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7 Stages of a Successful Consulting System

I like systems. I think in systems and, even when I don’t realize I’m doing it, I work in systems. There’s something both comforting and efficient about working with familiar patterns.

Consulting System

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I’ve based my entire body of work around the idea of a marketing system.

In order to install that system however, I’ve had to build, refine and reflect on a consulting system that allows me to translate the full power of my marketing system into something a client can use.

It’s not enough as a consultant to develop a worthwhile methodology; you’ve also got to develop the technology to make it ultimately useful for each and every client.

All that to say that today I want to share what I think are somewhat universal stages for any successful consulting system and engagement.

Education

A successful consulting engagement lives and dies upon expectations. If you don’t view the process of educating a client on your unique approach as part of the engagement, as opposed to part of the selling process, you’ll hit snags down the road.

When a prospective client wants to meet to discuss working together treat that meeting as an opportunity to do some valuable work with them rather than simply showcasing how you work.

Conversion

Once a client is convinced you can help them you must contractually spell out exactly how it’s going to work. You need them to agree to types of information you need, access to staff time, meetings with stakeholders and precisely what you intend to deliver and when.

I wrote about my use of contracts recently here.

Discovery

In this stage you are working with the client to discover “what is.” In other words, this is the audit phase. For me this includes internal staff interviews, external client and partner interviews, website analysis, content analysis, past and future campaign analysis and analysis of key performance objectives and goals.

It’s important to enter this phase with a very open mind. You have no idea what you’re going to find but you must be thorough. (Checklists are really important part of the system here.)

Research

Now it’s time to take what you learn in the Discovery phase and start looking to turn “what is” into “what’s possible.” You need to dive in and take a broader look at the client’s industry at a whole, with special attention given to deconstructing competitors.

This is also the place where I access the internal and external interviews in an effort to better understand a client’s culture and community tendencies. You can’t succeed if you make recommendations that a client simply won’t go through with – no matter how smart those recommendations are.

Presentation

This is the big moment. In my world this is the place where I “sell” my recommendations to the client. Sell may seem like an odd way to describe this phase but this is a “don’t pass go without” step.

Most of my work is based on the notion that you must develop and commit to a marketing strategy before declaring any set of tactics as appropriate. In this stage I must get buy in and excitement from the client around strategy recommendations or I must go back to the drawing board.

Implementation

This phase obviously differs for each and every type of engagement. In fact, in some consulting engagements the implementation is actually left to the client.

Either way, a system for proceeding here is important. If you are now going to do the work you’ve proposed you should have a series of projects and processes all plugged into a checklist road map. If you’re not going to do the work you’ve proposed, your recommendations should contain a road map for the client.

Review

I think this is the missing link for many consultants and service providers. No matter how your consulting engagement is designed you should insist upon some sort of review process to access results. We actually write this step into the contract for a specified time in the future.

Only a couple things can happen in a results review and I think all are positive.

a) You can discover your client got amazing, tangible, documentable results and wants to know how to refer you to others.
b) You can find things just kind of stalled and they need you to help get them back on track

Viewing every aspect of your work through the lens of a system makes you more efficient, more prepared to deliver consistent value to your clients and more effective when it comes to creative problem solving.

Why I Insist On Contracts With My Clients

I’ve been consulting with business owners for many, many years and there was a time when I did not use contracts or agreements. I never felt the need to inject a formal and legal aspect to the work I had proposed and so a handshake seemed like the way to go.

consulting contract

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A few years ago I changed my tune completely on contracts and not because I got burned or felt the need to create something legally binding.

What changed was my view of what a contract could stand for and perhaps my definition of the word contract in general.

In my mind, particularly in the coaching, consulting and professional services world, a client relationship must be a mutually beneficial one if it’s going to work. In other words, both parties have to come to the relationship fully prepared to do their part if the most value is to be realized.

Now, what that mutual participation looks like differs for every business, but in my experience if a clear expectation and understanding of what that looks like is missing, trouble is not far away.

Think about past client work that didn’t go as well as it could. Usually what occurred was miscommunication or a misunderstanding of expectations.

Quite often we are so happy to get the work we don’t have the authentic conversation that needs to be had upfront. It’s so much harder to go back and recreate expectations once the work has begun.

So, back to the idea of a contract

I now use contracts with every engagement. I don’t use them, however, to create some legally binding agreement, I use them as a tool to communicate expectations, needs and wants for both parties.

Of course I want to be paid as agreed and that’s part of the contract, but I write these contracts in very plain language after careful discussion with the client about what we both need to do. The document is more of a social contract than a legal one.

I know my more legal minded readers may take issue with the casual nature of my use of contract. For what I’m describing I could easily use the term agreement and communicate the same thing, but here’s why I intentionally choose the word contract.

A valid contract needs to be entered into with the consent of both parties and it needs to spell out clearly the value exchanged by both parties. I don’t necessarily view my contract with a client as any more binding than an agreement, but I do find that the use of the concept raises the level of commitment from both parties.

I use the tool to spell out what kind of access and information I need from the client to do the work, the objectives and deliverables I am responsible for and they are responsible for, the level of support and communication I need from the client and their staff, the time table for getting together and finishing the work, the way results will be measured, how feedback will be given and of course how payment will be made.

The contract is drawn directly from the conversations we have in preparation for doing the work. The objectives are often outlined and prepared by the client through a collaborative approach, as are the goals and metrics.

I have found that this conversation is the best way to measure the client’s actual level of commitment to the work I’m being asked to do.

This approach to drawing up our ultimate contract is one of most important aspects of getting a project started right. In fact, this conversation has led to agreeing not to work together as well and that’s another powerful reason to make it an essential process.

I’ve wrestled with many names for this process but the term contract keeps coming back as the best use. The level of commitment it expresses, from both parties, sets the table for meeting and exceeding expressed expectations and guiding projects back on track when one or both parties fails to perform.