How to be a better consultant? Hire one. Four lessons I learned as a client.

In ten years as a consultant I have taken all of my clients’ feedback to heart and soaked up as many books by the “industry apostles” (like Maister and Sobel) as I could. Sadly, some of those lessons didn’t resonate until my next assignment. To make textbook lessons real, the best experience was to see the situation from the other side of the table: as a client to other consultants helping my firm with sales, IT, or recruiting. You might wonder what took me so long to realize these things…but as with any challenge, the answer seems obvious after the fact.

Here are the key points from my experience in the client’s seat that have made me a better consultant:

1. Orient me to the plan every time you provide an update. Yes, this project is all you do around the clock, but I have other responsibilities and distractions, even if they aren’t as exciting. So in each of your updates, start out with a quick recap of the plan, where we are now, and what is happening next. In our conversations and emails, make it clear when you are asking me to make a decision vs. providing information. Hints are great for Pictionary, but not when we have a project to deliver together.

2. Scope creep is always slimy unless the core deliverables are outstanding. Yes, there is a lot more opportunity out there. And yes, I could see us working together on some other projects in my business. But I will question your focus if you suggest expanding our scope until our current deliverable is going really, really well. Don’t worry, when the value and “pull” for additional work are clear in my mind, I will ask you.

3. Give me genuine choices if you want to be a partner rather than a vendor. Over the course of our work together, you’ll have many opportunities to give guidance about the project. I expect you to consider a number of alternatives before presenting me with your best option. And when those final few choices aren’t visible to me, I’m going to feel like my only choices are to do as you suggest or figure something out on my own. And if your suggestion doesn’t “feel” right to me–even if it’s the right choice after deliberation–I’m more likely to start making directives of my own for you to follow. So if we are going to work together as partners, please keep doing all the great research and thought I pay you for, and include me in making that last cut of options so we can move forward with mutual confidence.

4. Recognize the investment that I have to make in you — beyond the dollars. My investment in you and your company spans a few areas: time I could be doing other work (or seeing my family); sharing knowledge of my business, industry, and personal style; and reputational risk to my managers and peers if we don’t succeed or if your team is a cultural misfit. Of course I stand to gain a lot from our relationship, in terms of results and learning, and I know that, otherwise I wouldn’t have taken that second sales meeting. So the best thing you can do is acknowledge, in both words and actions, that you appreciate the investment and are working in our mutual long-term best interest.


What have I missed from your own lessons? thanks for your comments!


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