A few weeks ago I was running a Business Development course with a group of junior Consultants, and was asked a great question.  I’m still pondering it, but thought I’d share it with you.

“What is the worst mistake you have made as a Consultant?”

I processed 15 years of war wounds into a millisecond and came up with an answer of sorts.  Upon further consideration, I think I want to go with my top three.  They’re based on personal experience and working with consultants around the world in the training room (often in a Simulation exercise) and with clients.   My top three are, in order of priority:

Critical mistakes in Consulting1.  Closing in on the solution too quickly.  It’s the classic consultant error: the client gets around to talking about something to which you think you have an answer, and you start to close in on it way too early.  Rather than probing further until you are sure you have the whole story, you start selling a Comfort Zone solution, thereby either missing the point or (worse) passing up an opportunity to get really close to what is really causing the client’s pain.  It’s a bit like being a Doctor and issuing Paracetomol instead of arranging a Brain Scan for what turns out to be a brain tumour.

2.  Not asking enough questions.  Similar in a way to number one, but it comes from fear of  being impolite or something.  There are some critical questions which have to get asked early on in order to avoid wasting each other’s time, reduce conflict later and certainly to avoid being hung out to dry when things don’t go to plan. My favourite top 5 questions which do not get asked enough are:

  • What’s the budget?
  • Who is doing what?
  • How do you know you have the problem?
  • What assumptions are we both making?
  • What will happen if this works?  What will happen if it doesn’t?

People seem to think it is rude to ask this sort of stuff.  I disagree.  I think clients welcome the fact that they are being asked: it helps to reassure them that you are adding value and can see things from a different perspective to theirs.

3.  Being too helpful.  I am guilty of this one more often than I’d like.  I worry too much about the relationship at times, and this causes me to not push back or confront when I need to.  My experience has been that every time I do so consciously, it strengthens the relationship.  Clients respect you more, and are more likely to be collaborative in the future.

To illustrate the point, I had a client who wanted me to develop a workshop to support their implementation of Matrix working across the business.  The workshop was to be run with the European Executive team prior to approval to roll it out.

I developed the workshop using inputs from the client and my own material.  The client was unusually anxious about the workshop, and kept adding or changing the content.  I handled these changes in my usual “helpful” way, until what I was planning to run started to become something very different, and I started to not believe it would be successful.  The workshop had become a slide show in which I, the supposed expert, would “teach” these top executives how to implement Matrix working successfully.  I realised that if the client insisted on this, the initiative would fall at the first hurdle, leaving the client and me with egg on our faces, or worse.

It all came to a head 4 days before the event, when the client rang me to say they were still deeply unhappy with the content, and I needed to come over on Bank Holiday Monday to meet an expert in Matrix working and redesign the workshop (one day before it was due to run).  For the first time in my life I told the client that we had reached a point where I was prepared to walk away if they insisted on this.  I was confident that what we had designed would be effective, and was not prepared to make any more changes.

The client listened to my explanation, said she’d ring me back, and did so 10 minutes later, saying go ahead as planned. The workshop worked brilliantly, and my relationship with the client was much stronger for it.  You might say it moved from Parent – Child to Adult -Adult.

One of my other clients has a team of consultants who are nearly all Accommodators or Avoiders on the TKI Conflict Mode Instrument.  They (like me) have a natural tendency to let others have what they want when there is conflict around.  It leads to Scope Creep, delays, budget overruns, internal stress and a relationship on the back foot.  One of their aims is to change this culture, and in so doing develop a more strategic and advisory role with clients.

So there you have it: my top 3 critical Consulting mistakes.  They apply to other fields, of course.  Negotiation springs to mind, as does selling in general.

What are your thoughts on this?

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