Elaine Biech has proven that independent consultants can compete and succeed against larger firms. Her client list alone is proof of that: 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.

Known as “the trainers’ trainer,” Biech designs custom training programs for managers, leaders, trainers, and consultants. She’s also the author of two of the foundation texts of the consulting trade, The Business of Consulting: The Basics and Beyond (Jossey-Bass, 1998) and The Consultant’s Legal Guide (Jossey-Bass, 1999). In addition, she served as consulting editor for the prestigious Consulting Annuals (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

I talked with Biech recently about working as a training consultant and succeeding as an independent.
In part two of Rick Freedman’s conversation with Elaine Biech, she’ll discuss how she developed her selling skills, measuring the success of consulting engagements, and working on virtual teams. Look for it next week.
Freedman: You bring a unique perspective to this column because you’re not exactly an IT consultant, but you have a substantial practice in another specialty. Could you expose TechRepublic readers to this other side of the consulting business?
Biech: My practice has evolved over the years. I started in the training field, and my idea was to provide customized training for organizations. When I started, there were a few firms offering organizational training, and they were all offering courses off the shelf. The curriculum was so canned, it was like, “Tell the class to turn to page 49, then turn on the video, then ask these three questions.” Every time I went into a client organization, I heard the same thing: “That may work in an oil company, but we make chocolate. It’s not going to work here.” I figured that if you could put together examples that use the company’s products and processes, we could get through that barrier. So I developed my own customer programs.

Freedman: So you recognized the need to develop consensus and to deliver programs that were directly pertinent to the participants.
Biech: I interviewed a slice of the organization from top to bottom and went through all the departments. I learned their jargon, I began to understand their problems, I found examples I could design training around, and I discovered that through those interviews, I was building support for the training.

Freedman: You give the participants the opportunity to be involved in the development of the program.
Biech: When they get to the training, it’s written in their language, it’s got their examples, and they say, “Wow, she understands us.” That’s what consulting is really all about; learning about the organization and understanding the problem at hand. I found myself migrating into more of a consulting role. So now our practice is focused on helping large organizations work through large-scale change.

Freedman: How is your firm structured? Do you have a staff or a team of consultants?
Biech: I started out as a one-person shop and within a short period of time, I found a project that was too big for me to deliver alone so I brought in another consultant to help. The two of us found other projects that were too big for us, so my business…grew to twenty employees, and I wasn’t liking what I was doing, administering the business rather than working with clients. I decided to bring the organization down, so I worked with the staff and helped them start their own consulting businesses. My practice now is me and one support person, and I work with about 35 subcontractors. This works better for me—I make more money, I have more time, and I work fewer hours.

Freedman: I work the same way—my consulting firm is me, and I bring together teams of special talents depending on the needs of the project.
Biech: That’s an important point. This way of working isn’t just better for you and me, it’s better for the client. When I size up a consulting project and say, for instance, “I need a good training designer, someone who understands ISO 9000, and an expert in staffing and recruiting,” I go out and recruit the best people, they deliver quality work, and when the job is done, they’re done. What was happening before was that I’d get these specialists on staff, and when we didn’t have a project in their specialty, we’d put them on something else they may not have been suited for, and it wasn’t good for them or for the clients.

Freedman: Do you think in the sales cycle it’s an advantage or a liability to be a small firm?
Biech: Ten years ago, you would have had to hide the fact that you worked out of your house. Now everyone wants to be the entrepreneur working out of their home…. There was a time when single-person organizations were looked down upon in business, but now clients are sophisticated about the concept of the virtual organization, and they realize the benefits of pulling together a team for each project.

Freedman: How do you compete against the large firms?
Biech: The most important thing is to develop a relationship with the client first. I find myself up against firms that are much larger than me all the time. When I compete against these firms, I go in and, rather than tell the client about me and my experience, I start by asking the client about them and their situation and do some problem-solving right there during the sales call. It’s not a formal root-cause analysis, but more like an informal “Have you tried this?” conversation. The big consulting companies are great at putting up flashy presentations—they put everything in the world that they’ve ever done up there, and then they spend an hour commending themselves. If you, as the consultant, are doing more talking than the client, you’re not going to get that project. I typically prepare key questions that I’ve gleaned from a telephone conversation, put those questions out there for them to talk about, and a conversation that’s scheduled for an hour will go longer because they want to keep talking about their issues.

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.