In the more than twenty years that I've been a consultant I've made my fair share of mistakes!
One of them quite catastrophic!
Many of them were avoidable if only I'd been shown what not to do, or if I was made more aware of the consequences of my actions.
From the work I do coaching consultants and consulting business owners, I've noticed that a number of these mistakes are repeated frequently.
I've listed out below what I see as the 10 most common mistakes that consultants make in the hope that:
- You can avoid making them, or become aware that you're currently making them and so make adjustments accordingly
- To get your input (in the comments section below) as to what you would add to the list from your experience?
I've focused only on the mistakes I see being made during the delivery of a project, from its initiation to its completion. I haven't included mistakes made earlier in the consulting life-cycle, such as during the marketing and sales activities.
1. Not making the delivery team aware of the commercials
It's surprisingly common for professional services businesses to create borders between the Sales and Delivery teams. From the very smallest firm to the largest.
What typically happens is that a project is sold based in part on an estimate of the required resources (days effort) to complete the engagement.
Then, in an attempt to increase the profit margin, the Sales team doesn't tell the Delivery team the true number of days included in the bid.
They quote a smaller number, which they then justify with statements such as:
We don't tell Delivery the exact budget as they'll squander it
This approach creates distrust and dishonesty. It also puts the Delivery team under undue pressure.
Another alternative I hear a lot includes statements such as:
Sell at 100 days, deliver it in 80
I used to hear this a lot, and it used to drive me nuts. The reason why is that it's focusing on the wrong metric.
This problem is often caused by using set 'sell' rates rather than having 'cost' rates. With the latter the sale price can be adjusted based on the value to the client.
I also see this happen a lot more in markets where the margins are much tighter, for example, engineering and construction.
This leads me to the real cause of this problem:
Not defining a profit target for the delivery team.
Statements like 'Sell it at 100 days, deliver in 80' have the right intent, if wholly mis-focused.
With the Sales team responsible for the profit margin at the point of sale (which should be done in collaboration with the Delivery team), then the Delivery team should be focused on the profit margin at the point or delivery.
The Delivery team must provide efficiencies that ensure the profit can be bettered in delivery.
Greater profits won't happen every time, but it's important to ensure the Delivery team is always looking for ways to deliver more profitably, whilst maintaining quality and client satisfaction.
As a minimum, the delivery team should be set +/- targets. For example, deliver the project within the determined cost with a variable range of +2% and -10%.
There should be a lower cap because if a project can be completed at less than 90% the expected cost (-10%), then I would want to question if the quality is being maintained, or the scope being met.
That's not to say it isn't feasible, just that there should be a control in place to raise it for discussion.
2. Not meeting with your project sponsor regularly
I know how it is.
You're a consultant.
You're busy, right?
You've got a lot of clients, and maybe a lot of people reporting to you too. Both consultancy and client staff.
So you haven't got time to waste frivolously taking people out to coffee or lunch.
Anyhow, isn't that the job of the sales person?
And even if you did have the time, the project sponsor is busy too.
They're an executive, and they've given you this project so that they don't get bothered by it.
Look, I hear ya.
I used to think this way too.
But if I'm honest, I was probably a tad arrogant!
The main problem that occurs when you don't maintain regular contact with your project sponsor is that you don't develop a close enough relationship.
That means you don't get to be seen as their trusted advisor.
That then results in your being pushed down the chain of command.
You end up spending more time talking to people with less control and less budget sign-off authority.
To resolve this issue you need to be persistent.
And flexible too. If it means you have to go to the project sponsor, no matter where they are, then do so. It will pay back many times more than any expense you incur.
One thing that often holds consultants back is that they feel they need to have something to say.
But you don't.
In fact, you should be listening much more than talking anyway, so by definition you don't need much to say.
As a minimum, schedule monthly face-to-face meetings with your project sponsor. Even if that means giving up a day a week across all of your projects.
It will be your most profitable day of the week!
3. Not identifying all your project stakeholders
Consulting projects impact many different people. At the highest level there is:
- The project sponsor - his or her job role and career prospects!
- The project sponsor's team
- The wider client business
- The clients and customers of the client
So there is a broad set of stakeholders who's engagement will differ at the different stages of a project.
You must identify each and every one because if you don't, there is a high price to pay.
Let me share an example from my own experience.
My team was helping a global bank to outsource the supply and management of printers. Not the most exciting project in the world, but a lot was at stake as it was a component of a much larger project for a new global headquarters building.
The project was very high profile, not just in the organisation, but in the industry.
