How do consultants get sticky – making yourself invaluable to your customers

How do consultants get sticky? As the old joke goes “What’s brown and sticky? A stick”. It’s bad, but I realised when I wrote my blog on Value Articulation – and getting a payrise last week that I talked around being a sticky consultant but I didn’t go as far as to articulate what that means. If you work in consulting then you will know those people who are always in demand and chargeable. Those are sticky consultants – the holy grail of a recruitment department because people buy people. But, I believe that stickiness is learnt behaviour and anyone can be that consultant.

Knowing your Audience

I was at a Utilities conference in the heartlands of England last year and a very senior SAP executive from Germany came to talk about their offering. He opened with “I arrived here today with my British colleague in a Porsche. We drove really really fast”. Silence. He continued “I feel now that we are all in a Porsche together. Actually we all have our own Porsches”. Continued silence – and his British colleague shrunk into his seat, horrified.

You see: in England it’s a bit unacceptable to be successful, and very unacceptable to flaunt it. He lost his audience in the first minute and they judged him. Ron Dennis followed with his keynote and started with “The problem with these consulting companies is they’re all in bed together”. The audience roars with laughter. We love deprecation in this country.

It’s the same when you go into a consulting engagement – the customer has to believe that you empathise with them.

Challenging the Customer

I’ve had a few occasions through the years where customers have complained about consultants not being challenging enough. When a customer takes the services of a consulting organisation, they do so because they don’t believe they have the skills in-house to complete this piece of business transformation.

They also expect the consultants on the ground to bring their experience – of Technology, Line of Business and how other similar organisations have approached similar situations.

There are two disaster scenarios; the first is where the consultants gather requirements and deliver what they are asked to do. The customer could have done that themselves and they will leave feeling empty. During the requirements gathering process the consultants should have challenged their thinking at every junction and brought their experience to bear.

But, there is another disaster scenario, which is when consultants try to challenge the customer and it goes wrong. There can be a number of reasons for this – for example IT departments don’t always like to be challenged too hard: they think they know best already. This requires care and diplomacy. Also – customer don’t want consultants to act like they know-it-all and they certainly don’t want to work with arrogant people. Remember: the customer knows their own business better than you.

Market Awareness

Great consultants know the market in which they operate, simple as that. You need to learn this stuff – and learn it in your own personal style. For instance I like to read the annual reports of my customers and understand a bit about their business. Google Alerts work well.

Understand how global events might affect them, like rising oil and gas prices or the earthquakes in Japan. Look at their competitors and how they are performing – and then remember that this is just some background context – the customer will always know more than you – and use this information as a shoe in for them to explain more about your customer.

Technology Awareness – know your product

I was once in a round table with a highly successful Texan oil baron – and he told a fabulous story about an jet plane salesman who came to his office and peddled his wares. He was asked a series of questions – wingspan, weight and power – and was unable to answer them. The oil baron kicked him out and told him to come back when he learnt his product.

A year later, the salesman returned with an expensive cowboy hat and explained that he didn’t want to sell him a plane, but just to say thank you for the advice, which had sold him a huge number of planes in the previous year. The oil baron ended up buying a plane that day.

The same applies to the technologies that you are choosing to implement, if this is applicable. In your Line of Business area of expertise you need to know your products – what they do well, what they don’t do well and what the roadmap is. You are being paid for your expertise.

And again, you need to know this in relation to the major competitors. Know the Gartner Magic Quadrant and read about the customers in that sector. Know their strengths and weaknesses because if the customer says “I think product X would have been a better choice” then you need to be informed.

As a parting thought here, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know and go and research it – it is much much worse to be wrong.

Image and Self-Awareness

Actually this merits a whole blog of its own, which I will write next. But in short – you need to take an appropriate image to the customer and consider how you empathise. Some customers want consultants to be suited and booted and others want them to fit right into the customer culture – I’ve turned up in ripped jeans and a hoodie to certain customers.

