Will Bachman: Hello, David. Welcome back to the show.
David A Fields: Hey, Will. It is always so much fun to have conversations with you.
Will Bachman: Thanks, David. It’s really great having you back. For listeners, David’s been on several times before; Episode 001, the very first episode of the show and then there’s several other episodes. We had you on, talked about CRM systems, we talked about how to make outbound calls to clients was really popular episodes.
Will Bachman: Today, I’m really excited to have you on the show to talk about how clients pick consultants, and you wrote a whole book on this.
David A Fields: I did back before I was working with consultants directly. It’s actually how I ended up working with consultants directly. My business used to really working with corporate clients and helping them structure projects correctly and then bringing the right consultant.
Will Bachman: Let’s talk about that. We’ve talked before about your most recent book, The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients. I’ve given out several hundred copies of that book because I love it so much, I’m always recommending it. Let’s talk about how clients should go about picking a consultant. Take it from the top, how should clients think about structuring that. It’s useful insights for us as consultants to know how a really thoughtful client will approach this problem.
David A Fields: Actually, you bring up a really interesting question. Before I answer, I’m going to ask you a question which is will it be most helpful to understand how clients do choose consultants or how they should choose consultants, because they’re not exactly the same.
Will Bachman: I guess that’s true. Why don’t we do a little bit of both. One way we can all approach of how they do pick consultants is reflecting on our own experience of picking professional service providers for ourselves, whether that’s an attorney or an accountant or insurance broker or a bookkeeper. You probably ask a bunch of friends or people that you know, “Hey, I’m looking for a back surgeon or an accountant or whatever. Do you have any recommendations?” Then you kind of see if they have a website and ask them a couple questions. Maybe you meet with them and you pick someone that you like. Your experience is much vaster. Let’s do both parts. How do clients actually pick consultants and how should they? Let’s start with the first part, how do they?
David A Fields: All right. Let’s spend some time on that. Obviously, I’ve done a fair amount of research on this. Of course, my whole business really was this where I was on the one hand a consultant, so working with clients, but really I was also the client on every project. I was finding the consultant and playing the role of choosing the consultant with the client.
David A Fields: What I saw, what clients actually do, and some of the research on this is absolutely irrefutable. It just is consistent in what they do, is the very first thing that a client does is looks for situation expertise meaning most specifically, I want someone who’s an expert in my industry, which intuitively makes some sense, and we do that also. You say you brought up the idea of a back surgeon. You want someone who, you go, “I really want a back surgeon because my back hurts. I want a back surgeon that works with middle aged men. If it was middle aged men who look exactly like me that’d be even better.”
David A Fields: That’s what clients do. They’re looking for someone that has the expertise in their situation. Ultimately, of course, the driver of choice with consulting is trust. The clients will always say either explicitly or inside, “Who do I trust most? Who do I think is actually looking out for me, has given me the greatest likelihood to succeed and the least likelihood to make me look terrible or to deliver a bad result?” Those three pieces, that’s the trust triangle. At some level, they’re saying who do I trust most.
David A Fields: The way they get to trust is saying, well, have you worked with people like me in situations like mine, and do you seem credible and do you seem reliable? Now on top of that, they stack things like do I think you’re going to be easy to do business with? Often that turns into could I just use you for everything? Will you be a one-stop shop? Also, by the way, do you cost the least? Some clients, as we all know, we’ve all encountered, some clients are very, very cost sensitive and they’re looking at it from a cost standpoint.
David A Fields: Those factors, that situation expertise and ease of doing business and cost, that is what drives a huge portion of how [inaudible] actually decide in what they do. It’s not necessarily what they should do, but it is how clients tend to choose. When we know that, then we go back to all these other discussions you and I’ve had, Will, about then how do you build trust? How do you make sure that you’re seen as the most credible? Why it’s important to actually have a focus on an industry? That’s what clients are looking for. How do you make yourself appear and actually how do you make yourself easy to do business with? All those pieces.