The lead consultant didn't do a good job of identifying his stakeholders to such an extent that he ignored the Operations Director. This was the very same person who held the budget for print services!
Needless to say, having presented a strategy for a service that she owned but had not been consulted on, she was outraged. My consultant was thrown off the project!
The cost to resolve this wiped out any profit on that stage of the project.
To help define my project stakeholders I always create a Power/Interest Grid. I also make a point of reviewing it at regular intervals as things never stay static.
Your Power/Interest Grid will support your Communications Plan for your project.
4. No clarity on deliverables
This is frequently overlooked and can particularly affect management consultants as the management consultant's deliverables are frequently less tangible.
For example, let's say you are developing a marketing strategy for your client.
You go off and do your research, then sum things up in a 50-page tome, taking you a ton of time and effort to complete.
The trouble is, the client was expecting a 12-page PowerPoint presentation!
That would be a costly, time-consuming and embarrassing mistake to make.
Let's take a different example. An example of where the service itself is the deliverable. Say, a digital marketing agency.
Is there clarity as to what to what the deliverable or outcome looks and feels like?
How can you define it in a tangible way that the client can measure?
How can you help your client to understand what your and their measure of success is, and how you'll demonstrate this to them at the end of the project?
I recall in the early years of running my consulting business I engaged a digital marketing agency to help me to raise the profile of my business and win more clients.
It was during a review meeting that the agency representative said to me:
We're getting some great conversions
I was confused!
I thought, what currency are we talking here?
As far as I was concerned, the phone hadn't rang once, yet the digital agency was positively dancing at the success we were supposedly having!
So who's fault was that - mine or theirs?
Probably a bit of both, but you do have a responsibility as the consultant to do what is right for your client.
As a minimum, that includes educating them as to what they should expect from your engagement. To create clarity in your deliverables.
5. Not recording time
Anyone that's ever worked with me as a consultant will find it laughable that I've included this one!
Because I hate filling out timesheets and was renowned for simply not doing it.
Obviously my charm and wit was enough to see me excused!
The fact is though, it is absolutely essential that you record your time against the project.
Will it be 100% accurate? Nope. Be it will be a damn site more accurate than not having it all.
So why bother?
What's the value of recording time?
- Project performance. By having a record of the time expended on a project you will receive early warning signs on project performance. For example, if the time is much lower than expected, you should question if the project is on track, or if something is holding it back. If the time expended is significantly higher, this might represent opportunity for additional fees, or over-delivery that needs correcting.
- Team performance. Is someone under or over delivering on a project? Are people booking time to your project, and therefore increasing its cost to deliver, when they shouldn't even be on it? I've had that happen many times in the bigger firms that I've worked.
- Project profitability. You can only determine if you delivered a project profitably if you know what it cost you to deliver. And the biggest cost in consulting is typically your human resources. If you don't know these costs and you declare your project profitable, then you are quite simply making it up!
- Sales performance accuracy. One of the most valuable things you can do with time recording is to keep a record in a database and refer to it when you are bidding for similar projects. For instance, you might think that a simple procurement project only takes 50 days, when in fact your data is telling you it's 75 days! Or, you might find that the projects for one particular client always take longer than usual, in which case you would increase your proposed effort and fees accordingly.
6. Not working as a cohesive team
I've already mentioned the impact when the Sales team functions independently of the Delivery team.
The other area where team cohesion is important is across the different disciplines of your delivery team.
The bigger a project gets, and the bigger the consulting team, the more likely it is that there are different disciplines.
In a previous organisation I worked at we specialised in corporate relocations. These are highly complex projects with even more complex teams. Not only are you working with the clients teams, but there's a plethora of other specialist teams involved.
As we were responsible for technology, our work crossed almost every other team's boundary.
It was imperative that, as an organisation, we had a consistent view. And we had to be supportive of every other consultant and person involved from our own organisation. Regardless of what we might have felt about them!
If fractures appear amongst your own team they can be exploited. The world of consulting is often competitive.
Make sure you have regular team meetings - typically at least weekly - amongst all of the people involved in your firm. Also, ensure that there is a clear hierarchy of authority and ownership, with a clear path of escalation.
It is important to remember your purpose there. To help the client resolve their problems and challenges, and how your firm (and its team members) are working together to deliver an agreed outcome.
7. Confusing the client's project with your project
There's millions of people out there who claim they are competent project managers, yet many so called project managers don't even understand the basics of time, cost and scope.
To utilise the Prince2 methodology, there are 6 project 'tolerances. these are:
The challenge for the consultant is that you have two sets of project tolerances!
