With deference to Dr. Covey and his very popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (all habits that will make us better consultants!), here are eight skills that all of us as consultants can work on to improve. This article will start with three overarching skills, then describe five more specific skills to consider in your ongoing development. One way to look at your total skill set as a consultant (internal or external), is to consider your relative strengths in the three major portions of our work: designing “it”, delivering “it”, and selling “it”. These three skills represent the complete package for a consultant, regardless of what your expertise (your “it”) is.
The Complete Package: Designing “It”
This is our technical expertise. This is the “stuff” we learn in classes and through experience and practice. It is the front end of our work in most cases. While we cannot underestimate the importance of these skills (and the need to continue to upgrade them), we also can’t be content if these skills are top-notch. They are not enough. Delivering “It”
This is the other mega-skill that many of us are very comfortable with. Once we’ve designed our “product”, we have to be able to deliver it. This is the skill set that is often most evident to our clients, or is what we tell people we do when they ask us our profession. Again, this skill set is critical, but alone it isn’t enough. Selling “It”
This skill, in my experience, is the one most often in need of improvement. While many books have been written about this skill set, there is one key, which by itself will improve your success in selling your work. If you will always focus on client/customer benefits, rather than product/process features, you will improve your success immediately. Features are components of your product or service. Examples include: o Size
o Number of modules
o Your Experience People don’t buy features they buy benefits. All of us know this at some level, but seldom focus on turning the important features of our offerings into true benefits. To assume that your client/customer will figure out the benefit, is to lower your chance of selling your potential product or
idea. Some Specific Skills to Consider: Contracting
This is another skill that requires a book to discuss well and which requires planning and practice to improve. Getting clear agreements with clients up front about what the work is, what the desired outcomes are, and what your role is, is what contracting is all about. Relationship Building
Building relationships are important in all three of the major skill areas. In designing, you need to build relationships in order to gain the organizational information you need to design effectively. In delivering you need to be able to have good relationships with those involved, to lead to a more successful outcome. In selling, it’s important to remember that selling is a relationship process. People buy other people and believe in their ability to deliver. Having a focus on relationships is more than building rapport, which can happen quite rapidly. Building relationships is long term focused and requires considerable commitment. Warning Building relationships with individuals is important, but recognize that if your focus is on only one person in an organization, when they are gone (get promoted, get a new job, are downsized out, or whatever) you have lost your leverage to help the organization. So, remember to build a network of relationships within your client organizations. Separating Process from Content
It is so important to maintain perspective while in the client organization. Clients will focus on the content (of a meeting, the product, the outputs from your study, or whatever), but if the process matters aren’t attended to, outcomes can be compromised. Working on your ability to step back and recognize what is happening at the group dynamics and interpersonal level will improve your success. Clients don’t always know that they need this, but they will almost always recognize that you “did something” to make things go better when you can point to, and improve the process, while sharing the content of your work. This skill is often the key to additional work or referrals. Socratic Questioning
Socrates is immortalized at least in part for his teaching approach of asking a line of questions that leads the student to discover answers for themselves. When you clients discover answers to their problems, rather than simply hear them from you, they will own the answers. Their ability to hold onto the concepts, apply them, and improve their situation will skyrocket. Improving your ability to help them discover (through the use of Socratic questioning), is a critical, though often overlooked skill. Using more questions will cause you to lose the feeling of power that you are providing the “right” answer. But the client gains far more than you lose. While you may feel like you are losing emotionally, you win with the client, and probably strengthen your relationship with them too. Saying “No!”
Most of us need to improve our ability to say this. Of course we can physically say it, (OK, just for practice, say it three times right now – out loud!) but we all know we don’t always say it when we wish we had! Improving your judgment on when to use this word will help you in three important ways, time management, happiness level, and client success. Time Management Many of your time management problems stem from trying to do too much. When people (clients, peers, anyone) ask you to do something that you don’t feel you are best suited for, or don’t really want to do, use your word! Happiness Level When we focus our energy on the things we really want to or need to be doing (rather than just the things people ask us to do or we feel we should do), we will be happier! Say it to help you preserve and honor your priorities. Client Success There are times that a client may ask you for something (“We just need this [you fill in the blank]”) that you know, or strongly believe is the wrong thing. These are the times to step back and be genuine. Help them understand your perspective, and focus them on the outcome, not the suggested solution. In these cases, you might not be saying “no”, exactly, but it is what you really mean! If you feel a team is ready for such a discussion, pull out this list of attributes and have a team discussion on how well people feel their team is doing on each of these dimensions, the discussion can be enlightening and help the team move its performance to even higher levels.