Will Bachman: Let’s dial it back even a little bit more. You looked at the screening criteria, but in your research, how do clients, in reality, actually even come up with the possible set of people that they’re looking at?
David A Fields: Ooh, interesting question.
Will Bachman: Does it start with just asking friends and relatives? Is it with a Google search? Is it with a LinkedIn search. How are you seeing that clients actually identify the set of three or five or 10 or 100 people that they will screen?
David A Fields: It’s rarely 100. There’s two versions of this. One is the executive who says, “I’ll find the consultant.” That search is pretty minimal. It tends to be who have I encountered in the past or if I trust someone, a colleague, a peer, who have they used? I’ll call a member of a board of another firm where we’re similarly on boards, or I’ll call a VP. If I’m a VP, I’ll call a VP somewhere else or another VP in my firm in a different division and say who have you used. It becomes just who do I know and who do my friends know or people I trust know.
Will Bachman: Maybe who presented at this conference that I went at that seemed to know what they’re talking about.
David A Fields: That will sometimes happen. It actually happens less than probably all of us would wish, but that does happen, in part because senior executives go to conferences less than we’d wish. That certainly can come up, or I’ve read a book by someone, maybe they’d be helpful, so different situations. One is, I have a problem. Who can help me solve the problem? The other is I’ve encountered a really interesting solution. I wonder whether we could use that here. In that case, there’s not a search for a consultant. They’re simply an approach to a certain consultant in saying hey, could you help with this. If someone has an ongoing issue, and they’re keeping their eye open or they do a little bit of research or do some reading and who’s written a book on it, that actually can fill out the competitive set.
David A Fields: There’s a whole other version where the senior executive, the decision-maker, delegates the finding to someone. Then you’re more likely to get into a Google search. Again, all this depends on the size of your client. If you’re dealing with a multi-billion dollar, multi-national client and at the top of the organization, if they delegate it, then you’ve got someone doing Google searches and literature searches and all of that. If you’re dealing with clients that are local mom and pops, or you’re dealing with a $20 million company around the corner, they don’t have anybody to delegate to. They’re much more likely to do a short search asking friends.
Will Bachman: Play back again for me. You identified the set. Maybe it’s two or three or five names that they come up with by asking their friends or VPs in other divisions or some chairman of some other company that they know. How do clients actually decide in terms of maybe they ask each one of them for an hour phone call and explain their issue and they hear a pitch or something but then what’s really driving the choice?
David A Fields: Again, ultimately what’s driving that choice is this idea of trust, is this belief that someone’s not going to screw up or someone’s going to deliver the result. As I mentioned, that’s because maybe they’ve done interviews, they’ve gone to websites. They’re looking for have you worked in my industry. That is the number one criteria. It comes up in all the research. They’re looking for are you a specialist in my industry. If you’re a specialist in every industry, that’s less powerful. They’re going to look at your website and see where do you play. They may get you on the phone and say where do you play. It’s possible they will, in competitive situations, that they’ll bring in two or three people or talk to two or three people. In a larger project, they’re going to bring two or three folks and invite them to pitch or invite them to do a capabilities presentation.
David A Fields: The vast majority of consulting projects, are not competitive. Really, the client has done whatever looking, whatever minimal amount of looking upfront and then has decided, you know what, maybe I’ll look at two or I’ll talk to two or three consulting firms. It’s not like they’re bringing in 10 or 20 or 100.
Will Bachman: It’s often more of a satisficing than an optimizing where you’re not necessarily looking for the best single person in the world but someone who pricing is reasonable, they seem trustworthy. I’ve worked with them before. Someone recommends them to me. They seem to know what they’re talking about. Okay, let’s go.
David A Fields: Yup. That’s absolutely right, Will. One thing that’s important for consultants remember, is that clients generally aren’t looking for the best solution. They’re merely looking for a reliable solution. They want a solution. They want their problem fixed. Whether it’s the ultimate ideal super fix or not or the most innovative, don’t care, especially if you’re fixing a problem as opposed achieving an aspiration.
