Advice from other information consultants
In this chapter consulting veterans offer some tips and considerations from their own experiences. Most of these deal with sensitive situations such as keeping integrity and neutrality against pressure from clients, and managing and reporting unforeseen circumstances in time to avoid escalations. Some others answer the questions of whether you can work for clients who are competitors to each other, or whether it is ethical to ‘recycle’ your earlier deliverable. During your work you may get other or new experiences. Do not hesitate to share them with others as the veterans do it in this chapter.
Ideally, the amount of time invested in making the sale is in proportion to the value of the project itself. Always discuss the details of the project with the client to clarify mutual expectations. It is fair for the client to get back to you with a request for additional detail – a few times. If you find yourself having your brains picked extensively prior to the contract signing you can choose to let it pass, but you may want to point out that you are now providing services rather than preparing a quote. ‘I can prepare such a memo as a supplemental deliverable. Should I adjust the proposal accordingly?’
As a consultant, you are typically asked for your unbiased professional judgement. To protect your reputation, you must stay alert to situations in which you begin to feel ‘directed’. Let it be known that you cannot commit in advance to any particular findings and be certain to gain access to the full range of information you need to reach a sound conclusion.
Consultants need to remain neutral and keep their opinions to themselves during the investigation phases of a project. Certain conversational techniques can help motivate others to open up while at the same time keeping you out of the fray. For example, ‘Interestingly, you are not the first to bring this up. Do you mind elaborating?’ would be a suggestion that encourages communication of more detail without indicating your own impression.
What if individuals with whom you come into contact during a project begin to trust you so much they confide about a matter not within your project scope? Should you feel morally obliged to communicate it to those in a position to address it – at the risk of untoward consequences? What’s tricky here is that individuals who have confided in you may expect you to take up their cause. You could offer those who confided in you some suggestions for dealing with the matter in question without escalating it. If you feel it’s possible, however, that there is value for the client in your pointing to ‘an opportunity that has arisen’, you could with the client’s approval proceed to explain what has been brought to your attention. Considerable situational finesse is needed here.
Surprises will occur. Unforeseen circumstances do arise that can affect the progress of a project. Once you have discovered an unforeseen element, you can propose to the client how to deal with it. Typically, the client will appreciate the input and readily agree to an adjustment in the work; but be prepared for the eventuality that you could be told – for any number of extrinsic reasons – to ignore the complication you have encountered. If so, document that circumstance clearly to assure that there is never any doubt that you brought the complication to the client’s attention.
Expect to hear client staff voice strong opinions that give a vivid picture of ‘what is going on here’. Accept all offered insights, make notes and ensure that what has been said will only be reflected in the aggregate. Under no circumstances do your original notes get shared with anyone, regardless of any inquiries as to who said what. However, in some cases there is the possibility of turning all notes over to the client at the end of the contract due to confidentiality laws, etc. But even in this situation you have to handle the personal related information carefully and follow the ethical standards of professional behaviour in respect of protecting the trust of people who had confidence in you.
It can be very satisfying to experience popularity among client staff. Some consultants develop ‘professional friendships’ with their clients over time. However, you must never be perceived as being biased. Stay alert to the risk that you begin to see things so much your client’s way that you can’t actually render a neutral opinion. It is understandable that a client will reward you for the support you lend, but remind yourself to step back from time to time. Say to yourself, ‘Would I still recommend this strategy if the client weren’t (e.g.) Michael?’ This then helps to give you the reality check that one needs to remain objective.
Do you take the money and run when what the client requests disagrees with what you believe is needed?
You may receive a request to carry out work you believe is not in the client’s best interest. For example, say you were asked to teach a seminar on marketing the information centre, but you believe that the situation calls for a user needs assessment study and an associated re-engineering of information centre services. You might worry that voicing such an opinion will make the client look for someone else; however, our experience suggests the client will probably value the opportunity to rethink the original request. Referring to previous assignments in which a similar project adjustment took place can help you communicate to a potential client, ‘There is an opportunity to do even better.’ And what if they refuse to listen to you? Follow the ethical standards of professional behaviour in respect of competence and good business practice. If you don’t believe in the client’s idea, don’t step in it. Let (the best) someone else do the job for the client (see ‘Yes, I can help’, Chapter 7).
As word of your valuable services gets around, firm B may approach you to do the same kind of business you have done for client A. If the two firms are not in direct head-to-head competition, there should be no concern about your serving both. You cannot be expected to excuse yourself from all future contracts in an industry simply because you once worked for one player. But let’s say A and B are, in fact, competitors. And let’s say there is no formal exclusivity arrangement between you and A, nor any guarantee A will hire you again. Given that you may have a list of clients on your website, B could well be aware of the relationship. You don’t want to risk losing a good client. So consider going to A and saying, ‘I have been approached by B, but I’m inclined to refer the assignment to another consultant because I value your business highly and look forward to working with you again.’ If A has no serious intentions of hiring you again within a reasonable time, your upfront approach protects you; if A does intend to hire you again, that intention can now be confirmed. You could also broker a contact between B and another consultant, thus avoiding any conflict.
It is unlikely there would be much resemblance between one set of deliverables and another, so although the answer is no, the question is probably moot. However, you may find it helpful to develop proprietary tools you can adapt to any new assignment (for example, a set of standard questions for a focus group from which you can select and adapt those you need in the present assignment). Inevitably, as your track record accumulates, tacit knowledge gathered in past assignments will benefit future ones.
Six months of intense effort and you beam with pride at a 100-page report brimming with insightful observations and brilliant recommendations. Unfortunately, the client just sits on it. Positive comments get made, but nothing happens. Such inaction is very disappointing, but you can’t afford to take it personally. There could be many reasons, none related to the quality of your work. Take the money you have earned and move on.
The greatest favour you can do for yourself is to maintain a healthy belief in your own qualifications and abilities. You may know of some areas in which you have less strength than other areas. So work on them. But the key to projecting authority and competence is your own conviction that ‘I can do this.’ Remind yourself of your excellence and the benefits your work gives clients. You’d be surprised how easy it is to blow out of proportion an isolated instance you experienced as a negative; don’t lose heart over a minor setback.