This article is part 2 of our 5-part series on life-changing lessons for "people consultants." To see part 1, go here.
11. What is (Really) Going On? When approached to do a corporate coaching or training job, it’s quite common to have clients describe their objectives in limited or ambiguous terms. Sometimes, this might be due to reasons of confidentiality but more often than not it’s because the client is not really sure what they want.
For example, the client might ask for group training for a team of 8 engineers for the purpose of “better communication.” But what does this mean? Are we talking about giving presentations in front of groups, influencing customers, improving interactions between staff, between managers and staff, or some combination thereof?
There are times when, after diving deeper into the client’s stated goals, the real reason for wanting the services of a trainer or facilitator may turn out to be different from what was said initially. For example, the real, underlying reason for wanting “better communication” within the team might prove to be long-running conflict between a single manager and a team member that nobody really knows how to talk about or what to do, which is affecting everyone else.
If you proceed to jump into a project with only a superficial understanding based on erroneous assumptions, having not engaged with the client properly, you risk placing yourself in a position where you can get blindsided. Always understand the realities first before getting caught up in the project.
12. What (Really) Needs to Be Done? Knowing the realities of the situation will naturally affect what you propose. In the example above, the situation can be turned into an upsell opportunity by suggesting the client explores team building (group training) in conjunction with conflict resolution (one-on-one-coaching).
In contrast to the situation above, where clients provide scant information about their objectives, other clients will come to you with very clear ideas about what they want to achieve and be totally upfront about all the problems they’re facing, being open and frank about any past management failures. However, there are times when you might discover that the real work needing to be done is broader and more complex. This is especially true when the stated issue is symptomatic of an underlying issue. For example, team conflict (the stated issue) might be linked to the way the company rewards performance, creating an ultra competitive team environment — a case of “every man for himself.” Without addressing the systemic issue, the problem is unlikely to ever go away.
Looking at the broader system within which people are embedded (i.e. the organsational processes, management attitudes and culture) helps you to better prepare, minimise risk, increase your chances of meeting your client’s expectations, and also allows you to spot upsell opportunities.
13. Knowing When to Ask Questions and When to Give Advice is an Art Form. Asking questions is at the core of how coaches and consultants work, both during and at the beginning of the client engagement. How you ask questions is important. There is a difference between sounding as though you are trying to establish the facts surrounding an important business issue or, on the other hand, sounding confused or as though you haven’t done your homework properly.
In traditional management consulting, there are two types of consulting known as “process” and “content.” Process consulting is the “soft touch,” which involves facilitating the process of helping the client come to the right answers through questions and guided discussion. Content consulting is the opposite: telling the client what they should do by sharing your expertise. In coaching theory, non-directive coaching is essentially the same as process consulting and directive coaching (aka mentoring) is essentially the same as content consulting.
In consulting, some believe the process approach is superior to content approach, while others believe the opposite to be true.
One thing that clients (in both coaching and consulting) will find off-putting is if you spend too much time at one end of this spectrum. The client will be annoyed if you answer every question with a question, but they also won’t appreciate being told what to do all the time.
To only question or to only instruct imposes a restriction on free flowing dialogue that is not natural to human beings. Knowing when to swap between these two behaviours is an art form, not a science. Getting the best results for a client is not about strict adherence to any one type of coaching or consulting philosophy. It is about doing what’s best to meet the demands of the situation.
14. Active Listening. Another essential skill connected to the practice of asking good questions is the practice of active listening. As the name suggests, active listening is paying full attention to the speaker (content as well as emotional tone, body language and implicit meaning) rather than just passively hearing the words. Consultants will often paraphrase statements made by the client, for example: "Would you say it's correct to say that your business goal is [blank]?" Active listening is used to clarify ambiguities, assumptions, contradictions and/or jargon in a non-judgmental way. Active listening not only prevents misunderstandings, but also builds trust. When a client sees that you are genuinely trying to understand things more clearly from his perspective, the expression of empathy often encourages him to share more and open up, giving you richer information than might otherwise have been the case.
15. Use Written Proposals and Contracts. An oral/verbal agreement between parties is considered to be a legally valid contract, however, it is hard to prove in the event of a dispute. It is important to always have some form of a project contract set out in writing. The duel purpose of a written contract is to protect you and your business legally, and, as a more practical benefit, to provide clarity. Try not to look at the contract just as a legal document; it is most effective when it is used as a marketing and communication tool. Length is not necessarily more important than brevity and brevity is not necessarily more important than length. What matters most is clarity. That is, clearly address the client's problem and propose a clear solution.
