Tips for development consultants: How to create value for clients (and keep them coming back!) (Pt2)
This is part 2/2. If you missed part 1, you can find it here.
I am delighted to be writing this post on a topic that is so close to my heart and central to my professional life. Many of you know that I have passionately run my own consulting practice for the past six and a half years, mainly in the fields of migration, development and related topics. While I do not claim to be any sort of consulting Yoda, I wanted to reflect on some learnings from my consulting career and throw them out into cyberspace on the off chance one person might find them useful. I originally wrote this for my own website a few months ago before founding the IC-Hub. I suppose my interest in sharing some of these "lessons learned" was very much part of why the IC-Hub now exists.
So here's my stab at explaining the principles that underpin my everyday mission to create value for my clients (or at least to get myself through the day!), along with recommended actions that you can try out to take your consulting to the next level!
This article is written for consultants who work in the international development and public sector spaces, although some advice undoubtedly crosses over into the realm of being a good worker. I couldn't stop writing about this so I'm posting these tips in two parts.
Tip 6: Go for impact over output
In the development field (and the same principle can be applied to other fields), we all know that poverty reduction is better measured by improved standards of living (e.g. income levels or mortality rates) rather than by the number of training manuals on poverty reduction distributed. Consultants have a tendency to focus on their terms of reference. I will admit to being guilty of this. But I'm trying to change this mindset. For my recent project to research human trafficking in South Sudan, the terms of reference were to write a nice research report. But the project aimed to see how to best fight trafficking in South Sudan. And my current project to map the Fijian diaspora in Australia is more than just a couple of online surveys; it's about how to build bridges between Fiji and her diaspora, and engage the diaspora in Fiji's development. We have to rise above the cynics and shoot for the stars!
Tip 7: Ask for feedback
The crux of improving in any pursuit is doing, receiving feedback, then doing better. The feedback loop may be stronger for employed staff than it is for consultants: managers have responsibilities to train their subordinates, who can contribute more when their employer invests in them. Organisations don't always perceive there to be benefits of helping a consultant to improve, despite consultants like myself making the rounds among the same organisations. And if you don't understand why, perhaps ask yourself how eager you are to fill out customer service surveys for your energy or broadband provider, or accountant?
Yet we consultants have so much to gain from understanding our strengths and weaknesses. I've taken a few different approaches to doing this. Around a year ago I sent around an online feedback form to all previous clients to fill in anonymously. It contained questions like:
How do you think the project went?
Which aspects of the consultant's work did you like? Some aspects you may wish to consider are: quality of work/analysis/deliverables, client communication/responsiveness, alignment of work to agreed objectives, fees, etc.
Which aspects of the consultant's work could be improved and how? Some aspects you may wish to consider are: quality of work/analysis/deliverables, client communication/responsiveness, alignment of work to agreed objectives, fees, etc.
There were some useful responses but it proved difficult to get full and candid feedback from people who had limited time and perhaps feared I would guess whose responses were who's (which admittedly I did!).
More recently, I have taken to arranging closing interviews at the end of every major project. I ask similar questions to the above but state clearly that I will not respond to their comments, I will simply listen and take their views on board. This approach is by no means perfect but it has helped me get useful feedback. It can be frustratingly difficult to stay quiet when you disagree, but sometimes perceptions are just as important as reality.
Ask clients for a closing interview at the end of the project so you can get feedback.
Tip 8: Don't take too much on; learn to say no
If you are completely overwhelmed by consultancy work, then congratulations! Take a moment to appreciate that, especially as our friend COVID-19 is taking away peoples' livelihoods across the world.
Once you've patted yourself on the back, sit down and consider honestly what your bandwidth is and get better at saying no. I've seen many good consultants - and I've fallen into this trap before - who take too much on and cannot deliver well.
It can be hard to develop the reflex of saying no as a consultant. Perhaps the projects are too interesting or lucrative to turn down. Or perhaps you're trying to "make hay while the sun shines". But the consequences of taking on too much include doing bad work and losing your reputation for quality (consultants' reputations are built hard over time but lost easily and quickly).
Instead, use the abundance of offers to only say yes to high-quality projects that align with your mission. And if you don't have a mission yet, then spend time defining one, or write out a criteria for saying no. I've also taken the approach to exploring more collaborations with other consultants. I am currently working with Martin Russell on a project where we each have half the number of working days for the same terms of reference.
Develop your criteria for saying no. Write it down and stick to it!
Partner with other consultants, splitting the workload
Write your mission statement and only accept projects that are in line with it.
Tip 9: Understand your client's challenges and pressures, and help manage them
"My client is so difficult. They are obsessed with promoting the project and not focusing on the substance."
"My client changed the terms of reference and now keeps changing their mind about what they want from the report."
Sound familiar? Many of our clients are large organisations. Some are bloated bureaucracies with layers of politics between and within them (not naming names!). The people we work with are subjected to a range of challenges and pressures and we sometimes forget that. The constant pulling and shoving that the in-house staffer endures daily can manifest in seemingly random instructions passed down to the consultant, or by frequently changing to the brief. While we find it easiest to work with clients who "speak with one voice", we should recognise that in reality, we're working with organisations comprised of people with diverse views and human desires and pressures.
Good consultants put themselves into their client's shoes. They ally themselves with the client in their daily battles --- ahem, I mean collaborative and constructive work collaborations with internal clients! I am certainly not an expert in this and have only started to become more attuned to this in recent months. But if you can help your clients and make them look good, you will set yourself apart from other consultants.
When discussing the project objectives and methodology with your client project manager, find out who's input is required into your work. If possible, work with your project manager to engage those internal stakeholders early on in project definition and planning.
Tip 10: Develop your own rules, policies and processes that make you more efficient and effective
Most businesses develop rules, policies and processes as a way of codifying what they do and how they do. It enables them to delegate tasks to different staff members and to identify improvements. As independent consultants, we are micro-entrepreneurs. We are small businesses. Whether you're working for an organisation or for yourself, you probably spend at least a fair chunk of your time doing things that you've done many times before. For me, those include: writing proposals or methodologies, issuing invoices, bookkeeping, checking bank accounts, replying to consulting firms who ask to use my CV, and drafting report structures.
For all of these tasks, why reinvent the wheel? Why not write down the processes, or draft stock emails that you can copy and paste? I've only started taking this approach this year but it cuts down on the daily "micro-decisions" that need to be taken and allows me to do the tasks quicker (and often better). By doing this, I've also started to see that some processes could be automated or outsourced.
Brainstorm your repetitive tasks.
Select just one of these tasks and, the next time you do it, write down a bullet-point step-by-step guide on how you do it.