Through their book, The Consultative Approach: Partnering for Results! (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 1997), and their consulting practice, Advance Consulting, Virginia LaGrossa and Suzanne Saxe train consultants and managers in the tools and techniques of consultative behavior. Their service is designed for both managers and consultants so that they can function as business partners, rather than merely technical resources, for their clients.

I talked with Suzanne Saxe recently to see how their approach might help us, as IT consultants, to elevate the quality of our delivery to our clients.

The Saxe and LaGrossa philosophy
Freedman: Tell me about the consultative approach.
Saxe: Our focus is on developing the capabilities of professional service organizations and internal IT organizations working with their internal clients. We focus on three areas: building people’s capabilities and skills around being a consultant and business partner, helping them integrate their consulting skills into their technical methodologies, and looking at their other practices to see what really needs to be integrated to create a consultative culture.

Freedman: How did you develop your consultative philosophy?
Saxe: [Virginia LaGrossa and I had] been working for a consulting organization building service and sales cultures for banks, and at that time, we recognized that bankers needed to become consultants. From that, we developed a process and methodology and built our ideas over a couple of years. About seven years ago, the professional services world started to take off. We [were already working] with network and system-integration companies and with professional service companies that were integrating software products for clients. We were in the right place at the right time—we began to understand that customer group, their issues, and their needs.
Our approach has been to focus on three components. First, how do you strategically work with people in the moment as a consultant? Then, how do you make your expertise relevant to the client? Finally, what kind of a process do you use no matter who you’re working with and what kind of expertise you’re putting into place?

What do you think?

Is it important for a consulting firm to have a formal methodology in place that every member of the staff uses? Why or why not? Post a comment below or send us a note.

Freedman: How do you identify target prospects and generate leads?
Saxe: Referrals are the best way. We worked with one company for seven years, and folks from that company went off to other companies or started other organizations. More than half of our business comes from referrals.
In terms of active marketing, we’re going after the professional service organizations, software companies that have professional service components, and companies that are trying to elevate their IT professionals to [function as] consultants and business partners.

Freedman: What do you think is the biggest obstacle facing the development of the types of organizations you’ve worked with?
Saxe: In terms of firm development, the biggest [problem is] the integration of methodology into everything they’re doing. A lot of them try, some do a pretty good job, some do a lip-service job, and some of them have no idea.

Freedman: Is it an issue when IT services firms reach a certain level of growth and then they suddenly say, “We must have this robust methodology now?”
Saxe: We have one client that actually started with a focus on methodology from day one, because they were trained in it in their past company. Up to a certain number of people—maybe it’s 50 or at most 100—you can have a common language, and everyone can go do their own thing. Once you start to get beyond that number, especially if you have people who are not as experienced, getting any kind of fixed bid is impossible unless you have a methodology. For those doing time and materials, they don’t necessarily have to build a methodology so quickly. If they want to get into any kind of fixed price or estimation process, however, they have to have [a methodology]. We’re also finding that it’s critical to have a methodology to deliver client satisfaction.

Measuring results
Freedman: How does this apply to internal IT organizations?
Saxe: We’re working with an internal IT organization, and they’re really trying to do a different kind of business by partnering with their vendors. For a lot of IT teams, it’s a whole new way of working. They have four or five projects they’re trying to get done, and in order to do them fast, they need to bring on some big resources. They understand that they don’t manage or control it all like they used to. So it’s about getting things done more quickly and expediently, using all the brainpower involved, and not having such a hierarchy as they would before.

Freedman: So how do you measure the results of the work that you do?
Saxe: We get the senior people to define the behavior changes they want…to see their teams exhibit. They acknowledge that [these behaviors] will translate into increased productivity and sales. We then focus on observing those behaviors.

Freedman: Are consultants enthusiastic about gaining these new approaches to consulting, or are they saying, “I’m a brilliant technician; I don’t need this stuff?”
Saxe: The ones who are out there working with clients are saying, “Yes! Gimme, gimme!” The ones who are in their cubicles, like developers, don’t necessarily see the value. We focus on the ones who are actually in there implementing projects, working with client delivery teams. We ask them to bring in real client issues, and that helps them understand that this can be useful. It’s not some esoteric case study. They walk away with something they can apply that day.

Freedman: Those communication and influence skills are the differentiators in this IT consulting business.
Saxe: And they make the consultants feel much more confident in their ability to be of value. There’s nothing worse than feeling that you’re not getting your message across.

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 Relationship and two upcoming works: The e-Consultant and Building the IT Consulting Practice, both scheduled for publication later this year.

About Consulting Q&A

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. According to Freedman, the practicing consultants out there every day, selling, planning, and delivering projects for clients are the real masters. By giving them a chance to share their concepts, techniques, and lessons learned, he hopes to build consensus among consultants on the industry’s best practices and methodologies. If you have a question for Rick, e-mail us.