Project Management

Listen, learn, question, and think before you consult

Chip Camden believes consulting is a five-stage process, and the consult is the final stage. Read how being a listener, student, interrogator, and thinker helps to inform your consulting decisions.

Erik Eckel recently wrote on the perennial topic of what it means to be a consultant. Even though we're called "consultants," providing advice is only one stage in our duties. Before we consult, we should spend some time filling each of the following roles as well:

  • Listener: Sometimes we play along with the persona of Omniscient Oracle a little too much. If you know anything about this business, it's that there is no one Silver Bullet solution that will be right for everyone. So the first thing you have to do is listen to your clients. The art of listening is also the art of filtering. Not that you ignore anything they say, but keep your antennae tuned to their goals and constraints, rather than the noise and confusion that led them to call you in the first place.
  • Student: Consultants charge what seems like a hefty fee, so we sometimes naturally worry about our clients' opinion of our knowledge. We have to overcome that, though, and be willing to admit what we don't know so we can acquire the knowledge that we lack. Nobody has a corner on information, and we can learn something from everyone. So be willing to adopt the humility of a student -- it actually demonstrates self-confidence to do so in front of your client.
  • Interrogator: Question the assumptions implicit in what your client tells you. In my experience, clients often feel the need for a consultant because they're trying to think through the problem at the wrong level, and some unquestioned assumptions are trying them in knots. If they're asking "How can we implement technology X?" your first questions need to be "What are you trying to accomplish with technology X? Why did you decide on that solution?" Reassure them that you're not trying to tear down their decision, you just need to understand it thoroughly (you don't need to add that perhaps they do, too).
  • Thinker: The primary product that a consultant provides is brainpower. Use it. Don't try to fit every situation into one of a number of canned solutions just because you know them as well as you know the menu in your favorite restaurant. Certainly, familiarity with the chosen technology is a plus -- but it's only one factor among many. If you have a sneaking suspicion that what you're about to recommend isn't quite right, listen to that voice, and do more analysis and questioning.

If you offer your client advice without first doing each of the above, then no matter how smart you are or how long you've been in the business, your counsel is recklessly uninformed. Never assume you comprehend the situation until you listen, learn, question, and think.

After consulting, our job isn't necessarily over, either. We often get to help with implementation and follow-through, and we should look for ways to anticipate the next iteration of the whole cycle. There's always a next opportunity for your client to improve their business. Keep your eyes open for it, and advise them accordingly -- whether or not it could turn into more billable work. When you focus on their future interests, you can bet they'll use you when the need arises.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

10 comments
reisen55
reisen55

I have formally ended my working relationships with two franchise consultants because the pay is so bad as compared to the level of work I perform. I pay myself best of all and while I learned a few tricks, I saw more dishonest work too. It has improved MY SALES presentation to new clients as I know how my direct competition works.

LewSauder
LewSauder

This is a great list that too few consultants follow. One that I would add, once the consultant has played each of the above roles is advocate. Be an advocate for the client's best interest regardless of how it affects your own bottom line and you will both be more successful in the long run. Lew Sauder, author, Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting

reisen55
reisen55

Even though my business is as an independent consultant, my seven years in corporate IT support has convinced me that the best role the consultant plays when on customer time or on-site is to act as "the corporate IT department." There is a whole attitude change, YOU are it in a nutshell. Do not forget time, billing and that you are really NOT on the client's payroll per se, but YOU are the department. In corporate, freedom of action is hard to find. As a consultant, YOU have freedom but it also must act in accordance with where their IT demands want to go. I am the CIO, CTO and tech field agent all rolled into one. I work with my clients, not FOR them and that is a huge difference. I sitll like the three old IBM rules: Respect for the individual (i.e. my client's staff and their concerns); Go the extra mile to do a thing right and lastly spend alot of time making the client happy.

robinfgoldsmith
robinfgoldsmith

Right on as usual, Chip. Consultants indeed often fall prey to skipping to solutions, but so too do many others with whom we???re involved, including especially those charging us with consulting who already have decided what they think the answer should be. I???ve found that very often consulting and other projects get off-base from the start, seldom with awareness thereof until much later if ever, because they are initiated with inadequate understanding of what the real problem, opportunity, or challenge is and what the real value (if any) is of addressing it. When I point it out, my students generally are grateful to finally recognize how this has been limiting their success and how to apply more effective techniques to improve listening, learning, questioning, and thinking. However, I???ve also found that it remains difficult to convince the others that time should be spent on anything other than leaping to (their) presumed solutions.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've never been able to make that sort of arrangement work for me, either.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... is teaching people how to recognize when they've made that jump to a solution, without considering alternatives to the underlying need.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

It's a good checklist, for just about any problem solving task.