key words

client perspective

consultant’s quality

client–consultant relationship

Among information consultants, conversations about ‘what makes us successful’ are frequent, and it seems we share a set of approaches and behaviours that contribute to a productive relationship with appreciative clients. But what are the key elements that make for a business relationship in which we, the consultants, take satisfaction in a professional job well done and they, our clients, feel they receive true value for money?

In this chapter we let the client speak. While in previous chapters focus has been on the consultant, here we present the aspects of a successful information consulting engagement from the client’s perspective. We take a closer look at what makes information consultants successful and how they develop a productive relationship with their clients.

To get a deeper insight into the relationships of information consultants and their clients, informal studies have been conducted and empirical data was collected in various countries: interviews and questionnaires were distributed in Denmark, Canada, Hungary, Sweden, the US and Iceland. The responses and comments shed intriguing light on the process of successful cooperation between consultants and clients.

We welcomed any and all other commentary as well. We informed respondents that we intend to prepare a ‘guidance document’ for the consulting community to support professional development in the field.

It became more apparent during the study that a successful consulting assignment also requires careful management of the interaction between client and consultant. This is often a complex issue, involving a great deal of psychological insight and social competence.

The results point to the fact that clients and consultants often have different aspects on the same service. While getting feedback from the customers, the service providers may recognise that the customers generally appreciate the quality of communication much more highly than the service providers usually think.1

Questions addressed to the clients in our investigation include:

1. Can you briefly characterise the situation(s) in which you have sought the assistance of an information consultant?

2. How did you then go about finding a suitable consultant, and what were some key ‘features’ you were looking for in particular?

3. What was your impression of the process of working with the consultant(s)? If you think of the various aspects of the project, perhaps you could comment on ‘what worked well’ and ‘what was challenging’ in each.

4. If you had to do it again, or a new project gets established, what would you do in the same way or differently as a result of your experience, and why?

5. What would be on your ‘top five’ list of qualities and characteristics on the part of a consultant that make for good value and quality?

6. Similarly, what elements do you feel could be improved?

7. In summary, what would be your advice to colleagues looking for help from an information consultant?

The motivation to use an information consultant

Prospective clients often do not know that there are experts who may offer services for their specific problem. This underlines the importance of visibility and marketing activities on the part of information consultants – as was discussed in Chapter 7.

There are a great number of various reasons why managers search for the assistance of information consultants. It is obvious that in many situations the managers’ expectations of an information consultant are much wider than only to get access to information. Therefore, it should be emphasised (again) that besides expertise and technical skill, there are many other qualities which make a successful consulting engagement.

To highlight some of the main aspects of the managers’ motivation to use an information consultant, we list a few responses in full text:

 I was attacked by a hostile media. I sought external, independent assistance in searching for relevant and quality assured information which could be used also in the legal procedure.

 I had problems with finding and selecting relevant information from the sources offered by the Internet.

 I was looking for new strategic directions and wanted to get access to new and innovative ‘ideas’.

 As we needed help in Hungary and nobody in the company had the necessary skills, we chose a Hungarian consultant.

 Our file management system was not working as it should and it was not user-friendly. We needed to reconstruct the system and our thinking and adopt the lifecycle idea.

How to find the right consultant

Beyond visibility, the building of trust seems to be powerful (not with the methods of advertising, but public relations, which facilitate the establishment and maintenance of trust). Most clients reach the consultant through word of mouth. The following list exemplifies some of the clients’ answers for our questions ‘How did you find the information consultant?’

 I asked my private and business contacts about a reliable professional consultant. Finally, I got in contact with him by phone.

 I met him personally at a conference. We established a good relationship immediately.

 My main requests were:

– capability to access and structure the relevant information;

– balance of price/value;

– good personal relations;

– fair and correct accounting;

– flexibility;

– problem-solving capability;

– reliability.

 I didn’t search particularly for an information consultant, but I knew him well and I remembered that he was always telling me interesting news, trends, etc. I thought that he could be a useful partner for me in the current strategy development.

 Through contacts and website.

 The aim was to get an expert with a good reputation.

 These types of services could be much more useful and better marketed using effective distribution of information materials. One might use the copyright sign to indicate that this material or result is based on the work of XY consultant. This is also important if the client wants to use the material in the future for reference.

For a further discussion on the choice/selection of consultant, see also ‘Clients’ advice for future consultants’ later in this chapter, where clients’ answers to the question of ‘If you have to do it again’ are presented.

