Pragmatic Consulting from the Client’s Perspective

In my career I have been fortunate enough to work for two of the best companies on earth: Accenture and Microsoft. In my eleven years at Accenture I got a tremendous education on systems development, project management, strategic planning, and client service. In my nine years at Microsoft, I took most of what I learned at Accenture and learned how to apply it in a very practical and effective manner. Both experiences were key to my growth as a professional.

When I left Accenture to go to Microsoft, I found myself moving from the consultant’s side of the desk to the client’s side of the desk. At Microsoft I had the opportunity to work with a large number of consulting firms in my various jobs managing IT projects, heading up Corporate Procurement, and managing Corporate Planning & Budgeting. In working with many of these firms, I had ample opportunity to reflect on my own career as a consultant and think about how much better a consultant I would have been had I viewed things more from the client’s perspective. It is this client-based, or pragmatic consulting that dramatically increases a consultant’s effectiveness and builds long-term win-win relationships with clients.

The “Ah-ha’s”

In moving from the consultant to the client role, I was able to clearly articulate some principles, or “Ah-has,” that many consultants either don’t understand or don’t practice on a regular basis, as follows:

Consulting is more about listening than speaking – Being an active listener and asking a lot of questions of the client is crucial to getting a deep understanding of the client’s issues and hot buttons. Too frequently I’ve seen consultants rush in with their perspectives on theories or problems without truly taking the time to listen to what is important to the client. Sometimes things worked out OK, but there were times where the consultant’s perceived understanding of the problem didn’t represent the client’s true problems. The end result was is a ticked-off client who viewed the consultant as a pompous jerk.

A consultant needs to resist the urge to present solutions before the client has a chance to fully explain the problems. It could be that the consultant understands the problem very well, but to develop a connection with the client, you need to let the client articulate their issues and concerns. That connect time with the client is important to building the trust and credibility that both the consultant and client need to work effectively together.

True credibility is achieved fastest by demonstrating a thoughtful understanding of the client’s problem – A consultant may have a strong understanding of industry or functional issues that other companies face, but that doesn’t mean that those problems apply to the client. When a consultant assumes that problems other companies face apply at the client, they take a definite risk in establishing credibility with the client. Even worse is when the client explains their problem and the consultant either doesn’t acknowledge the problem or doesn’t get it after repeated explanations. The longer it takes for a consultant to grasp the client’s problems, the shakier their credibility becomes.

A consultant needs to put themselves in the client’s shoes, understand the client’s problem from their perspective, and not make generation assumptions about the complexity or urgency of the problem. Show an “I feel your pain” perspective of the client’s problem and you’ll quickly get over the credibility hump and get the client to where they want to listen to you.

“Concise” is more important than “more” – I personally fell victim to this as a younger consultant. Many of my presentations were measured in part by how many slides and how much information I could cram into a presentation. It was commonplace for me to create 100+ slide PowerPoint presentations which would take several hours to go through. When I joined Microsoft, I was thoroughly thrashed the first time I created a pass-the-weight-test presentation. I learned quickly to focus on concise, tight, treat-every-word-like-you’re-spending-a-dollar presentations.

A consultant needs to shelve the urge to cram as many pretty slides into a presentation as they can. The client doesn’t necessarily need to see all of the gory details. I’ve learned to focus many of my presentations into a core deck and an appendix. The core deck focuses on three core components: a concise articulation of the problem, the proposed solution to the problem, and how the solution will be implemented. The appendix contains other supporting pieces of information that the consultant only reviews with the client if necessary. I’ve been able to get my point across to my client in a very crisp, concise manner and was able to deep-dive on questions as necessary. True, you may only need a small portion of your appendix and much of your hard work may never see the light of day, but if you’re solving the client’s problem, who cares?

The client generally knows the theory, what they may not know is how to practically apply it – I’ve been through one-too-many presentations as a client where a consulting firm brings in their industry expert to talk about the problems that face my industry. After they go on for about fifteen minutes telling me theory I already know, I would ask, “So how did you fix it?” More often than not, the industry expert only knew vague details about how someone else dealt with the problem, if the problem was dealt with at all. Knowing the theory only gets you through the first mile in a 26-mile marathon; knowing how to apply the theory in a very practical and effective manner gets you through the rest of the race.