David A Fields: I have a leak up by my chimney in the house. I’ve had almost everything replaced. The only thing left to replace is the sky. I don’t care actually whether someone comes in, they’ve got the most innovative idea or not. I just want the lead to stop. That’s the case for most of our clients is they don’t care whether you’re the most innovative or this or that. They actually want you to just be reliable and credible. As you said, that’s a satisficing mentality. I think you’re absolutely right, Will.
Will Bachman: Yeah, reliable and credible. I would add to that that, and I’m in the position where occasionally I’ll sit in on discussions with a consultant having a discussion with a client. I get to observe this a little bit bird’s eye. Some people do this well but a lot of consultants don’t which is just right out of your book, Irresistible Consultant’s Guide at Winning Clients, about doing a context discussion where I often see people doing a lot of stating and a lot of talking about their past experience. While you say that reliability and credibility is important, my belief is that mostly clients don’t care that much about what you’ve done in the past. They’re just not that interested in it.
Will Bachman: What they really want to know is what are you going to do for me. When I see consultants talking so much about their past experience, they’re often neglecting to ask the right questions to get the full understanding of the context.
David A Fields: You’re absolutely right. You’re 100% right. The credibility and the reliability and the industry experience and all of that, that gets you in the door. You’re asking what do they look for. That’s what they look for first. It won’t win you the project. What it will do is it gives you the right to play for the project.
Will Bachman: Yeah. I think once you’re in the door, then you don’t need to prove that anymore. Now you need to make sure that you can actually understand what the problem is. Sometimes people will be so eager to keep proving that, like I’ve done this here and we got this result, that they don’t ask what is the client really trying to achieve. You’re [inaudible] context. Why are you doing this now? Who was involved? What are you trying to accomplish with this project? Remind me of some of the other pieces of the context discussion.
David A Fields: The context discussion is six pieces. I’ll run it through really super quickly. The situation, and the two key questions in the situation are why now, so what’s changed, and why are you going to the outside. Why not just do this yourself? Then desired outcome. What’s does better look like? Often, clients haven’t thought this through. Then indicators of success. How will you know when you get to better. If you don’t know that, how will we know along the way if we need to make adjustments on the projects. What risks and concerns, that’s part four. What concerns do you have? What concerns do you have about the project? What can make it fail? What concerns do you have about bringing a consultant in? What concerns do you have about bringing us in?
David A Fields: Probably of the entire context discussion, those risks and concerns are the most important in terms of actually winning a project. Then you have value. Why bother? By the way, if you ask me how should clients go about choosing a consultant, the very first thing they should do is ask why bother. Why are we even doing this project? What’s the value? What’s the meaningful impact this will have on you, your business, your customers or your employees.
David A Fields: The final part of the context discussion is parameters, so people, time, money. It can be geography. It can be gender. I’ve seen all sorts of things affected. Yes, a well-constructed discovery process, that’s the context discussion, will win you the project. To get in the door though, usually the client wants to see that situation expertise, which can be a little frustrating because it’s actually not necessarily that important. To fight it, is futile.
Will Bachman: I think there’s a question or a series of questions that are embedded in your context discussion that are around asking the client, in your mental model, what does this project look like? What do the phases of this project look like? How do you envision what kind of team are you looking for? What kind of support are you looking for and asking them to just explain what kind of support they’re hoping to get. So often consultants will try to be the expert and say, oh, this is what you need or we’ll come in with this engagement manager plus two team. This is going to be four months, laying out some grand scheme. Really what the clients wants is, no, actually I just wanted a one-week quick diagnostic or something and I can handle it from there.
Will Bachman: If you don’t ask the questions around that, what’s your mental model of how big this is, is this a one-week? Is this two months? Often, you could imagine there’s a range of ways to get at something. You could do a one-day workshop. You could do a two-week diagnostic. You could a three-month strategy effort. Sometimes you really just aren’t asking what the client wants to buy.
