The Difficult Task of Consulting

The purpose of being a consultant is to provide expertise to the customer. The purpose is to add value to what the customer is  doing.

Thus, a consultant is required to come up with opinions and to freely state them. If a consultant does not have a clear point of view based on their expertise, then there is no advantage to using that consultant over someone else. Before we go too far into this, let me clarify that my customers will clearly hear me say “I don’t know” fairly regularly. Part of my job is not just to give advice, but to give USEFUL advice. Making things up to make myself seem like I do actually know everything might be good for my ego and public image but it would do a disservice to my customer. Thus, if I don’t know something, I will freely admit it.

However, the point I want to get to is that, as hard as it might be to develop the expertise and opinions to be able to give this kind of advice, what is even harder is to have your advice not be taken. Many consultants get bent out of shape when customers don’t jump to take the given advice. Giving advice and not having the power to force someone to take it truly is the hardest thing to learn as a consultant. It is probably the one thing that separates the novice consultant from the experienced consultant.

At this point, someone will jump-in to say that, as the industry expert, if I know best, I should force my customer to do whatever it is I think they should do. I absolutely disagree with this. While I will say that it is my job if I feel strongly about something, to try to show the customer why my opinion on a specific matter is important to them, to present it in different ways, or to keep after them about a specific issue that I think is important, it is not my job to make them do anything they feel strongly they shouldn’t do, either.

Let me also take a moment to point-out that there’s a big difference between a customer who brushes off everything you tell them and the one who selectively takes your advice. The former is possibly just busy or not taking the advice seriously, but the latter is probably actually thinking about what they were told. That is the person we should want to work with — the one that thinks about what we said. If you want someone to blindly take your command, buy a dog and take it to training. I’ll take a smart person who understands the issues to work with, any day.

I would also like to add that the outsider doesn’t always have all the facts. The customer is not required to justify their actions, either. If the consultant really suspects the customer didn’t properly understand or is making a mistake, I agree that you have to seriously consider pursuing the matter. But, when the customer seems to understand and has made the decision, the consultant has to have at least some respect that that person is not a total idiot and has thought it through. Do you see where I’m going with this? What I mean is this: consultants sometimes feel upset that the customer didn’t respect their opinion, but the opposite is also an issue — the consultant must also respect the customer’s opinion.

And, finally, as I like to remind everyone:  the person who thinks they know everything cannot possibly be an expert. They can call themselves experts, but only out of true ignorance of the vast issues at-hand.,

Gloria Metrick
GeoMetrick Enterprises

3 responses on “The Difficult Task of Consulting

  1. You asked why people read this. I read it because of a combination of the headline, the fact that it’s yours, and a looser schedule than usual.

    At least for me, it has been rare for me to be granted much actual decision-making power. In that position I need to establish credibility and try to lead instead of try to give people orders. I don’t always get my way.

    There is one type of situation where I do have to press an issue. Sometimes a consultant is the only person in a position to press a critical issue. Employees at my client can’t because their jobs, future promotions, and ultimately pensions are at risk if they do and management retaliates.

    As an example, this once happened when a pet feature wanted by senior management but invisible to customers caused a problem so severe it was a showstopper, and the only way to meet a hard release date was to remove the feature. Similarly, a client once demanded that I falsify test results to make their software look better. This was supervisory-level factory automation software where bugs can lead to safety risks. I refused and took steps to make sure the test results could not be modified.

    In both cases any retaliation was limited to cutting off that one contract and perhaps not having follow-on business. In the first case, senior management eventually realized taking out the troublesome feature saved the release and an entire group’s jobs–and I got brought in again later for a bigger project. In the latter case I finished the contract term but we didn’t renew or take up any new projects.

    On the other hand, I have a client that has asked for and then ignored my advice about replacing their most central shop floor system at least half a dozen times in the past 8 years. What they have is running. I wish they had taken my suggestions but this is not a situation for digging in my heels.

    You can see where I draw the line.

  2. You make a good point, too, that there are certain limits you can’t allow a customer to cross. Or, at the least, you can make sure you strenuously object and refuse to cross it with them.

    Here’s a story from many years ago, while working on a pharmaceutical LIMS implementation project:
    Our project did not finish the requirements before we started designing the system and the customer’s procedures required you to sign-off on requirements before starting on design. They were surprised when I signed the requirements document with the current day’s date of the day I was actually signing it. That is, after all, what I thought o be correct and to be “GMP” (Good Manufacturing Practices), but they were yet even more shocked when they insisted I sign a new copy and back-date it and I refused. I spoke with the services manager I worked for, at the time, and he agreed with me that that was a bad practice. However, the end result is that I was not renewed on the project and, having depended on me working on that project, the company that sent me there didn’t have anything else for me to work on and I spent months and months without any income at a time when I still had plenty of fresh educational debt.

    When this all came about, I was terribly afraid, but certain I was doing the right thing. I had the fear that what did happen would happen (being without income) but I was certain I had to do what I thought was right and ethical. I’ll admit that I was extremely depressed during those non-income months, and it did occur to me that you do sometimes get punished for trying to do the right thing.

    But, to this day, I remember those moments in my career quite clearly. I remember them partly to feel a bit sad that I had such a loss of income over it. But I also remember them just to remind myself that you can overcome that kind of sadness and uncertainty that comes about from doing something you believe in. On the other hand, I don’t know how you could get rid of the memory if you make the opposite choice that you believe to be wrong. I don’t know if I could have overcome the long-term effects of making the decisions I so strongly didn’t agree with. I’ve thought about whether I could make myself feel better by saying “well, I did the wrong thing but at least I was able to pay the rent and keep food on the table without going into deep debt” but, long-term, I think my life is a lot easier for whatever pain and setbacks I had to endure, at that time in exchange for a clear conscience for the rest of my life.

  3. Gloria, just stumbled across your blog, and wanted to say I truly appreciate your perspective. You are spot on when noting it’s easy to want to fall into the ‘expert’ trap, but the reality is the customer is the one who is putting the dollars and possibly career on the line with their decision. And there are factors that impact the decision that may or may not be clear to the consultant. Ultimately my role is to make sure that the client has all of the information needed to make the decision, but the decision to make is entirely theirs. Having been in this role for a dozen years does place one in the position of being able to form opinions around a course of action, and it is not always easy to keep those opinions from biasing the results you present. Think the best way to overcome this is to communicate as often and openly as possible so that there is a consensus build rather than a ‘solution sell.’ Can also relate to your client who lost you many months of work. Different situation and early in my career, but was basically hired to produce a result that there was very little evidence to support. Presented all of the information, positive and negative, and resisted the pressure to downplay the negative. Did get paid, but did not get any subsequent business or referrals from this person. In retrospect better upfront communications would have avoided this situation, but sometimes experience is the best teacher we have.

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