Clients want to hear about how their problems can be solved in a practical, straightforward, effective manner, not about lofty theory. If your theories don’t solve problems, save them for late-night philosophical discussions over a favorite beverage.

Relationships are more important than short-term fee goals – True, consultants are in business to generate fees and make money. There’s nothing wrong with a profit motive and a goal to make money. Where it does become a problem, though, is when short-term fee goals cause a consultant to do something that is not in the client’s best interest. Those consultants that seemed to always have one hand in my pocket weren’t the consultants that survived in the long term.

The consultants I respected the most are those who told me things like “I really don’t think you need me on this,” or “You could probably do this yourself and save some money.” When a consultant puts my best business interests over their own fees, my trust in them goes up exponentially. True, the consultant may have a short-term fee hit because they didn’t sell a job, but the long-term potential for win-win between the client and consultant was more attainable and far more lucrative.

Saying “I don’t know” is OK at times – Being a consultant doesn’t mean that the omniscience fairy came to you one night, waved her magic wand, and deemed you the all-knowledgeable one. Sometimes issues will come up that the consultant can’t answer. Some of the ugliest situations I’ve seen were when the consultant tried to fake his way through a topic he had no business addressing. A simple “I don’t know” would have been far better than throwing up a smoke screen and hoping no one asks questions.

Having said this, there are two caveats to note: first, whenever a consultant says “I don’t know” they need to follow it up with “but I’ll find out and give you an answer by x date.” Second, a consultant only gets a few “I don’t knows” before they’re labeled as an incompetent doofus who doesn’t know their subject matter. Having a strong understanding of the subject matter the consultant professes to be expert in is mandatory; having a shaky understanding will get you voted off the island in the first round.

True effectiveness as a consultant means the consultant listens to the client, understands their pain, presents practical solutions in a concise manner, and demonstrates the utmost in honesty and integrity. Keep these things in focus, and you’ll earn and keep the best clients. You will establish yourself as a pragmatic consultant who sees things from the only perspective that matters — that of the client.

Consulting With Clients

Independent grant consultants quickly recognize that consulting with clients can be an art in itself. Clients will have a range of reasons and needs for requesting grant funding and working with a grant consultant. Few clients will know the best solution for their project before contacting the grant consultant. To submit a competitive proposal or application the grant consultant must be able to help the client focus and organize their thoughts.

The most difficult and time-consuming aspects of preparing many grant proposals is getting information from the client. Many clients think that there is “free money” and funding for “any idea they think of”. This is supported because they “heard of someone” who received lots of grant money for that very purpose.

The fact is that this information is skewed at best and more likely improbable. Consultants often have to spend some time early in the process educating their clients on how the process actually works and the types of projects which are more fundable than others.

Other times the client may have a hidden agenda. Financial information is particularly difficult to receive from clients. Some clients are just looking for money, any money. If one idea is not strong enough they will try another, and another.

In many research oriented grant applications, the Engineer or PI is uneasy about discussing the real technology and innovative process of their project in fear that reviewers will steal their ideas. This reluctance can cause a delay in getting sufficient information to compose a competitive narrative, or perhaps cause enough trepidation as to not give any information at all.

Working with clients is a two-way street. Choose your clients carefully. Clients often screen the grant writer, and in the same sense, the grant writer should screen the client. Do not take on bad business. It is better to give the client advice on how to become “grant eligible” in the future than to take on an unfundable client right now. Ensure there are good values, match, and approach with client. This will make for a more mutually enjoyable working relationship.

Remember that when all is said and done, it is the clients decision on what should or should not be included, not the consultants. Regardless of all the good advice the grant consultant provides, it is the client who makes the final decision on what goes into the final grant submission. The goal of a grant consultant is to facilitate the best decision-making information to the client.