Don’t be afraid to ask what they expect – it’s an easy conversation to have and avoids confusion.

The Social Animal

As human beings we are essentially social animals and like to work with people that we like to work with. As a consultant you have to face that you won’t develop a close bond with everyone but rather to focus on the relationships where that can exist.

Make sure you join in their social activities. Even if you don’t drink, you can go down the bar and have a club soda. It’s OK to head home after a few drinks, but if you don’t turn up at all they may judge you.

The same is true of other activities. We sometimes do customer vs consultant football or golf – and one customer had a go-karting track next to their office. Make it competitive and have fun. This is where personal relationships are built.

But watch out – you are a consultant and an image is expected. If you are going to get drunk then be very aware of how people may view you; a consultant is always on-duty around customers.

Be equally careful on social media like Facebook and Twitter. You are always on-duty there too and people may judge you for that picture of you face down on the pavement at 3am. If you are worried about this, don’t add work people and tell them that you don’t mix the two – that’s perfectly acceptable.

Partying and the Morning After

I remember a wonderful story of a project we ran in Amsterdam where the consultants went out partying all night with the customer. The consultants went back to the hotel, showered, changed and found that the customer (who was supposed to be presenting to the management team that morning) hadn’t turned up for work. They took over the meeting and presented on his behalf, and it turned out just fine.

On the other hand I was at the SAP World Tour last year and one of the consultants from a competitor had gotten messed up the night before – and forgot he was presenting at 9am. About 8.45 panic had set in with the event organisers and they had to get someone to go into his room, get him out of bed and into a suit. He turned up unwashed and still sweating booze and the presentation was a disaster.

It’s OK to party – but never at the expense of the following day at a paying customer. If you can’t handle the heat then stay out of the kitchen. Whilst we’re there, it must always stay platonic with customers. Only Bad Things happens when that rule is broken.

And in any case – make sure you are in before the customer. Turning up at 10am with a Starbucks paper cup isn’t acceptable, even if you worked until 9pm the night before. The customer won’t notice and your hard work will just look like lassitude.

Conclusions

If you can empathise with customers, challenge them, know your technology and market and project the right image and self-awareness then I have no doubt that you will up your game and become stickier.

There are a number of things here – why not pick on the one that you think you can attack most easily and focus on that? See if it works for you.

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2 Responses to How do consultants get sticky – making yourself invaluable to your customers

  1. Jarret Pazahanick says:

    Hi John

    I very much enjoyed this article and is a topic I think that should be mandatory reading for consultants both junior and senior. I found myself shaking my head in agreement when reading the article and at the core they are all common sense but as the quote goes “common sense is not common”

    I would like to add a few more into the mix:

    1. Provide knowledge and information when not asked and keep your client in the know at all times. I told my clients about EHP5 GA release last week,relevant news from Sapphire, presentations etc over the past few days to put in perspective.

    2. Give the client resources credit for all project success. I see way to many junior and senior consultants trying to get “credit” for what they have done. I have been at several clients where the project was such a success that several team members got promoted and trust me they dont forgot the consultants that helped in that success.

    3. Treat the client like your boss. Doesnt matter what SI you work for if the client is happy your boss will be happy.

    4. If you have the skill let the client be aware of issues before they become issues. They will appreciate it in the long run.

    5. Try not to get involved in office politics. If you are a “sticky” consultant you may be working with several different client resources over several projects.

    6. Share your knowledge at ever chance as I come accross many that think “If I teach the client everything I wont be needed” but the opposite is true.

    One of my favorite articles of the year. Great job and not sure how you had time with Sapphire this week.

  2. Jamie Oswald says:

    Sounds like I should stay on the customer side.

    Love the part about letting clients teach you (and make them know you know that they know more than you).

    I also think it’s important to never talk bad about old clients or overdisclose anything because folks will know you’ll talk about them too.

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