David A Fields: Yeah. That will come up all throughout. Usually when you’re saying what does success look like, often clients aren’t thinking of the outcome. They’re thinking of the process. Success looks like a two-day workshop where we deliver our strategy or develop our strategy. I’m thinking, okay, success is not a workshop. That’s just one means to get there. You’ll get it from there. You’ll get it when you’re asking about budget, when you ask the heart attack question. That will start to get you towards that.
David A Fields: It’s discovery. That’s the heart of becoming the obvious choice. You don’t become the obvious choice by saying here’s what we’re great at. You become the obvious choice by understanding what does great look like for them. What are their concerns?
David A Fields: All of that, by the way, all of that goes back to the original point of trust. When you understand a client so well, better than any other consultant and better perhaps than they understand themselves, you’re able to put forward a solution that they can trust because it meets their concerns. It addresses what they’re really looking for. That becomes an easy, easy win because you’ve addressed their concerns. You’ve reassured them that you’ll be able to achieve the outcome they want.
David A Fields: The only thing is, again, the frustration for many consultants both small and large, is to get in the door they’re saying I want you to have situation expertise.
Will Bachman: I think one way to build trust is to get real work done in the first meeting, in that context discussion, but to actually get something accomplished. Some consultants will express this concern, if I give all the jewels away up front, they’ll get all this value out of me and they won’t want to hire me. If you can actually problem solve and rather than just talking about your background actually move it forward and maybe put together some kind of hypothesis tree or issue tree in that first meeting and create that together with the client so that at the end of the hour, they’re further along towards solving the problem then when you worked in the door, you actually get something accomplished and they’ve experienced what it’s like working with you, then I think you’re well along the way to confirming the project.
David A Fields: Absolutely right. I was talking with one of my clients, is a smallish firm. At this point, they’ve got about 20 people down in Virginia. They’re actually going over to London to talk to a pharma company on Monday. They called yesterday to ask this very question. They said “We’re going to be in there 90 minutes. What if we give away everything and they don’t want to hire us?”
David A Fields: My reaction to them and my advice to them is if a client can get everything they need from you in a 90-minute conversation, they were never going to pay you half a million dollars or a million dollars anyway. Don’t worry about that. In fact, the opposite is true. The more you give, the more likely a client is to say holy cow. First of all, they’re not going to remember anything you give anyway, and they’re not going to be able to implement everything you give. What they’re going to see is you have a lot to give.
David A Fields: Whatever you can give in an hour, Will, you and I talk all the time. I learn from you constantly. If you talk with me for an hour and I sucked up everything, my biggest impression would be there’s got to be 500 more hours of learning to get from you. That’s how clients react too. Be generous, and you’re right, create real value while you’re together. The right questions, I think create value.
Will Bachman: I agree. If you can actually solve their problem or answer their question in just the 90 minutes, even if they’re willing to pay you 100,000 or half a million to do the two-month project to get to that answer and you give it away in 90 minutes, life’s too short. Maybe they don’t hire you for this one, but who are they going to call next time, right?
David A Fields: Exactly. If you can solve it in 90 minutes, really, did you need to do a two-month project?
Will Bachman: Yeah, exactly. What are you going to do for two months?
David A Fields: Exactly. It may be two months of implementation. It may be two months of, okay, now let’s take this idea. This idea is the answer, but how do we actually make the idea work? That’s what you hire us for, not just the insight.
Will Bachman: Another point is, and this could be controversial or maybe it’s even stupid, but I think going in and over-preparing but then being indifferent to results. If you over-prepare and research the client, understand the situation as much as you can ahead of time, but then don’t be too caught up on winning that particular project and in some cases being willing to say, you know what, we’re not the right person to help you with this particular thing, or we’re not the most efficient solution.