The tolerances of your client's project, and the tolerances of your consultancy's project within that.
Managing this is not easy.
I see many consultants focus on the client's project tolerances, and throw caution to the wind with your own. This is made all the worse when a consultant spends most of his time on client site and rarely if ever returns back to base.
Not managing the two projects results in unprofitable projects; disputes with clients; and disgruntled consultants!
Make sure you have absolute clarity as to your firm's scope (and associated tolerances), and that of the client.
Be sure that the view is both known and shared by all involved project stakeholders.
8. Being emotionally attached to your recommendations
Being a consultant is something to be proud of.
Whilst there's no formal requirement for specific qualifications as there is with many other careers, being a consultant enables you to hold your head up high.
You are a respected and trusted advisor to leadership teams in other organisations. That's pretty special.
And, the chances are that you've invested a lot of time, effort and money into achieving the expertise that you have.
That's important, but it's not quite as important as the view of the client.
Remember the old adage:
The customer is always right!
Let me share a case in point.
In the past one of my consultants completed a project advising a global law firm on outsourcing a function. He undertook a procurement exercise to find the best partner, and from his 3 shortlisted vendors, he chose vendor 'A'.
The client thanked him for his work, reviewed his report, but decided that they really wanted vendor 'B'.
The client then engaged us to help them with the transition to vendor B.
As with all projects, it had it challenges. However, each time a problem arose, my consultant couldn't help but state that it wouldn't have been a problem if the client had chosen his preferred vendor A.
In the end the client got so frustrated with these constant reminders that they asked for the consultant to be replaced.
The underlying problem was that the consultant had become emotionally attached to his recommendation.
What he should have been focused on was the client and doing what was right by the client.
So what that the client hadn't gone with his preferred choice. Who cares!
The bonus for us as a team was that we knew where vendor B was deficient over vendor A, so what we should have done was help the vendor and client close that gap. We should have utilised our understanding to make the situation better, not utilise it to keep reminding the client that they'd made a mistake.
I see consultants do this a lot.
It's the same reason why consultants boast of their technical expertise over their abilities to consult.
Remember to always be a trusted advisor.
Your job is to help the client achieve what's best for them. Sometimes you have to deliver tough messages, but for the long-term health of your client relationship, you have to help them make their decisions successful.
If you can't do that, then you're probably not working with clients that fit your organisation.
9. Having no consequences for good or bad delivery
This is a bug bear of mine, and something that seems to happen more in firms that have been around for a while.
The problem is a lack of consequence.
Some firms have no consequence for delivering a project really well.
And no consequences for delivering a project really badly.
The result of there being no positive or negative consequences is mediocrity.
It's a race to the bottom.
Rather than consultants pushing hard to succeed - which you see in firms where there is an 'up or out' culture - instead your best people slow down to be aligned with your average people. This is because there's not benefit to them in performing at their best. Beyond professional pride that is.
So consider what consequences you provide to your team.
The easiest way to provide a financial incentive. A share of project profitability.
But it can also include many other things. It's a time for you to be creative!
10. Not making the client aware of all the services that your firm provides
Clients engage us to help resolve their most pressing challenges.
Their focus during the sales process is their particular challenge at that time, and the consultant's focus is on showing how they can help the client resolve their challenge.
Often, however, your firm does a lot more than just the thing that you have been engaged to do.
Therefore, it is the responsibility of the consultant to ensure that the client is aware of all of the services that your firm offers.
Because even if they don't have an immediate need, there might be other contacts within the client that do. Or your client may have a friend in a different organisation that could benefit from your services.
Making your client aware of what else your firm does should not be left until the end of your project.
As soon as you find the right time - perhaps during a 1-2-1 with your project sponsor - make them aware of the wider set of services your firm offers.
Don't pitch, just raise awareness.
This can be more easily achieved through sharing a case study scenario verbally.
For this to be effective, it is also important that all the consultants in your business are aware of the projects that you firm is working on, and more specifically, the exact problems and challenges that you are helping your clients to resolve.
What I mean by that is not to limit it to saying:
We're helping client XYZ to procure a new CRM
Instead you need to be thinking about the problem and the outcome. For example:
We're helping client XYZ to increase the average revenue per customer and to double their retention rate through implementing a CRM solution that is cost effective, easy to use, and that has great engagement rates across the team.
Now that you've read the list, what do you think? Have you made any of these mistakes?
What frequent mistakes do you make or have you seen others make that you think consultants should be aware of?
Share this article so that your fellow consultants can improve their success.
And bookmark this page so that you can refer back to it frequently to avoid falling into complacency.