I’m currently helping an international software firm develop a training program for their consultants, who are located around the world. These consultants need to have a deep understanding and experience with the firm’s products, but the conversation gets a bit more complex from there.

What are the basic skills that IT consultants must have, and how do you create a training program that helps them develop those skills without taking them out of the field (and thus crippling your billable revenues)? Since most of us don’t have a major international corporation behind us, the effort becomes even more daunting. So how do we self-train in these skills, assuming we even agree on what the essential skill set is?

Six topics in the training program

This isn’t a new question. In 1957, the Association of Management Consulting Firms (which went by the acronym ACME) formulated a Common Body of Knowledge for Management Consultants. In 1977, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) published a study on Management Advisory Services offered by CPAs. Though the studies (or their subsequent enhancements) have not achieved the status of the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), they do give us a starting point in the process.

After much to-and-fro and a few conferences, a consensus emerged on the topics that a consultant’s training program should include. The six agreed upon topics are as follows:

  • Management consulting and the management consulting profession
  • Promotion and new business development
  • Proposal planning, preparation, and presentation
  • Project management and control techniques
  • Developing substantive consulting skills
  • Ethics in consulting

While the AICPA list of six topics may be skewed toward management consulting, many of the skills are just as pertinent for IT consultants.

Let’s look at the first two topics through the lens of self-training. I’ll highlight resources (specifically, books) that I find helpful in my skill development and that I recommend to consultants I train.

Management consulting and the management consulting profession

I’m frequently amazed by how many of the consultants in my training classes don’t have a good grasp of the basics of their profession. By the basics, I’m referring to concepts such as utilization, average billing rate, leverage, and fee capacity. If you’re unfamiliar with these concepts, take a look at the books that I recommend every consultant should read.

  • Managing the Professional Service Firm: David Maister’s classic is the acknowledged bible in this field, with its mix of practical advice and experience-based wisdom.
  • The Intellect Industry: Mark C. Scott does an outstanding job of explaining the basic financial elements of running a consulting business. Scott looks at consulting firms from the perspective of a hypothetical investor, and outlines the financial and practice metrics that indicate whether a firm is healthy and profitable.
  • The Business of Consulting: Elaine Biech’s book is the best resource I’ve found for walking consultants through the basic operational requirements of running a practice. She’s written a follow-up on legal issues that are indispensable for those who write their own contracts or engagement letters (The Consultant’s Legal Guide).

I’m often challenged when I recommend these works to students. Why should an IT consultant care about this stuff? Isn’t knowledge of the technology enough? I’ve witnessed too many near-death experiences in our field to accept the idea that the business end takes care of itself.

Firms that don’t think about their inventory of consulting hours, which, in the end, are our only product, often end up making unrealistic revenue projections that can’t possibly be achieved with the existing staff, and then pay out bonuses or hand out quotas based on these fantasy numbers.

Firms or individuals that lack an understanding of leverage, or the correct proportion of junior and senior consultants required to deliver services to the client, often end up over-taxing their skilled consultants, while their rookies never get the chance to watch the masters at work or to experience the difficulties of real-world client work under the wing of a senior mentor.

In short, many of the dysfunctions I see in consulting firms are often the result of a simple lack of knowledge of the basic mechanics of our profession. These books form the foundation of knowledge that every consultant, whether independent or on staff at a professional services firm, must know.

Promotion and new business development

The comment I hear most often from consultants, especially independents, is “I hate marketing!” Most of us are in this business because we love the technical challenge and appreciate the opportunity to make a difference in our client’s business results, not to promote and sell our services.

Many consultants I know are reticent to sell themselves and refuse to use the standard marketing techniques of cold-calling or glad-handing. I’ve got a groaning bookshelf loaded with material on this topic, and quite a few of the books have provided me great insight into tools and techniques that can help grow my business without resorting to pushy sales tactics that just don’t fit my personality. Here are three resources that I particularly like.

  • How to Establish a Unique Brand in the Consulting Profession: Alan Weiss, the prolific and ubiquitous author of numerous books and articles on this topic, is perhaps the best known expert in this niche. In this book, he presents outstanding advice on using seminars, articles, and other guerilla marketing techniques to differentiate yourself from the competition. In his aptly-named How to Acquire Clients, Weiss outlines a structured and logical process for pursuing and landing engagements.
  • Get Clients Now!: This is the most valuable book I’ve found in this area, though it is not strictly a consultant-focused book; it is targeted to any services professional who is trying to build a client list. C.J. Hayden offers a stepwise program for understanding your own marketing and promotional skills and deficiencies, and then building a plan to generate leads and pursue and close business.

More on this topic

This is just the beginning on the complex topic of self-training for consultants. In my next post, I’ll focus on the four other topics in the training program and explore other resources that IT consultants can use to sharpen their skills and their knowledge of our profession.

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