What does it take to become a successful consultant?
Consulting: A very difficult career in which to be successful. I’ve thought of so many things and lessons learned about what makes a great, successful consultant. Is it always listening to the customer? Is it always telling the customer he or she should do the right thing? Maybe not. I’ve been reflecting lately and looking back over my twenty plus year career (I started consulting and programming professionally in 1989) and I’ve been thinking about how a great consultant or programmer can become a successful consultant.
Great consultants and great programmers are not always successful. Sure, it may take a while to be moderately successful from a financial point of view, but that does not equate to reputable success within an industry or reputable success within a defined customer base. I’ve consulted on no less than 150 jobs and customers-so I think this makes me qualified, albeit not uniquely, to share my experience and lessons learned. The road has been hard, but I don’t think I would change it because it has made me who I am today professionally.
So after reflection, I’ve sort of defined these 10 simple rules for success. They are in no particular order, but are sort-of general rules to follow at any point in a project.
Think Long Term: So many consultants start off on a gig with the clear expectations that they will be in and out of the gig in a short-time frame. Most freshmen consultants will think that the customer has X amount of hours; when in fact that customer has a 3 years supply of hours available for that gig-the consultant just doesn’t know it. A consultant should always think long-term. Think big picture and strategic goals that will satisfy the customer’s needs.
Taking Stock: Freshmen consultants so often think because it is a short gig and since the customer has already defined the requirements, that they should just fulfill the requirements. More often than not, the customer has only touched on 20% of their requirements. Fully flushing out those requirements is a must. If that means the consultant should spend a few hours on his/her own, then those hours invested have a huge return on investment if done correctly. What I am not stating is that the consultant should spend countless months of their free time without compensation. Rather they should seek to maximize their impact to the customer on a case-by-case basis.
Determine the willingness of the customer to change: If a customer is not willing to change, be willing to walk away from the project. Otherwise, the project is more than likely not to succeed no matter how much money the customer is willing to pour into a project. As they say, one can lead a horse to water, but cannot make it drink. This holds true for customers because too often I have seen so-called visionaries build products thinking that “if they build it, they will come” and guess what? Nobody came to get the product. If the customer is willing to put not only their money on the line, but their professional reputation by changing the status quo, then the consultant will have a higher chance of success.
Determine your ability to change the customer: Too often customers will throw money to a consultant and expect the consultant to work miracles. The customer must give the consultant the power to make changes within the organization. Without it, nothing will happen except make the consultant feel powerless and unfulfilled professionally. As a result, 100% will never be given by either party and the project will not be successful.
Set Achievable Goals: There are those consultants, myself included, who think that they are the architects of Rome and will hence, try to build Rome in a day with a small town budget. Every consultant falls prey to this and he/she should be consciously aware that the customer wants to do something in X amount of days or months with Y amount of dollars. Not every goal that you or a customer wants is achievable with a finite timeline and budget.
Communicate even the smallest success or failure: We are all human and customers expect that. They don’t want superheroes, they want reality whether they know it or not. If the customer doesn’t know what is going on, he or she will not be your champion-under any circumstance. Constant communication of everything to an extent is the key to winning the heart and mind of the customer. Not every customer needs the detail and minutia that us consultants thrive on, however making them aware of those details through the use of weekly status reports lets the customer feel informed and empowered. There is nothing worse for a consultant than a customer who does not feel they have the knowledge or power on the project. It is a sure-fire way to get a project cancelled. Hold back information at your own risk.[/span6][span6]
Build Your Professional Network: There is so much to be said about a well-connected consultant. That you are highly regarded by your peers and customers is a testament to your professionalism and drive to get projects done on-time and under-budget is a statement in and of itself. Joining professional networks online and offline is a great way to do increase your professional presence. Great websites/social media platforms for networking like LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook help consultants stay in touch with others. Use them to find out about new projects that members of your network are working on. Get involved and stay involved.
Increase Your Professional Knowledge: Knowledge is as knowledge does. As a consultant, one should constantly seek to improve their knowledge with their industry. It is not an option, it is absolutely necessary for not only success, but survival. Certifications, independent study and college courses are absolutely necessary to stay up-to-date on knowledge needed in any industry and field.
Measure Before and After: Now we’ve all seen those before-and-after success stories in fitness magazines and countless informercials selling us some great new exercise machine, but measuring before and after is so critical for success. Just like someone who has lost 100 lbs in 6 weeks, it is imperative that the consultant measure where a customer is at the beginning of a project and measuring the changes made at the end of the project.
A good story that I like to throw around is about a consulting project that I did for a health care company a number of years ago. When I was brought in the customer was experiencing quality control issues with their health care claims.
I took measurements at the beginning of the project. The customer actually had to pay the health care company money if the customer did not finalize the claim by a certain timeframe. If the customer finalized before the deadline, they received a bonus.
The customer was actually losing money for every health care claim-approximately $5 a claim. Multiply that by hundreds and thousands of claims a month and it came out to a sizeable loss for the company-to the tune of $3.5 million a year.
After instituting some major software changes, I did another measurement at the end of the year. The customer ended up with minimal losses that year, finalized all but a few health care claims within the deadline and ended up with a $1.28 million surplus in bonuses. I was able to show the customer that the changes I made actually saved not only $3.5 million a year but also yielded them an additional $1.28 million in earnings. The customer was ecstatic, gave me serious kudos and actually earned me more money by virtue of additional customer referrals. To this day, I still get referrals.
Close out the project professionally: People, as with customers, all want happy endings to their stories. Simply leaving the project without closing out in a professional manner means all that good will the consultant has built with the customer will go to waste. A well managed consulting project should always end well. Not doing so will, as a general rule, not generate additional customer work OR referrals. As a general rule, NEVER burn bridges!
In summary, these lessons that I have pointed out here are just a few I have had to learn the hard way over the years. Like the song that stated “Wish I knew what I know now, when I was younger”, I wish I had this kind of knowledge when I started out, as it might have helped me to avoid past mistakes. I hope that by publishing these lessons learned that it will help any kind of consultant deliver their services more efficiently.