Before I left my last job, a colleague asked me to impart whatever wisdom I had. Here’s what I said.
Being a Consultant
Everything I know about consulting can be summed up in the following:
- Listen to your customers.
- Understand your customers.
- Be their trusted advisor.
Listen to your customers. A consultant’s #1 skill is listening. If you can’t listen to your customers explain their problems and needs, you won’t get anywhere. I’ve worked with others who, because they’re consultants, think they already know what the customer needs before the customer has a chance to describe it. It is, after all, the consultant’s job to know what to do; that’s why people hire us in the first place. But this approach is wrong-headed for a couple of reasons. First, “what to do” is highly dependent on what the problem is. Without listening to what makes this customer special, it’s hard to say off the bat what’s right for their situation. Second, listening to the customer gives them confidence in you. They see that you take them and their problems seriously. And finally, often people just really like to get their problems off their chest. When you give them a friendly ear, they unload, and they feel relieved already just because somebody is listening to them, even if you haven’t done anything yet.
Understand your customers. So you have to be a great listener. But the next step is taking what you hear and figuring out what to do about it. This is where the “consultant” part comes into play — your special expertise, the reason people hire you instead of doing it themselves. You need to understand their problems as if they were your own and apply your expertise to give them workable solutions. And by “solution”, I mean the whole deal — not just a tool that fixes their problem or a process sketched out on a piece of paper. You have to consider the whole kit and kaboodle, including the hurdles your customer may need to overcome with their bosses or colleages to actually do something with the tools and processes you’re suggestion. The “solution” should be a way to actually solve their problem, taking into account everything you’ve learned about their situation.
Then, when you have solutions, you have to deliver them in a way that your customer understands. You need to be patient, because they do not have your expertise (remember, that’s why they hired you). You need to be diplomatic, because often your solution will involve telling them they weren’t doing something in the best possible way before, and they could do better. Of course they do want to do better, but they don’t want to be embarassed or feel scolded in the process. This is what we used to refer to as the “your baby is ugly” problem. If someone’s put a lot of time and work into a project — their “baby” — and then the consultant comes along and tells them how awful it is, they’re really put off. You have to be gentle and work with them, and focus on the improvements they can make rather than the mistakes they already did.
Be their trusted advisor. Through this process, your customer comes to trust you. They rely on you. They call you up or have you sit in meetings to get your opinion about this thing and that thing, and they bring you in because they’re starting Phase II and they want your input. This is the kind of relationship you have to strive for — being your customer’s trusted advisor. (I’ve never read The Trusted Advisor, but it’s come to me with high recommendations. I’m adding it to my reading list.) This kind of relationship smoothes over the sales process, because you don’t have to prove yourself to the customer. They know you and they like working with you, and they trust your abilities in guiding them to do the right things. Moreover, they trust you to treat them with regard, to handle their problems delicately, and to not embarrass them with their boss.
That’s it; that’s all there is. Consulting is all about relationships, and if you have good ones, you almost can’t fail. You can be a top expert in your field, but if you can’t do these three things, clients won’t like working with you because even though you’re smart, you don’t feel very helpful. I’ve seen consultants who were really good at listening to customers, understanding them, and being trusted advisors — and even though not all of them necessarily had top-notch expertise on tools or technologies or whatever the client actually needed help with — those people get repeat business, because clients actually feel that they are getting helped.
Of course, to be the best consultant, you really do have to have the knowledge that the client needs. That’s the second part of what I said.
JW’s Philosophy of Learning
Some people are constantly amazed at what I know about various subjects, especially technology and how various pieces of software work. I am going to let you in on a little secret: there is no secret to amassing this knowledge.
(With credit to Dorothea for the phrasing): The way to learn is to beat on things with rocks.
That’s it. Just keep trying until it does what you want it to do. When you get there (or even if you don’t), I guarantee you will have learned something.
OK, I can recognize that this is a statement of philosophy, but as an actual game plan, it may not be all that helpful. So here are five tips on how to be a more effective rock-beater:
- Define the problem well
- Change one thing at a time
- Someone else already knows
- Don’t believe it until you see it
Define the problem well. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to do, it’s hard to come up with something effective to do about it. Before you start hammering away willy-nilly, take a step back and say, “What do I need to accomplish here? What’s vital in what I’m trying to do, and what’s just nice-to-have? Is this really a problem, or is it caused by something upstream that’s really what I need to be working on?”
RTFM. Read the *#$%^@ manual. (This is especially dear to me because I used to be a technical writer.) Now, I know, not everything has a lovely manual like the kind I used to write. But by gosh and by golly, you won’t know until you take a look, will you? I can’t count the number of times someone has asked me a question that’s perfectly good, but also perfectly easy to answer if they’d spend 5 minutes taking a look at the documentation.
Change one thing at a time. If you’re trying to suss out how something works, you must think of yourself as a scientist performing a little experiment. You must change just one thing at a time to see what happens. If you change two or three or twenty-seven things at a time, how will you know which one is the one that actually worked?
Somebody else already knows. The chances are high that there is someone out there who can answer your questions. Maybe it’s your colleague in the cubicle next door, or maybe it’s somebody with a blog or a book or on a forum or mailing list. (Part of the trick is knowing where to look; do some research. The Internet is your friend, and so is your library.)
If you ask, these people are often eager to teach you what they know. However, a word of warning — there’s a reason this is the fourth tip and not the first one. “Define your problem” and “RTFM” first, or people are likely to be a little peeved at you for dumping your ill-defined problem on them, or asking things you could easily have found out yourself. Get as far as you can on your own, then ask for help.
Don’t believe it until you see it. This is the flipside of “RTFM” and “Somebody already knows”. Some document or person can describe how something is supposed to work, but you should still try it out. (This is especially true when the document happens to be a piece of marketing literature for software.) By trying it yourself, you make it yours. You really understand how and why (or even if) it works.
So that’s all I know, and it works for me. I can’t promise any more than that, but I do hope it helped my former coworker, and I hope it helps somebody out there in the blogosphere, too.