consulting word cloud

Being a better consultant

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I’m lucky enough to work with some amazing business owners in Adelaide. I consider myself in an extremely privileged position to be able to influence their thinking and what they’re doing in their businesses ­– and I really care about what happens to them. Marketing is just one part of doing business, but it touches many things inside and outside a company.

I’ve come across all kinds of people in my career as a consultant. It’s the variety of the people I deal with – and the different work they do – that make my job so interesting.  Yes, entrepreneurs and business owners often share common personality traits, but I can honestly say I’ve worked with every different personality type going!

I certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to building great client relationships, but I’ve picked up a thing or two over the years about consulting that I wanted to share in a blog.  I hope some of these tips and notes will help others working in consultancy roles.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

1.  Listen and learn – Never forget that it’s a privilege to be invited into the inner circle of a business.  Yes, you’re meant to be the expert, but you’re also an outsider (at the beginning), so tread carefully. You need to demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about (so they know they’re in safe hands), but you should always spend more time listening than talking.

2. Ask – Even if you’re familiar with the industry, you’re new to this particular company and their culture, so when you have questions or you don’t understand something, ask. You’re an expert in your field, not theirs, so don’t pretend you know everything. I always joke in the first meeting with a client saying, ‘Treat me like an idiot and explain…..this or that’.  Then I get all my ‘dummy’ questions out of the way.

3. Manage expectations – If a piece of work isn’t panning out the way it should, things are getting out of scope, or budgets are quickly getting swallowed up, etc., talk to the client immediately.  Where possible, quote up front. In any case, you should always have a high level of transparency about how and when you’ll be charging and invoicing.  Don’t presume the client knows what you’re doing when. Which brings me to my next point . . .

4. Over-communicate – I probably do this a bit too much, but in my book, there’s no such thing as too much communication.  I’m not talking about sharing personal information, but about responding to every single email, giving progress reports and touching base if you haven’t heard anything in a while.  I always respond to every email and phone call the same day, even if it’s just to say I’ve received it and will respond once I’ve formulated my thoughts.

I’m going to generalise now (!) but having worked in both the UK and Australia, I have noticed that Australians don’t respond to emails as much. I’m often left wondering if technology has failed me because people don’t reply to say they’ve received them.  It drives me crazy, so I make sure I always respond the same day.

5. Time is (their) money – You want to be friendly and open, but always remember that your client has a business to run and is paying for your time. When I attend a meeting, I keep the preamble short and get into the details as quickly as possible, without being rude.  And I never accept the offer of a tea or coffee – they take too long to make.  Water is fine!

6. Break down work into bite-size chunks – When you start working with a new client, it’s a little like going on a first date. You’re just getting to know each other and deciding if you want to continue the relationship. It’s a good idea to de-risk the first piece of work, both for you and for them.  Make it small, quote up front and get paid for the work before moving on to a bigger project. This way, you’ll learn much more about how the client works, how they like to communicate, how detailed their feedback is, how involved they like to be, etc. – and if either party decides that they want to break things off and ‘just be friends’, neither will have invested too much time or money.

7. Create a written record – Recap what you discussed in meetings via email to make sure there is no confusion and everyone is clear on who is doing what and when.  If I know I’m having regular meetings with clients, I create an action plan that gets updated and sent a few days after the first meeting, which becomes the agenda for the next meeting.

As I say, this is not an exhaustive list but just some do’s and don’ts that I’ve picked up along the way.  If you have any other tips on being a better consultant, contact me as I’d love to hear them.


Anna Nixon-Smith

All stories by: Anna Nixon-Smith