Susan Detwiler collected2 some advice for clients on how to find/select the ‘right’ information consultant. These are elements of the ‘natural’ trust-building during the initial process of contacting when the client checks some conditions of mutual cooperation.

They include:

 whether they are a generalist or specialist;

 after their school years, have they attended/enrolled in any additional courses?;

 which databases and sources are in their portfolio;

 how they calculate the fees (e.g. paying deadline, hourly fee or fee for success);

 whether they ask the following: the purpose of information, where and how did you already try to get it, the required format, deadline and language.

The ‘top five’ list of consultants’ qualities

While in Chapters 68 we highlighted the skills and competencies required in information consultancy, in this chapter we aim to extend the discussion about the personality of an information consultant. We believe that too much emphasis on competency sets can be counterproductive as they disengage the whole-person approach, take no account of the role or context of the person, and ignore the person and environment relationship. The way in which a message is communicated, the words used and tone adopted will have considerable impact on the way in which it is accepted.

In our questionnaire we have explicitly asked the clients to specify: What would be on your ‘top five’ list of qualities and characteristics on the part of a consultant that make for good value and quality? Most of them gave more than five characteristics, and it was clear from their answers that they do examine/evaluate their consultant by their personal qualities too.

The ‘top five’ list of qualities has been compiled by counting the frequency of words in the clients’ responses and putting them into categories and headlines in the list:

 professionalism (projecting the image of competence and credibility; expertise within the actual area; negotiation skills);

 communication skills (express themselves in clear and common language terms; communicate easily with the staff and client; demonstrate care and interest in your client; good manners; courtesy; good memory);

 goal-oriented (quick, alert, objective in understanding the problem in details; engagement and participation in the client’s problem; creativeness and discipline in combination);

 creativity and problem-solving capability (ability to understand the organisation; effective cooperation; ability to listen; having an inquisitive mind; motivation and patience);

 no delays in communications (keep promises, timetable and deliveries).

Other desired qualities identified by some clients include:

 right price; good payment routines;

 a sense of humour;

 intuition;

 discretion;

 flexibility.

In the literature there are many studies about the personality of information professionals, but most of them have been undertaken in the US where, it could be argued, the organisation and nature of the profession is very different from that of Europe.

Work within the information and knowledge field has been radically transformed by technology, social and political priorities and economic policies, so the natures of people who like to be successful in the information profession have changed. Given the changing paradigms of the information workplace, it may well transpire that the attributes traditionally considered necessary for a successful career in information work (e.g. order, attention to detail) are not now those most needed by the profession and that others (e.g. leadership, flexibility) are essential for the workplace of the future.

We will present below those quality aspects of an information consultant which have been identified by the clients themselves. These views have been collected by interviews and by the questionnaire, expressed spontaneously and based on their own experience.

Thus, it is a rather unique type of information, a valuable addition to all those other studies where the personality assessment of IS professionals has been researched by other methods.

In this context we should like to refer to an extensive academic research study where our findings are matching very well those desirable personal attributes which – by the clients or employers – in similar situations have been identified. The referred study, ‘Professional characters: the personality of future information workforce’, was funded by the Library and Information Commission in the UK in 2000.3 It was aimed at analysing the particular personal qualities of the information workforce demanded by current employers.

The findings revealed a high level of consensus on qualities such as flexibility, confidence and interpersonal skills as being the most important deciding factor when selecting recruits for information work. Written communication skills and commercial awareness are other qualities that employers regard as essential for the profession.

To highlight in more detail the ‘ideal profile’ of an information professional according to employers’ requirements in the above-mentioned UK study, we present in Table 10.1 Cattell’s 16 personality factors (16PF), which is a widely used tool for assessing personality profile. Table 10.2 gives a short description of the typical characteristics of a low- and high-scoring person.