Will Bachman: Recently, I had a client that was willing to hire my firm to do about a month’s worth of work. I said, “You know what, we could, but there’s this report that I found that’s $4,000 that probably has 95% of what you need. Why don’t you just buy that report instead? If you still need help, let me know.” They went and bought the report. I’m waiting to hear back if they want some more help. I think being willing to just walk away from things or recommend some other solution or someone else that’s maybe more suited or lower cost, builds that long-term trust.
David A Fields: Yup. Two things. One, to be fair, it’s easy for, Will, for you and for me to say that. We both have thriving practices. Walking away is a little bit easier. That said, I don’t know about your situation but I was certainly in a situation early on where my practice was struggling. Every dollar was meaningful, and walking away was harder. I would still say doing the right thing for the client and not being attached to every single opportunity gave me the freedom and the ability to win more business. When you’re attached to every opportunity, when you’re emotionally attached to everything, it’s actually harder to win business. There’s a level of desperation that clients can send and that does you a disservice. Just one thing I wanted to mention. The other was that if I can kind of riff off this idea of preparation.
Will Bachman: Yeah, please do.
David A Fields: I did an article recently where I talked about use your capabilities presentations and how much rabbit versus how much hat, using the magicians pulling rabbits from hats. Often, consultants go in with not only the hat. They go in with the full regalia, the magician. They prepared everything, and they have this huge deck of slides that they want to present in a client meeting. It’s all hat. It’s all pre-done. It’s all out there to see. That’s generally a mistake.
David A Fields: What you want is the ability to pull the rabbits out as you need them, the right rabbit, if in fact it’s a rabbit. You want to be prepared. This is, by the way, it’s the same advice I gave to the folks going over to talk to the pharma firm when I was talking to them yesterday, is you should have some prepared. You need a little bit of hat. You need a little bit that’s prepared and have done some of that research, that little bit may simply be here’s what we think the purpose of today’s conversation is, what our meeting is about. Is this your objective? This is what our objectives are.
David A Fields: Almost everything else is there if you need it but not if you don’t, meaning, oh, you would like to see a case study? Sure, we’ve got a case study, let me just pull that up. Oh, you wanted to see our client list? Not a problem. I have a slide on that. To have all of that built in advance, let me walk you through a case study. Let me walk you through the process, because we’ve pre-prepared this makes your presentation extremely fragile and extremely likely to be non-value added. Then it becomes all about you. Here’s what I want to present. I prepared this thing as opposed to being about the client. It’s not longer right-side up. The right-side up capabilities presentation or right-side up pursuit of an opportunity means you’re prepared but not pre-built. Does that make sense?
Will Bachman: It does. It does. It’s often super boring to look at a capabilities presentation. It’s boring. It’s like, okay, there’s lots of pages here. I can imagine that there’s case studies and stuff. It’s just boring to listen to. It’s like reading 20 resumes or something, every word. No one wants to do that.
David A Fields: Yeah, and it’s off topic. It’s upside down. It’s not about the client. It’s the consultant talking about themselves. If you’ve pre-built it, it’s almost necessarily about yourself. If you’ve pre-built a whole bunch of things that you don’t feel compelled to present, then you can make it about the client.
Will Bachman: One, I think, area that is kind of neglected, and just as we talk often in this is just follow-up; that step one, follow-up; step two, repeat step one. I’ve seen cases where I’ve followed up every week or 10 days. Nine months later, the client finally says, “Oh, you know what, actually we’re ready to get started now.” It can be annoying, but keep following up until the client says, “Just shut up and leave me alone,” in a polite way. Just hey, and then we vary it up. “Hey, just thought I’d check in. Hey, any new developments? How’s the thinking evolving?” Come up with ways to vary it a little bit but keep following up. Sometimes I think clients actually appreciate that.
