A little over 8 and half years ago, I was beginning my career as a young high-energy-laden Economics graduate with the wit and charm to take on anyone with a view of successfully getting what I needed from them without exerting too much effort. Initially I began in Sales (I recommend everyone does a stint here) and then eventually found myself working as a Junior Consultant in a leading business and management consultancy firm.
Since June 2011, I and Brian (our MD) have been fully immersed in this BLEGSCOPE thing and have taken the leap of faith to be self-employed and step out each day to offer professional advice for business and management.
Whereas I appreciate that there’s a lot of advice on business and management out there, this post could possibly be of interest to someone that wants to really get a basic clear on some elements of consultancy. Fortunately for you, we are in the information age, where you get more mileage by sharing and documenting your experiences as you experience them and not wait till you are in your mid to late 70s to write or have a biography written about your greatness.
Here’s a look at six things that I have learnt from starting a business consultancy practice.
1. Consultancy is a service just like advertising, hospitality and or entertainment
From time immemorial, asking for help was usually a sign of weakness. As time progressed, it became apparent that others knew more than you did, and for that matter had done things that you had not even thought of attempting and as such needed to be sought out whenever the need came for things beyond your scope. This led to the birth of specialists. In the same discussion however, I have realised that buying a piece of soap or a loaf or bread is buying a product. Paying for consultancy services is a service.
Clients will always need to have a so-called specialist to give a different angle on the current or a past situation that will usually if not always be used in making a key decision for the continuance of the business. Truth be told, you going out to dinner at a fancy restaurant may not be seen as you looking for a consultant for dinner, but it is similar in its level of causation of a deep expectation based on a basic need.
2. Delivery is paramount
As a younger~than~most budding consultant, I have been looked at as a smooth talker and often under-estimated when it came (comes) to actual delivery of the necessary work that has been agreed. Sometimes, I have delayed, within good reason, but most times, I (read we) have managed to please our clients with relevant services to add value to their needs. Truth be told, sometimes it can be challenging, but no client(s) want to hear that. They know that you believe that you are indeed worth your weight in salt and can and will do anything to deliver.
3. Clients need to be educated too
One of the most interesting things we have learned in this journey is that what you see is not always what you get.
Translation ~> what the client thinks he/she wants is not what he/she needs.
In today’s modern age with all sorts of gadgets connected to the information super-highway (the internet) at a fully affordable fee, it becomes useless at some point to argue with what people think is outright truth, but rather more informative to argue about relevant truths.
Case in point was when we were referred to a client by another client and he thought he needed a human resources audit because he felt his team were not performing well enough. After careful analysis of the goings-on in the distribution company, it turned out that the problem is the chief operations officer who has a lax attitude and does not motivate employees to want to exceed their potential.
So, in hindsight, it has become imperative to learn how to see the forest from the trees and pick out what is not being mentioned as what is actually being said.
4. Marketing trumps sales as your reputation is what sells you
In many, if not most businesses (consultancy not withstanding), you can and should be able to notice that there is a carefully selected team of sales people whose role is to go out into the market and come back with clients, correction, paying clients.
Whereas this may ring true in many industries, we all know one of the main reasons you tried out that plate of well~roasted~pork was because those of Julius and Stella advised you to check it out. Same goes with the offer of consultancy services. You must be seen as a thought~leader or an industry guru or basically someone who is good at their craft. From tax advisory (shout out to Pascal here), to architecture (shout out to Trevor here) or even if it a simple cleaning service (shout out to David here), your previous work is what will sell you more than you printing sexy brochures and designing a delicious website….
5. Communication is as important as technical skills
What can never be over-stated in starting and running a business consultancy practice is the use of communication as a tool to create a good relationship. Let it be known that your highly priced MBA, or your chartered qualification in revenue analysis or that difficult PhD will get you re-known in your chosen field, the role of communication may often be more regarded when dealing with clients.
It is no secret that clients want constant updates of how you are dedicating all your time to their work… And also want to be assured that you have your best consultants and experts handling their business… So in order to achieve this, we have learnt to sort of ego-massage them. This will always be pro-active and we will not wait for the client to call and ask what is going on!
6. Knowledge is not always power
Building on the 5 previous points, you will now notice that I have not mentioned much ado about experience. This is because we have realised that knowledge is not always power. What sells us as being one of the consultants of choice is not the 2 year M.Sc. in Development Economics that I delayed to wrap up, or the CFA qualification that Brian recently embarked on, but rather the fact that you have known how these pieces of knowledge are relevant and how they will impact positively on the client.
At the consultancy firm where I used to work, I clearly remember doing over 95% of an assignment as a Junior Consultant (before I had even thought of doing my M.Sc.) because I applied by thoughts deeply onto the client’s case seeking practical solution while the Senior Consultant (who had an MBA from University Of Witswatersrand and is a Chartered Accountant with over 17 years experience) had this belief that he had seen it all and refused to think beyond a certain level.
BONUS | Professional opinions may differ from personal opinions
In our murky world of consultancy as a whole, we have learnt to separate our personal opinions from our professional opinions by always intimating to the client closely asking him his deep down in his heart’s reason for doing what he is doing.
This always allows them to open up to us and we build the relationship on from there.
If you’ve been doing what you’re doing for a while, what are some of your best lessons learned?
Edmund is the Engagement Director at BLEGSCOPE®, and has over 9 years of management consultancy experience notably in MSMEs, FMCG companies and in the service industry. You can follow him on twitter: @edmokmg