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Principles of Successful Consulting
1997, August (June 05, 2008)
By Ivan Manestar, Director of Recruiting for Advanced Concepts Business Communications, Inc.

As part of its mentoring process, Advanced Concepts Business Communications, Inc., works to make each of its employees a better consultant. By contributing to employee success on each contract, employees have increased job opportunities and continued professional growth. This article summarizes an interview with several Advanced Concepts employees and managers about the principles of successful consulting.

Bill Morris, a technical illustrator for Advanced Concepts Business Communications, Inc., and veteran consultant, approaches contracting with a “Covey-esque” flavor, focusing on a few main principles. According to Bill, these principles are valid for every area of human interaction, not just contracting. If you keep these certain principles in mind, especially while on a contract assignment, you can distinguish yourself as an experienced professional consultant, not just another contractor.

Principle 1: Watch

During your first days on-site, pay particular attention to the group culture. The goal here is to make the client comfortable with you by mirroring them to some degree. One example of an effective tactic is to take an objective look at the average dress and try to be aware of what the group is trying to say about themselves. Adrian West, president of Advanced Concepts Business Communications, Inc., and successful contract technical writer for many years, suggests that the long-standing guideline is to dress 10 percent more professionally than the others in the group.

Principle 2: Arrive Early and Work Normal Business Hours

Being a few minutes early shows that you have enthusiasm for the project and are willing to make that little extra effort. Unless your project includes off-site work, it’s a good idea to be present during normal business hours so you can have ready access to your coworkers.

Principle 3: Listen

Bill Morris stresses that you need to let your managers do most of the talking. Think of yourself as a psychologist trying to uncover the root of a problem. Jay Shapiro, Advanced Concepts consultant and former technical writer at IBM for many years, suggests that consultants think of themselves as a management resource for providing team support. As a consultant, your job is to understand why a need exists even if the manager can’t (or won’t) articulate it. Bill’s suggestion to let them do the majority of the talking is the first step. When you sense that it is your turn to speak, make sure you address the client’s issues.

Adrian West says a consultant must discover what is relevant to the client and find ways to creatively discuss the underlying issues. He also suggests that if you find the conversations you are having are only task oriented, you can ask, “What new dimensions would you like to see in this project that aren’t being covered now?” A few probing questions can lead to extensions, renewals, or referrals.

Principle 4: See the big picture

Your ability to see the Big Picture can make the difference between whether you are perceived as a professional consultant or as just another contractor. Bill suggests you discover where, and from whom, your project is coming, and where, and to whom, your project goes next. By knowing the scope of the project, you will know how your piece fits into the whole and your contributions will be more appropriate. Adrian West calls this having an “investigative spirit.”
...people want to work with (or buy from) people they like....Your days will be more enjoyable and your product will be better when your attitude is positive.

Only when you ask enough of the right questions to understand the scope of the project can you best know how to position yourself and/or broaden your responsibilities. Adrian suggests a good way to facilitate getting the information is increasing your visibility. Find reasons to work while in the cafeteria, around your manager’s office, or in other high traffic areas. This may give you opportunities to discuss your project in a broader context with other coworkers. You also meet more people this way.

Principle 5: Guard your credibility

If your objective is to win and keep long-term contracts, it iscritical to pay special attention to everything you present. Become your own harshest critic and edit yourself from the perspective of your client. They are going to be judging you in comparison to their internal resources. Bill Morris advises to keep copious notes to safeguard your credibility. One reason is simply to get the instructions right. Another reason is to document what your manager says on any particular day so if there’s ever any question, you can refer to your notes. A little “CYA” can go a long way toward maintaining your professional image.

Establishing credibility as a communicator is the key to gaining a renewal. Jay Shapiro warns you to meet every deadline. In fact, it’s good to beat them by a bit. Jay advises that consultants should know their limitations and resist temptation to agree to outrageous client demands. He sums up his comments by saying that you don’t need to be a hero—you just need to deliver. Talk to your contract administrator regarding any client situation that leaves you uncomfortable.

Principle 6: Keep busy

On most projects, there are cycles of activity. During those times when you are waiting on resource documents, feedback from review, etc., never allow yourself to sit on your hands. Adrian finds that the best defense is a good offense. By nurturing your “investigative spirit” and understanding how your piece fits into the whole, you can contribute to the project in more than one way. However, during brief slow periods on a project, you can sometimes use the time to hone your skills on the client’s tool set. If it’s possible to learn a new application or more about the client’s technology, you may reduce your learning curve on future projects.

Principle 7: Keep your work area neat

This is good common sense. A neat work area gives the impression of efficiency and competency. It helps keep your activities, thoughts, and products in order as well.

Principle 8: Adhere to company guidelines

This suggestion falls in line with the first principle, Watch the group culture. It is the little things that can make a difference. Even a minor faux pas can affect the client manager’s opinion of you. Examples include eating aromatic foods at your desk, security issues, long-distance phone calls, personal phone calls, etc. If you have questions about the corporate culture or the political correctness of a particular issue, simply ask someone. These guidelines vary widely from client to client and from manager to manager.

Principle 9: Be cheerful

Choosing to be enthusiastic and cheerful while on site makes practical sense. Bill Morris has discovered the same thing that a 20-year sales and marketing career has taught Ronnie Duncan: People want to work with (or buy from) people they like. Being cheerful benefits you most. Your days will be more enjoyable and your product will be better when your attitude is positive.

Principle 10: Be proud of your contributions

You were contracted by the client because of your specific expertise. Bill Morris comments that your professional satisfaction comes from knowing that you act with integrity, always putting forth your best effort. As a contractor, there are few plaques and awards to win, so reward yourself by acknowledging your own effort.

From Contractor to Consultant

Extensions to contracts and new contracts by referral is are key goals of any consultant. By following these ten principles, you are sure to graduate from just another contractor to the ultimate consultant in no time at all.

You can reach Ivan at 919-563-2579. End of article.

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