Will Bachman: If I think about my own life, there’s stuff that I have on my to-do list that I want to do. There’s been cases where I’ve had maybe a craftsman come to my house to look at something that probably needs fixed and then I forget about it. They never come back and follow up. They said, hey, your kitchen ceiling or something needs to be repaired. Do you have the funds for that? Are you ready to do it? Do you want to do it while you’re on vacation? If they followed up, I’d probably say, oh, thank you, go ahead and do it. Following up, having a tracking system, a CRM, and then just following up and continuing to reach out and check in, if you do that a long enough time, eventually they’ll either say stop bothering me or at some point they might actually say yes.
David A Fields: Right. That goes back to how should clients choose a consultant and presented with the right consultant with the right qualities, they will choose it. One is some persistence, some level of willingness to stay on it. That’s an important quality in a consultant, the willingness to push back, to challenge assumptions, to challenge whether or not the project should be done at all, to challenge the value, all of that. That’s highly valuable in a consultant. If consultants are shy about pushing back, they’ll actually win fewer projects than if they exhibit some independent thinking and some wherewithal to raise the client’s thinking to a higher level.
David A Fields: Similar to what you just brought up in terms of just following up and perseverance is responsiveness. Responsiveness absolutely rules in our business. Clients look to it. They won’t bring it up on their own because they don’t know to bring it up. If a client is thinking about working with a handful of different or three different consulting firms, and they reach out to the different consulting firms, and you call back within minutes, if you turn your proposal around within a day, whereas other consulting firms are taking hours or days to return a phone call and weeks to return a proposal, you’ve got a huge leg up. You’ve got a huge advantage.
David A Fields: Responsiveness is very, very important and of course rapport, just being able to relate on a personal level. Even though some of our work seems technical, and depending on kind of work you do, it might be very analytical, or it may have a very technical side to it, we’re dealing with people. This is a people business. It’s people working with other people and be able to just be relatable and be interested, be likable. That stuff all has an impact on whether a client will choose you.
Will Bachman: What is your take, David, on free stuff, so offering a free workshop or a free two-day diagnostic of your plant? Not offering to do the project for free, but offering to do something for free. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that.
David A Fields: I always preferred to be paid. That’s a really interesting topic, Will. In order of preference, my order of preference is I’d be paid than free. A very, very distant ninth is cheap. There’s a big advantage to free versus cheap. I don’t do projects for small fees. I’d rather just say I’ll do it for free or just turn it down and say when you’re ready or when you have the wherewithal to work with me, then we’ll come together.
David A Fields: Two days for free strikes me as a little excessive. A free public session, for instance, or a free workshop where you can get multiple clients in to experience what you do, to get a taste of what you do, to get a sample or a pilot, that can be very powerful. I think giving people an experience of you is extremely important and creates, again, that level of trust. Now they’ve seen you. They see how you work. They’ve experienced you. They’re getting a little bit of a taste of the results that you can create. That’s extremely valuable.
David A Fields: I don’t think most consultants that are listening. I have to convince them to don’t do too much work for free because we’re not building philanthropic enterprises here, at least not professionally. Hopefully, you create a lot of revenue and that gives you the opportunity to be philanthropic if you want. I don’t think too many people are just going to volunteer all their work for free.
Will Bachman: I don’t think you should-
David A Fields: On the flip side, though Will, just really quickly, I made an introduction between two consultants yesterday. I just checked in on one of them. I said is it okay if I make an introduction. Her response was, “Well, am I going to get paid for this, or is this just 15 minutes?” I thought, that was kind of surprising to me. I’ll give anybody a half an hour. I’ll give them an hour of time for free because why not? To try to monetize that one hour, to me, doesn’t make sense. Just to build a relationship is worthwhile anyway. I think we have to be careful, especially people who work on an hourly basis, which I don’t, but people think about every hour as just I have to sell this hour. That puts you in a position which I don’t think is where you want to be for the long-term.