Table 10.1

Cattell’s 16 personality factors

Factor Low score direction High score direction
A Cool, reserved, impersonal, detached, formal and aloof Warm, outgoing, kind, participating, likes people
B Concrete thinking, less intelligent Abstract thinking, more intelligent, bright
C Affected by feelings, emotionally less stable, easily annoyed Emotionally stable, mature, calm
E Submissive, humble, mild, easily led, accommodating Dominant, assertive, aggressive, stubborn, competitive, bossy
F Sober, restrained, prudent, taciturn, serious Enthusiastic, spontaneous, heedless, expressive, cheerful
G Expedient, disregards rules, self-indulgent Conscientious, conforming, moralistic, staid, rule-bound
H Shy, thread-sensitive, timid, hesitant, intimidated Bold, venturesome, uninhibited, can take stress
I Tough-minded, self-reliant, no-nonsense, rough, realistic Tender-minded, sensitive, overprotected, intuitive, refined
L Trusting, accepting conditions, easy to get on with Suspicious, hard to fool, distrustful, sceptical
M Practical, concerned with ‘down to earth’ issues, steady Imaginative, absentminded, absorbed in thought, impractical
N Forthright, unpretentious, open, genuine, artless Shrewd, polished, socially aware, diplomatic, calculating
O Self-assured, secure, feels free of guilt, untroubled, self-satisfied Apprehensive, self-blaming, guilt-prone, insecure, worrying
Q1 Conservative, respecting, traditional ideas Experimenting, liberal, critical, open to change
Q2 Group-oriented, a joiner and sound follower, listens to others Self-sufficient, resourceful, prefers own decisions
Q3 Undisciplined, self-conflict, lax, careless of social rules Following self-image, socially precise, compulsive
Q4 Relaxed, tranquil, composed, has low drive, unfrustrated Tense, frustrated, overwrought, has high drive

Table 10.2

Employers’ demands

Factor Brief description Low score – High score Employers’ preference
A Cool v warm Friendly, pleasant and people-oriented
B Less v more intelligent Inquisitive, logical, analytical
C Emotional v calm Able to accept pressure
E Submissive v dominant Neither
F Sober v enthusiastic Energetic, enthusiastic, leader
G Expedient v conscientious Dedicated, committed, thorough, hard-working, responsible, reliable
H Shy v bold Confident, people-oriented, motivated, able to accept pressure
I Tough v tender-minded Neither
L Trusting v suspicious Open-minded, empathetic
M Practical v imaginative Adaptable, hard-working
N Forthright v shrewd People-oriented, responsive to needs, friendly
O Self-assured v apprehensive Confident, ability to accept pressure
Q1 Conservative v experimenting Innovative, inquisitive, open-minded
Q2 Group-oriented v self-sufficient Neither
Q3 Lax v precise Detective-like, meticulous, responsible, organised
Q4 Relaxed v tense Neither

The 16PF gives information on:

 the aspect of the work environment the person is suited to;

 typical style of the leadership;

 usual team role;

 thinking style;

 characteristic way of dealing with pressure.

Table 10.2 illustrates how employers’ preferences map onto the 16 personality factors. Brief descriptions are given for the two extremes for each factor. The highlighted characteristics indicate the direction that employers would like their employees to incline towards. Evidence for this is given in the survey where the employers listed some of the qualities perceived as essential for the future information workforce.

Through the identification of the personality profiles suitable for information work – viewed from the perception of employers – one can find useful hints also for information consultants who want to check if they possess these essential qualities.

The findings of the UK study have identified a gap between how students and educators in the IS field think about personal qualities and aptitudes to succeed in the information profession and employers’ requirements for staff. It is clear that in some key areas there is a mismatch between the expectations and perceptions of the key players (employers, students and educators). Employers appear to believe that educators are not developing the appropriate qualities meeting the recruitment criteria of information professionals able to flourish in a high-pressure environment and to face the challenges in a confident and dynamic manner. There is also a mismatch between the IS students’ self-perception and their knowledge about the required personal qualities in the labour market.

Although there appears to be a match between curricular objectives and outcomes in education and recruitment criteria, this extended study shows that there is a lack of competence within the IS field in areas such as flexibility, commitment, reliability, written communication, analytical skills, problem-solving, etc.

Having identified this gap, this study will hopefully reduce the gap between rhetoric and reality in current IS education and adjust the self-perception of the field – not only in the UK but in the whole of Europe and elsewhere.

Clients’ advice for future consultants

In this chapter we summarise clients’ impressions, experiences and viewpoints on the process of working with the consultant(s). After thinking over the various phases of the project, we collected their comments on ‘what worked well’ and ‘what was challenging’ in each step of their assessment.

We also asked them to reflect over the following: if you had to do it again, or a new project gets established, what would you do in the same way or differently as a result of your experience, and why? In summary, what would be your advice to colleagues looking for help from an information consultant?

Below is a list of the clients’ answers in their original form (following closely the clients’ words). The responses are selected and ordered in the main steps of the communication process between the client and the information consultant.

