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.
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 blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.