Project Management

Use the consulting relationship for your client's good

Chip Camden says good consultants are business therapists who make their client's success (rather than their payment) the primary goal.

 Some consultants think of themselves as just contract labor -- tell me what to do, and I'll do it. Others (who give the rest of us a bad name) more shrewdly analyze the situation to find the best opportunity for the longest, most expensive engagement. They pitch that to their client, collect their fee, and run snickering to the bank before the whole thing collapses. The best consultants expend just as much energy as the latter group on the analysis, but they strive to help clients accomplish their goals because they know that successful clients are the only basis for long-term consulting success.

Here are some tips for navigating the unique relationship between consultant and client to help your customers move forward.

Be an outsider

Because you're not a box on your client's org chart, you possess a different perspective on their business. You can distance yourself better from what's going on within their company to see what it all means to the rest of the world. Your experience with other clients who have been down the same or similar paths can enlighten the road ahead for your customers. Your opinions may be more candid and less biased, because you're not caught up in political power struggles at the office -- at least, you shouldn't be.

Be an insider

Even though you remain somewhat detached from your client's organization, you have the opportunity (thanks to your NDA) to learn details of their operations that aren't disclosed to most outsiders. You may also work more closely in a peer relationship with some of their people; this gives you the chance to learn how everything ticks. Don't waste that opportunity. Combine your outside perspective with an insider's knowledge to discern the best directions for your client.

Be an advocate

You should be committed to the goals your client is trying to achieve. If you can't believe in the mission, don't take the assignment. With that in mind, a good consultant keeps their eyes wide open for opportunities that others may have missed -- either because they're too involved in the details of what they're already doing, or because they're operating at too high a level of abstraction (often the case with C-levels) to perceive the tiny signs that may point to something big.

Be a devil's advocate

Even though you must agree with your client's goals, you don't have to agree with all of their decisions about how to reach them. While an employee might worry about appearing to be a troublemaker for speaking up, a consultant must always be ready to lose the engagement rather than to avoid telling the truth or raising pertinent questions. If your client goes down the wrong road and you didn't even question it, whom do you think they will blame? As the one independent voice for whose opinions clients are paying good money, they expect wisdom from you even when they say they don't like it. Therefore, you need to avoid tunnel vision on your assignments and keep scanning the periphery for possible threats to your client's success.

Be neither a prostitute nor a spouse

I used to think of myself as a software prostitute -- whatever the client wants, if the price is right. Over the years, I've come to find that the best client relationships go much deeper than that -- that it's my duty as a consultant to help them recognize and build on their strengths while avoiding self-destruction. It isn't like marriage either, though. In a marriage, the union is so important that candid discussion may suffer as one or both parties conducts a perhaps unconscious risk/benefit analysis before saying what they really think (sometimes informally recognized as "less said the better"). Consultants have to be easy to fire so they can maintain that independent voice. We aren't like lovers, either -- even though a lover may start out as a risk-free shoulder to cry on, the significance of the relationship usually escalates quickly to the status of another form of marriage.

Consultants are more like therapists. We must balance a professional independence against an intimate knowledge of our clients, precisely so that we can help them best. Consultants are business therapists.

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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...

13 comments
PMPsicle
PMPsicle

While everything you say is true, Chip (at least in this article). The one point that is missing is that as a consultant you have to be able to recognize your client's wants. The sad fact is that many times, the client is not looking for a true independent consultant -- even when that's what they ask for or hire. Sometimes all they want is someone to say, "Yup, you're right". And sometimes, all they really want is a contractor to do the work they can't or don't want to do. So before acting like a therapist, be sure they want advice and not just a quick, strings-free romp for money.

reisen55
reisen55

As an independent, I like to build consulting relationships with other independent companies. I have a local web consultant I regularly toss such problems to and he gives me referrals and good words when needed. However, I just found a major consulting franchise outfit that was just bad. The poor fellow who went into the franchise got financially screwed to start with and has to purchase all customer hardware with his own money. Bad. Support is non-existant. And I was dumped into the middle-end of a server project for a local company that was a profit maker for Dell and a horror show for the customer in terms of size and dollar fit. A small office with 10 systems and a problematic server (2003 with 1gb of memory) that crashed all of the time (...add more memory?) was sold a new PowerEdge Server, 3TB of drive space and capacity for 900 users. Firm had only 20gb of rotational data too. Just that. The Windows 2008 OS came initially in Spanish to top it all off. I walked away. My own project: local landscape firm, 10 stations, clone server that was problematic with 4gb of memory. Customer wanted a name brand. 20gb or so of rotational data too. Configured a small PowerEdge T100 with two SATA drives (easy to upgrade), only 160gb to start with pair-raid. 8gb memory. Customer had Win2008 in English. $840 total cost for the server. My install was a bit fragmented but went well. So Who is more customer centric???????????????

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... maybe "bartender" works better. Although arguably a bartender is an enabler towards self-destruction...

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... I've found through experience that if something goes wrong and you were just along for the ride, the first thing they'll ask is "Why didn't the consultant point this out?" So even if the client insists on not changing anything (which often happens), I always let them know what I think might be better before going along with it.

mafergus
mafergus

I also think that there are times as a consultant where the customer wants you to be the Negotiator and take the slings and arrows they can't/won't due to office politics. I have been involved in several situations where the client had a good and workable solution, but didn't have the clout to get it implimented but by having a consultant present the information, it made everything much easier.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

That my clients are either drunk or crazy???? :D

mafergus
mafergus

To me, that is the "go directly to jail" option in consulting. Or at least a mild walk through the desert with no water. Those situations bring back all the fun and politics of being in a large enterprise!

reisen55
reisen55

Was just such a screwed up mess it reminded me of MicroAge of Mahwah wherein we had a sales rep who, in 1994, sold Mt. Sinai hospital a $13.95 Belkin cable for $1,300. No kidding. THAT is when I developed an interest in independent work. The franchise server was overspec for the office and the Spanish operating system just was the icing on the cake. The poor devil who bought into this scam is a Unix programmer who thinks he knows networks, but is learning fast the dirty secrets of our game. My server install, at the same time, has proven a lovely little project, properly set and sized, purchased by the client directly from Dell ... I never purchase anything whenever possible for my clients with my money ... and my only issues were finding my domain route. My two 2008 Server experiences have involved creation of new domains, and moving over, but this was an insert into an existing schema. It worked out well enough. Because of that MicroAge story above, I have long been client-centric and their best advocate for what is proper and fair.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've been brought in before to be the "clout factor" for an idea. Often, though, I find something with the idea that needs adjusting, which is not always initially pleasing to my client but usually works out in the end.

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