Leadership

Listen more and talk less, independent consultant advises

You can't determine what a client wants if you're doing all the talking, says training consultant Elaine Biech. In this Consulting Q&A, Biech discusses her philosophy on sales, success, and teamwork with columnist Rick Freedman.

When clients are searching for the right consultant for a project, they don’t need a flashy presentation and an hour’s worth of “Look how great we are,” from the sales team. As independent consultant Elaine Biech notes, “If you, as the consultant, are doing more talking than the client, you're not going to get that project.”

Biech speaks from experience. She’s designed custom training programs for McDonald's, Land's End, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Hershey Chocolate, Johnson Wax, the Federal Reserve Bank, the U.S. Navy, and the American Red Cross, among others. And she’s done it by getting listening down to a science.

In this wrap-up of Rick Freedman's conversation with Elaine Biech, Biech discusses how she developed her selling skills, the best way to measure the success of consulting engagements, and how to manage a virtual team.
In part one of Rick Freedman’s interview with Biech, she discussed her work as a training consultant and how she succeeded as an independent consultant.
Freedman: How did you develop your selling skills?
Biech: I’ve never considered myself a salesperson. I don’t think I’ve ever closed a deal in my life, at least in the way that typical sales programs teach you to close. I remember a situation early in my career when I met a prospect[ive client] a friend of mine had recommended me to, and I spent the whole hour with him chatting about his hobbies, the fact that he wanted to go back to teaching at the university, everything but the project. All the way home I was kicking myself, and then my friend called and said, “What did you say to Bill? He wants to use you for all these projects!” That’s when I learned that selling in this business is all about relationships. I recommend to all consultants that they spend their sales time getting to know the individual, building the relationship—don’t spend all the time selling the project.

Freedman: How do you ensure that the results you’re delivering are what the client was visualizing?
Biech: Every consultant knows, especially today, that the greatest challenge we have to deal with is constant change. No matter how well you’ve got the project laid out, it will change. My projects typically last from three to 18 months, and a lot can happen in that time. Don’t get so buried in the department that you’re working with that you don’t know what’s happening in the whole organization. Establish relationships with people throughout the organization. Consultants need to keep a big-picture perspective while at the same time focusing on the details of the issue they’re engaged to work with.

Freedman: How do you measure the success of a consulting engagement?
Biech: I think consultants sometimes limit the success of projects because they can only see one way of getting to the results when they start out, and I’m not so sure you can do that because of the speed of change. My projects are typically set up in stages, so I can gauge how we’re doing at a certain stage, but sometimes when we get to the later stages something will have happened in the organization—they’ve decided to pull out of a certain market…

Freedman: Or the technology changes…
Biech: Yes. So you have to keep having those checkpoints.

Freedman: How do you deal with multiple constituencies in the organization?
Biech: You have to get them in the same room at the same time to focus on what’s best for the organization rather than what’s best for their area of interest. This is one of the central skills of consulting—you have to have those facilitation skills. It’s one of my least favorite parts of the job, but if you don’t take care of it, you can’t be successful. Clients appreciate it when you help directors or managers who are defending their own turf work these issues out.

Freedman: So, when you’re working in a virtual team, how do you ensure that everyone on the team has the same vision of success?
Biech: I send the proposal to everyone working on [the project], then I put a call out to everyone I’m considering for the project. We have a kickoff meeting before we meet with the client, and this is where we do some of our risk management. We come up with a list of things that could go wrong or things that are still undefined. We also try to define success—what the benefits are to the client if this is a real success. Sometimes people go off on their own when we’re delivering the project, but we have checkpoints all along the way. It depends on the project—it could be daily, weekly, or monthly that we check in. Sometimes it’s informal things like going to lunch and giving people an opportunity to just vent.

Rick Freedman is the founder of Consulting Strategies Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills. He is author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationshipand two upcoming works: The e-Consultant and Building the IT Consulting Practice, both scheduled for publication in 2001.

As a supplement to his Consultant Master Class column, Freedman periodically interviews a leading executive, practice manager, or consultant from the top IT professional service firms. If you have a question for Rick, e-mail us.

About

Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile...

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