For many IT consultants, mastering the technical aspects of their field and following through on projects isn’t a dilemma. Acquiring the client-relationship skills needed to be a successful consultant, however, is difficult for many.
Pulling concepts from his latest book, The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship (Jossey-Bass, 2000), IT consultant and TechRepublic contributor Rick Freedman explains the five fundamentals of IT consulting. This “mini-white paper” addresses the complexities of providing your advice and service to clients, and can help you fine-tune your approach and strengthen your client relationships.
According to Freedman, the level of trust in the relationship between client and consultant will determine the success of the project, more so than the technical discipline involved. Moreover, developing a clear understanding with the client about what should be accomplished and helping clients to envision the desired result will ensure a positive relationship.
Most importantly, Freedman says, consultants should act in an advisory role, allowing clients to make decisions and helping them reach their goals.
The life of an IT consultant presents a plethora of daily challenges: keeping up with the latest technology, choosing the right products for a job, managing complex projects, and networking with associates to find the next contract. Along with these tasks, a consultant must focus a lot of attention on the client relationship. Freedman believes the IT advisory process is based on five fundamental concepts. He shares them here.
The five fundamentals:
I believe there are five basic concepts that can serve as a foundation for the IT advisory process:
- Focus on the relationship: Identifying who the client is and understanding the motivations, culture, history, fears, and goals of both the human being and the organization he or she represents, are some of the most difficult tasks in consulting. Your success in these tasks has much more bearing on the success or failure of your engagements than the technical discipline involved.
- Clearly define your role: Setting the expectation with the client regarding exactly what you are there to accomplish, what tasks you are making a commitment to perform, what tasks you expect the client to perform, and where the boundaries of the relationship lie, is a key success factor for consultants.
- Visualize success: It is the consultant’s central role to help the client draw a mental picture of the desired result of the engagement. Failure to do so results in the dreaded scope creep, in which the engagement never concludes because the expectations keep changing. Visualizing a successful result creates a common goal that all participants can agree upon and strive for together. Like the championship ring for a sports team, it is an unambiguous and motivational endpoint that clarifies the effort and helps clear away extraneous issues and barriers.
- You advise; they decide: One of the most difficult tasks for consultants is to cast aside emotional attachment to their own advice. Many technicians fall in love with a particular solution or technology, and then lose interest in, or respect for, the client if he decides to take another approach. We must always remember that the client understands the complexities of his own environment, and that he lives with the result of his decision, while we move on to the next assignment.
- Be oriented toward results: Consulting is more than advising—it is assisting clients to reach a goal. While some advisory relationships are strictly informational, most clients want us to not only recommend solutions, but also to help implement them. Politics is often described as “the art of the possible,” a good definition for results-oriented consulting as well. By considering implementation issues throughout the engagement, such as corporate culture, readiness to change, training requirements, and corporate communications channels, we keep our eye on the realm of possibility, avoid getting sidetracked into the theoretical, and prepare the client for the real-world issues of implementation and system operation.
Focusing on the relationship aspect of advising will also help clarify one of the most problematic aspects of consulting, namely, “Who is my client?” IT consultants are frequently engaged by managers to create systems for the departments they lead. Who is the client in these cases—the manager who hired you, or the clerk or telemarketer who is the ultimate user of the system? In most cases, the answer is: both.