Getting the consultant oriented about the problem and the aim of the project

 To be very sure that the consultant has properly understood the problem and he is starting and conducting his work in the right direction. This saves time and money, and it helps to avoid empty loops and frustrations.

 To know well what kind of help you are expecting from the consultant.

 It was of great importance to be clear, and ensure that the consultant really knew the issue. We devoted some time for that, and it worked out well.

 He [the consultant] managed to find time rather quickly for a first meeting. I was very satisfied with him from the beginning, because I felt that he gave time and effort to learn about my problem. Through all the communication process I enjoyed very much talking to somebody who treated my ‘individual’ problem with a professional attitude, great concern and empathy.

 Since it was not one particular problem we worked on, to find out the optimal way for an effective and quality-assured information collection for my area of interest, our contacts were, and still are, going on continuously in the form of discussions, giving advice and tutoring.

 He was always good at putting relevant questions to me and giving feedback.

 I should like to offer more time and attention to formulate more precisely what my expectations are and how I can control and check the results. I think that it is important to explore how to get the consultant really interested and involved in your problem, because in that case he is serving your interest.

Determining the strategy for the work in the project

 Precise definition of the task, deadlines and results. Furthermore, thinking about the development and maintenance of a ‘strong interest’ in the project on the part of the consultant.

 We have succeeded rather well in determining the frame and the volume of the material examined.

 We devoted one day for planning, and the strategy was included.

 We developed together a timeframe for the selection of data/information as well as for the type of media and sources to be used. I asked him to think openly and widely, and help me to see new aspects and perspectives around the given problem. I asked him to be provocative against my own statements.

 I didn’t feel anything special about it.

 All worked out very well.

The actual work as it progressed

 We keep contact by phone and personal meetings during all phases of the work. He delivered in time the collected information, and in the form of personal meetings we discussed and evaluated the material.

 We stuck to the time schedule and the activities planned for, not many changes due to a careful planning.

 Continuous contacts and discussions.

 The work progressed as it should be (by continuous contacts).

 I could follow the work process, and it was to my satisfaction.

 It was a challenging task.

 I should like to make the procedure simpler.

 I would devote more time for the selling in of the concept.

The interaction and communication with the consultant, and between staff and the consultant

 Phone, personal contacts, e-mail. Depending on the situation, the character of the problem to be discussed, and the practical conditions.

 Worked out well. The proper introduction of the consultant in the organisation is an important issue.

 There was good communication all the time between the consultant and me (and my staff).

 Worked very well.

The deliverables and their effect

 Both the data and information, relevant to the period of time and media, they have been delivered in accordance with our agreement. I felt that the material was a bit ‘different’ from that which I had in my mind, but, at the same time I thought: ‘…the whole idea with this external and professional contact was to get something new in my mind!’ Thus, this little surprise, it was the most important result, and the help I was looking for.

 We had a good result due to our mutual cooperation. It was a challenge for me not getting immediate answers to important questions or I had to ask explicitly to get feedback for particular problems. I learned that it is not so easy to dig out the ‘exact’ information!

 I used some parts of the results. The real effect and value of this contact will be measured by the success of the company.

 The deliverables were agreed on beforehand. The major challenge was to sell in the concept in the organisation.

 We didn’t really follow up, but will do it in the future.

If you have to do it again

 I would do it in the same way, because the result could not be better.

 Do not hesitate to get help; it makes the work [reconstruction] so much easier.

 Go for it!

 Just do it, it saves time and money.

 The choice/selection of consultant is important. There is a need for a professional forum where the consultant can be registered and the client has the guarantee to find a competent and reliable person to work with.

    It would be useful if one could refer to him [the consultant] e.g. in legal context.

 In our case we found a good consultant, thanks to the recommendations of our friends.

 But what is the chance of all the others (without these contacts) to find the ‘right’ consultant?


1Thompson, B. (2005) The Loyalty Connection: Secrets to customer retention and increased profits. RightNow Technologies. March. (This white paper is available at http://www.rightnow.com/)

2Detwiler, S.M. (1995) How to choose an information broker. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science. Vol. 21, Feb./Mar. pp. 14–15. http://www.asis.org/Bulletin/Feb-95/detwiler.html

3Goulding, A., Bromham, B., Hannabus, S. and Cramer, D. (2000) Professional characters: the personality of the future information workforce. Education for Information. Vol. 18, No. 1. pp. 7–31.