More Secrets of Consulting

Apr 29, 1996

Every so often, it becomes necessary for principals and managers of A/E/P and environmental consulting firms to remind certain staff members that theirs is much more than a technical service business. It is a consulting business. These folks who think technical skills drive the whole business forget that most of what a majority of our companies do is apply proven technology. Although there are a few of them, A/E/P and environmental consulting firms that are pioneering new technologies are extremely rare. How we apply the technology is important— but that is more a function of our consultative skills than it is our technical skills. The difference is pretty significant. In a technical service business, all you need are people who are competent technically. They don’t need to have any particular communication or managerial capabilities to be successful. Clients tell you what to do and you just have to do it. In a consulting organization, on the other hand, the communication capabilities of key staff are most important. The requisite technical capabilities are almost assumed. Technical credentials are a requirement to get in the door, but they’re not what keep you there. So if you agree with me that your firm really is a consulting firm, more than merely a technical service provider, you should be thinking about how to build your firm into all that it can be. Here are my thoughts on how to become more effective (and successful) as a consulting firm: Create a need, then fill it. This is straight out of the textbook for Marketing 101— elementary, nevertheless, important to think about. Consulting firms can “create a need” in multiple ways. One of the best is to use scare tactics. In other words, show the client that they are in danger of economic loss because they are not dealing with a problem that they may be unaware of. Services that may lend themselves to this type of marketing include IAQ (indoor air quality), anything related to hazardous materials or substances, seismic analysis of buildings, and so forth. And though this tactic often works well, it is unfortunately distasteful to many senior professionals in our industry. But tell me, what’s wrong with showing a client that they are going to have a problem if they don’t get you in there to help them? As long as it’s true, and you haven’t misrepresented the situation, aren’t you really helping the client? Sell everything you have to sell to your existing clients. A consulting business depends on relationships between people inside the firm and clients outside the firm. That means you need to figure out a way to cash in on that relationship and get all you can from it. Too often, the principals or project managers who are our primary sellers of work only think about the capabilities of their own discipline area or office when it comes to taking care of their clients. You’ve invested the time and money to build the relationship— now you need to capitalize on it by doing everything that you are capable of doing for that client. Be able to duplicate what you do. This is certainly easier said than done. But it’s nevertheless essential for principals of any firm in this business who want their companies to grow, or who someday want to get some value out of their stock in the firm. This means you need to organize the firm in such a way that it’s not just principals who are selling and managing work; that you spend money on systems, processes, and standards that will facilitate having consistent quality; and that you invest in the type of training and mentoring necessary to get second-tier managers to think and act like you want them to. Most firms in our business concentrate too much power in the hands of a few people at the top, don’t invest in processes that will enhance long-term profits, then under-train their people. Convince clients to do what they may not want to do, or may not normally do, then have it work out. This is one of the keys to being a real consultant. There’s nothing like getting a client to do something different than they thought they were going to do when they started the project, then getting great results. For example, convincing a client to install a better HVAC system than they thought they needed and as a result, having the capability to keep their new computers cool. Or getting the client to put zero lot line houses where they first thought they would have estate lots and making 58% more profit on the development. Or getting a client to place all of their offices in the center of their new space instead of putting them around the perimeter, thereby letting more light in and raising the morale and productivity of the worker bees. Re-invent or re-package services so you have something new to sell. Reinventing a service means to make an existing service different from that of your competitors by changing it in some way. The difficulty with reinventing services is that it takes creativity (something there may be a shortage of). Then, if you are successful in your efforts, it usually doesn’t take long for a competitor (or competitors) to catch on. Exceptions are services that require heavy capital investments. Re-packaging a service is doing something such as including air balancing in your HVAC design jobs. Or it can mean selling roof inspections, maintenance programs, replacement design, and construction administration together under one annual contract at a set price to a specific client. Like it or not, the mature marketplace for most services provided by A/E/P and environmental consulting firms requires you to think more about the consulting aspects of our business than you ever had to in the past. Are you doing all you can as a company to be better consultants? If not, why not? Originally published 4/29/1996

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