Will Bachman: Yeah, I agree with you. I think on the doing stuff for free, it depends where you are with your practice is my point of view and what your opportunity costs are in terms of other stuff you could be doing. When I was much earlier in my practice, there was one client where he hadn’t used consultants before and was pretty resistant to it. He was somewhat open but reluctant and the fees were kind of scaring him. In that case, I offered, actually I did a three-day free diagnostic. It took me about a day to write it up. I invested that time in that. Then I went in on Friday and presented him the results. That was sufficient to really get him over the hump. He hired me for four or five months. It turned out that he became a close client, a very close friend over the years, introduced me to other places. That turned out after the fact to be definitely worth the investment of time.
Will Bachman: In another case, I went and did a one-day free workshop for a client to say hey … It was a way of educating myself on their problems and what they were facing. I got a clear sense of what the project looked like. I wouldn’t necessarily always do that but I’d say if you don’t want to do it for free, then another option is to rather than to proposing the 12-week operational improvement is saying, look, just hire us, a small bite. Just hire us for one week. We’ll come in, we’ll do a diagnostic. We’ll understand your issues. We’ll get you a sense of if we could be helpful or not. If you have a client that’s having trouble kind of getting over the hump of deciding, making it really easy for them to say yes, just hire me for one day or two days or three days. Once they’ve invested in you, then they’re much less likely to go somewhere else.
David A Fields: You reminded me, which I really appreciate, and I wasn’t equating for some reason in my own silliness, free with pro bono, that I am a huge advocate for doing pro bono work especially when you are starting or, as you said, when you’ve got a lot of capacity. I do believe work begets business. Work begets work. If there’s an organization or if you’re trying to build a new capability, if there’s an organization that you feel strongly about helping, I think that’s great. I think it can jumpstart your practice. That kind of pro bono work I think is very valuable.
David A Fields: I’m not 100% there on the do a small piece. I think pilots can be very helpful. My idea of a pilot is 10% of the project for 15% of the fees. I’m finishing up a pilot right now actually with a firm where it was literally, we’ll do a small version. We’ll take one of your teams. If it works in 2019, then we’ll take a whole bunch of your teams in 2020. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re finishing up.
David A Fields: I’ve become slightly less enamored of, for instance, we’ll do the diagnostic or we’ll do the one-day. I do a number one day trainings. I push pretty hard to not let a client go there. The reason is my experience has been, with my own work and with many and many of the firms I work with, their work, is that the ultimate value to the client is so much lower when the client does a little, tiny taste versus the whole meal. If you just get one part of the appetizer, it’s not like you’re getting the commensurate amount of the value of the whole meal because the implementation isn’t there, the follow-on, the long tail, all the things that create value over time for a client.
David A Fields: As a result, like I said, I’ve become a little bit less enamored with that type of project. I would rather tell a client if we’re not right, we’re not right, then take the small project, which puts a little bit of cash in my pocket, gives them a little bit of value but the value dissipates too quickly over time.
Will Bachman: Okay. We’ve eaten up a lot of the time around how clients actually choose. Share a few observations of … go read the book but how should clients choose a consultant.
David A Fields: Okay, we’ll do this quickly. First, foremost, they should decide whether or not they should really be doing the project. Do a little bit of value work. Does it make sense to do the project? Second, they should put a little bit more thought into should they be hiring someone from the outside or not? There’s a should we/can we trade-off here. Can we do this ourselves, and should we be doing it in-house? Thinking that through will tell them whether they should be using a contract labor or whether they should be using a consultant, whether they should be getting training, or whether they should just be getting a project. Those are initial steps which are particularly important.
David A Fields: Then they should be looking at outcome expertise. What outcome do we need. Not what situation are we in, but what outcome do we want and who’s expert in that outcome. The difference between situation expertise and outcome expertise can be subtle but also it can be striking.
David A Fields: One quick example. This is going to date me. Years and years and years and years ago, I remember Charlie Daniels who was a fiddler. He did Devil Comes Down to Georgia or something like that. I don’t remember the exact song. He was really popular for a time. He had a TV special. He’s fiddling on his TV special. He had, as a guest, Issac Stern.
