Being a consultant requires being part expert and part therapist. While there isn’t a literal couch clients lie on to tell me their problems, I know that business owners and consultants alike relate to this process of figuring out a client’s main pain points and carefully working with them to design a solution that addresses these.
Here’s a scenario that recently happened. When I walked in the door of my client’s conference room, all eyes were on me. The accounting manager had assembled every member of the team, but I could tell by their faces that she’d also read them the riot act. How was I going to build their trust in order for them to give me the information I need without becoming defensive?
The solution, I’ve discovered, is to act in part as a therapist. As a business process and software consultant, my role is twofold: to be very good at what I do, and to be a therapist for my clients. There’s no rulebook as to why this is required; it’s just something I’ve learned through years of experience, and I’m sure other consultants and business owners can relate.
By the time a company hires a consultant, they are usually in a lot of pain. This pain may be figurative — departmental squabbles and process inefficiencies — or literal, like financial troubles or IRS compliance. Either way, to successfully help clients reach a workable solution, entrepreneurs and consultants alike have to recognize the problem their clients are facing and the pain it causes them.
Step 1: Getting to the Root of the Problem
At the beginning of a project, you have to understand the issue, gain trust and reassure the client that there is a solution. I always start with a question such as “what is going on?” Even if you already have this info from the main contact or through research, it’s important to ask this question in front of the entire team so that everyone can answer.
Here’s where you can pull out four basic therapeutic approaches to help define the problem:
- Hear the entire story from everyone who is willing to tell it. This helps me come up with solutions I feel comfortable recommending.
- Recognize team dynamics. I’ve found this crucial to designing the right solution.
- Be approachable. The know-it-all consultant or entrepreneur is no fun to work with, so I stay friendly and open so that all team members feel they can talk to me.
- Be nonjudgmental. As soon as I say, “I can’t believe you’ve been doing things that way,” I’ve put the client on the defensive. Always try to remember that clients are doing the best they can; you just have more information and tools available to you.
During this process, I try to validate them as much as possible. I say things like, “I see why you’ve been frustrated.” This goes a long way towards gaining trust and ensuring they know I have their best interest at heart. This is the key to designing a successful project solution.
Step 2: Present the Solutions
My process for determining the right solution is 100 percent consultant. In other words, I pull from my own experience, knowledge and creativity — something I know other entrepreneurs share. Your role is to:
- Make an accurate diagnosis of the problem.
- Understand the goals and ensure the solution meets those goals.
- Be a catalyst for change.
- Provide resources in the form of information, training and software.
- Get the project done.
But when presenting a solution, you must also play the role of the therapist. In consulting, the client may still be feeling defensive that he needed help in the first place and the team dynamics are probably still an issue, so it’s important to spend some time determining the best way to negotiate that minefield.
I like sharing pertinent stories, especially when they are about my firm. If the client knows I’ve been in their shoes, they are more likely to let the embarrassment go and trust me.
Step 3: Wrap Up
As the project progresses, we can generally roll up our sleeves and get to work. At this point, listening and remaining approachable are still very important, but for the most part, the client has come to terms with the fact that we were needed in the first place. After all, completing a successful project that meets their goals is everyone’s goal.
Whether you’re a consultant literally going into a business to help them figure out internal issues, or an entrepreneur talking to business owners about the pain points they experience in order to design the perfect solution, combining subject expertise with a therapist’s sensitivity can go a long way towards a successful project.