Tuesday, February 10, 2009

7 ways to hone your consulting skills


Like many in the PR/communications business, I've been on both sides of the table. As the consultant, you're looked to for fresh ideas and sound advice. On the corporate side, you're more accountable for the organization's results and feel a little more connected to your employer. After all, you're on the "inside."

But, after sitting in both chairs, I've learned the consulting skills in both positions are quite similar--no matter if you're on the inside or coming from the outside. Regardless, these skills are among the most important in your toolbox. You might have a great idea or strategy you believe your client should implement, but unless you can persuade, communicate and manage expectations, you won't get too far.

So, as you sit down with your clients next week, think about how you can improve your consulting skills. Do you have a tendency to do all the talking in client meetings? Do you really understand your client's business? How well do you know your client? As you assess your performance, keep the following tips in mind:

* Understand your client's business--inside and out. This is imperative. You can't provide effective counsel if you don't understand the key drivers of their business. Who are the client's key audiences? Who are their top three competitors? How are they perceived in the marketplace? Who are the key influencers in their market? You know the drill.

* Partner and collaborate--don't preach and tell. Easiest way to get under a client's skin? Walk in to the meeting and start telling them how smart you are, how much they have to learn and what they should be doing to improve. Yes, they want your advice--but it's all in the approach. If you can learn to join forces with your clients and work toward common goals (isn't that the whole idea?), it will pay huge dividends down the line. Results for your client. Additional work for yourself or your agency (results for you). And happiness. True happiness.

* Listen. Intently. Probably the biggest mistake we make as consultants--we don't listen enough. We're so eager to advise our clients and tell them what to do, we forget to listen. I mean, really listen. One way to do this? Ask intelligent questions. Start with the basics. What are your business goals this year? How do you expect marketing/PR/communications will help you achieve those goals? How are you currently performing vs. expectations? What are the top three challenges your company's facing right now? What's preventing you from reaching your goals? Get the client talking. And listen.

* Do your homework. The mark of any good consultant? Over-prepare for every client meeting. That means walking in with an agenda--even if the client didn't ask for one. That means clearly laying out what you hope to achieve in the meeting. That means researching the client and their immediate and long-term needs, the challenges they're currently facing and identifying any roadblocks they need to navigate. Never, ever, ever be caught with your pants down in a client meeting because you weren't prepared.

* Tell them how wonderful they are. The great ones do this so well. I've had the privilege to work alongside some incredibly talented consultants in my career and they always made a point to commend the client and their team on their great work. Without flat-out lying, of course. Couple reasons why this is a smart move. A) It shows you're paying attention to what they've been doing and that you recognize great work, and B) It helps you start building that relationship, which is critical. The client has to see you as a partner, someone who's looking out for their best interests. By telling them how great they are, you're in fact saying, "You do great work. I do great work. Let's do great work together for your brand."

* Manage expectations. An often overlooked component of the consultant-client relationship, but one that's vitally important. Constantly look for ways to uncover the client's expectations around specific projects you're working on together, your role in the work and the overall relationship. This will help you manage those expectations when projects get derailed or sidetracked or results don't pan out as originally planned.

* Date your client. Ok, not really because that will get you fired (or not, stranger things have happened). Instead, build a relationship with your client. Find out what they're interested in outside of work. Find ways to incorporate those interests into your daily interactions with them. Remember their birthday. Comment on photos on their desk. Ask about their children. Just get to know the client as a human being. To a large extent it's still a relationship-based business. People do business with people they like. Work on being someone people like.

So, how are you doing? Are you hitting on all cylinders in these areas? Any room for improvement? If yes, how do you plan to hone your consulting skills in the weeks and months ahead?

Note: Photo courtesy of Creator Apps

1 comment:

RockstarJen said...

All great points, Arik. I also find it's very important to make sure your client understands (and knows) that part of your job as an external consultant is to make your client look good in-house. If they are not giving you enough information, feedback, etc. to do your job well, tell them. Make sure both of you are moving toward the same goal, and that you do everything in your power to be a valuable member of the team.