David A Fields: If you’re saying, okay, situation expertise, I want a country fiddler. I want somebody who really knows country music and can fiddle and do that. That would lead you to Charlie Daniels. When Issac Stern when up there, and Issac Stern, of course, is a master violinist, one of the best ever, fiddling for him, it was nothing. It was child’s play. His ability to fiddle and to create music, which was the real outcome here, create pleasing country music, was so far and above what Charlie Daniels could do. It was amazing.
David A Fields: What you’re looking for is outcome expertise. That’s what they should do. That’s what, as a consultant, we need to show, is not just that we worked on the client situation, but we know how to deliver the right outcome. That’s a big piece of it.
David A Fields: And then some of those other things I talked about. They should be looking for willingness to push back. Clients should be looking for high responsiveness. They should be looking for rapport, and they should be looking for a return. Not cost but what’s the return. Are you, as a consultant, going to be able to create a higher likelihood of a higher value at the end. That’s going to more than pay for an extra 20,000 or 200,000 or whatever it is in fees. It justifies a fee premium.
David A Fields: Then you’re looking for, I think, things like good change plan because most consulting involves some change. Are you just going to suggest the change, or as a consultant, do you actually have experience and the ability to manage change? Are you going to provide a long tail of support? Do you have some focus on risk and ways to manage risk, which very, very few clients and very consultants pay attention to. The few consultants that really pay attention to risk, here’s what can go wrong in our project and here’s how we’re going to make sure it doesn’t go wrong, and here, by the way, is how we address anything that does go wrong. That gives those consultants so much reassurance to clients that they tend to win more projects. That is what clients should be looking for.
Will Bachman: Now, I didn’t hear you mention references and reference checks. How important is it, do you think, for clients to do reference checks? Some people would say they’re worth nothing because you’re only going to provide positive references, but what do you think about reference checks?
David A Fields: I think that it doesn’t hurt. I think that my assumption is, in most cases as a client, certainly as I’ve been looking for consultants for my clients, I’m talking to people that are not fly-by-night anyway, that can show some roster of completed projects ideally and clients. I think reference checks serve only modest utility for exactly the reasons you mentioned. If I asked you who you worked with or asked for some names, you’re going to give me the names of people who are going to say glowing things about you.
David A Fields: If I can get references on you in a different way by asking indirectly, by looking at your client list and then talking to those clients myself, that is worthwhile. I will advise clients to do that, and I’ve done that myself.
Will Bachman: Or if the person, the consultant, can’t supply a recent reference like, oh, I have a glowing reference from 2004, it’s probably not a good sign.
David A Fields: Yeah. That might be problematic.
Will Bachman: I think asking for them is fine. I think they serve somewhat marginal utility. I’m sure there’s all sorts of listeners who will disagree vehemently with me, which is great, which is excellent. Everyone’s experience is valuable.
David A Fields: David, we will include a link to your first book in the show notes for people that want to check that out. I’m going to mangle the title. It was Executive Guide to Choosing Clients?
Will Bachman: Consultants.
David A Fields: Choosing Consultants.
Will Bachman: No, Executive Guide to Consultants was the first book.
David A Fields: There we go.
Will Bachman: Just as a fair warning, there’s this book, Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients, which you’ve recommended many times, is a much more fun read. The Executive’s Guide to Consultants was a very good book but it’s a more dense book.
David A Fields: Maybe a second edition with more cartoons.
Will Bachman: It was before I was doing cartoons, illustration.
David A Fields: Everyone listening should definitely go to your website, David, davidafields.com. Sign up for your weekly email. It comes out every Wednesday morning, which I love. It’s always the first thing I read every Wednesday. It’s always great having you on the show. I really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much for joining today.
Will Bachman: Thank you, Will. As always, just a delight to just be able to discuss this with you and hopefully add value for your listeners.
David A Fields: You certainly did. Thanks a lot.
Will Bachman: Okay, bye.