When the client is satisfied with the best proposal option, the next step is to work together to draw up a detailed contract to be signed off. Much of what went into the proposal will be incorporated into the contract. The primary goal of the contract is operational clarity. Contracts are commonly used to outline the client’s objectives, your role parameters for the engagement, what things you will and will not do, the people who will be involved and what kind of cooperation you will need (e.g., a senior manager to send out an email informing a team about the upcoming project), the resources, materials, documents and/or people you will need access to, the length of time for the project, and the payment terms. It is also where you need to be clear on issues such as licenses, intellectual property, copyright, how issues of confidentiality will be handled, who will pay for food, travel and accommodation, and what happens in the event of a terminated project.
Many consultants use a standard set of terms and conditions towards the end of the contract document to address common issues that will not vary from client to client. We recommend getting your T&Cs done up properly by having them reviewed by a lawyer. The main part of the contract — the part that changes from client to client — does not need to sound very legalistic; its main purpose is to communicate, clarify and gain commitment. This allows the client to understand exactly what is expected and what preparations need to be put in place to ensure the project can start smoothly.
16. Be Clear on What Charges Are Separate or Extra to Your Main Fee. For example, when working with a graphic designer, purchasing stock photography is usually treated as separate cost which the client pays for, but make sure it’s clear UPFRONT. Don’t assume the client knows what is and is not common practice in your consulting niche.
17. Changes to the Original Contract Are Subject to Changes in Price. Be clear UPFRONT on what happens in the event of the client changing his/her mind and asking for more/less/different work than what had been agreed to in the original contact once the project is underway. Something that frustrates many consultants is when clients pile on "little requests" that deviate from the original plans without fully appreciating the time, energy and cost that is required from your end. The solution to this problem comes down to setting expectations correctly at the beginning of the relationship.
18. Embrace (Constructive) Conflict & Disagreement. Create an expectation with your client that you will be honest, open and eager to engage in constructive debate. Without serious debate, people resort to superficial discussions, hide their true feelings, and ideas cannot be properly tested. If you disagree with someone’s opinion, make it clear that you are going to let them know — and that you will always be respectful. It’s important to set this tone from the beginning, otherwise if you suddenly launch into a critical assessment of someone’s idea, strategy or approach without having established an atmosphere of constructive conflict, it’s going to lead to problems. (See The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.)
19. Avoid “Consultant-Speak”: Malcolm Jackman, former CEO of Coates Hire, is recorded as once exclaiming that the HR / management consulting space "is full of bloody jargon." After a while, this jargon becomes second nature to many consultants, but for outsiders it can be extremely off-putting. How jargon is used is highly contextual, however, some common "red flags" include terms like: Downsizing, Rightsizing, Competency Framework, Employee Value Proposition, Human Capital Management, Intellectual Capital, Talent Pipeline, Strategic, Capability, Alignment, Centralisation, Value-Add, Stakeholder, Leverage, Paradigm.
An example of how consultant-speak can be detrimental to your efforts was when an Australian company spent $150,000 with a consulting firm on an employee engagement initiative only to have it shot down by its staff. It was called the "behavioural capability framework" — a 12-page document given to staff asking them to "leverage relationships with stakeholders," "think ahead of the curve," "contribute to areas of strategic importance," and "champion the relentless pursuit of excellence.” It was described by one employee as "a lot of HR claptrap … on the ground we just think that it's a complete joke."
It's hard to say any particular word will cause problems. As in the example above, it's more likely to be the excessive use of many words strung together that creates an artificial tone overall, giving others the impression that you are trying too hard to sound smart. Every client is different. Some habitually use jargon themselves, while others will make a point to pull you aside and tell you which words are their biggest pet peeve. As a general rule, avoid consultant-speak — speak to people like they are human beings, because… they are.
20. Keep Written Records. (Don’t just agree to things verbally.) Document and record things as much as possible throughout all stages of the project. This does not mean a complex CRM or project management system. It can be as simple as following-up every conversation, call or action with an email to say something like: “Just confirming what we discussed earlier on the phone, I will be sending the materials to Level 1, 50 Sesame Street.” This means that you have a dated and timestamped trail to come back to at any time if the client has an issue. This way, you don’t have to rely on your memory if you need to retrieve important information — plus the information can be used for template structures for future projects.
To be continued...