Good Consultants Should Learn From Their Clients

How your clients should feel after working with you.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

In the last company I co-founded, we had hundreds of different clients. Part of what we thought was our value proposition was that we’d seen a vast number of varying situations and could apply what we’d learned from previous engagements to whatever the problem was that we were facing.

This was particularly true for our government clients. We weren’t a standard government contractor who had a long-term contract at a given three letter agency. We had seen commercial clients, ranging from Fortune 50 companies to startups. We brought an entirely different set of experiences to the table.

What really made us, in my opinion, better off was that we were always asking our clients how they did things and what worked for them. There were a couple of reasons for taking this approach:

  • It allowed us to tailor our approach and message to the way they did things. We needed to know not only what the solution to their given problem was, but also if we were going to have to approach cultural change as part of our answer. There was no point in providing something which would never be used, as that served nobody. OK. It served us in that it was a paycheck, but it didn’t provide an exceptionally happy customer who would provide a glowing recommendation for our work.
  • While we were subject matter experts, we didn’t know it all. There was always an opportunity to discover something new from the people with whom we worked. We never had the mentality that there was a new sheriff in town when we were invited in to help our clients. Instead, we realized our strengths and were otherwise humble.

Because of this approach, we often learned as much, if not more, from our clients than they learned from us. They learned how to solve their specific problems in niche areas, and we picked up a ton of knowledge not only in our niche area of expertise, but also in adjoining areas.

Thus, when we began to expand our services beyond the narrow, targeted niche that we focused on, we had knowledge and experience to be both credible to potential new customers and able to deliver on our promises.

It’s important that you consistently refine and hone your skills. It’s table stakes for you to maintain your position. If you want to improve your market position, then you have to consistently improve even more than the competition.

Nobody promised you that entrepreneurship would be easy.

How can you maintain credibility while remaining open to learning new things?

As a services provider, the line between arrogance and bumbling is fairly thin. Too much swagger, and you’ll be perceived as the person who’s going to come in, take the client’s watch, and tell him what time it is, while leaving a 435-page Power Point deck that they’re expected to intuitively be able to execute. Too much humility, and everyone around you will question whether or not you really know what you’re doing.

Here’s how to toe the line:

  • Establish your authority and credibility early by delivering a quick win. One of our parlor tricks that worked well was to, as quickly as possible, stand up a working search engine using our platform. We’d done it so many times that installing the software and connecting it to the client’s data was easy for us. It also bought us time to get to the root of the other problems that we were trying to solve while giving the client a new toy to play with. Figure out what it is that you can do well and quickly and that will wow the client, giving you that quick win.
  • Admit that you don’t know everything. Very few clients will expect you to have all of the answers right at the onset. However, you do have experience which you have gained from your previous work, that you can apply to the problem at hand to reduce the time it takes to get to a solution. This is why you want to learn from your clients. Each engagement adds a new arrow to your quiver that you can use the next time.
  • Don’t show your quirks from the onset. Over time, you want to get to know the people with whom you’re working, but the proper time is not right at the beginning of the engagement. I’m a particularly quirky, self-effacing person, but I never let that side of my personality show through with clients until I’ve already established my bona fides and given them confidence that I can deliver what I’ve promised to do. After that, I can let my hair down (well, I would if I didn’t shave it off) and build the bonds and rapport that will make the rest of the project go more smoothly.
  • Ask detailed questions. The more in depth your line of questioning, the more likely you’ll arrive at the root cause of the problem. Furthermore, it will give you a chance to learn from them, as, while you’re inquiring, you’re probably going to come across a trick or approach that you haven’t seen before. There’s almost never a template solution to problems – it’s why you’re a consultant – so, collaborating on a deeper discovery process will probably lead you to a more applicable solution as well as unearthing some gems for you to take home.

As a consultant, you are the expert. You do have the knowledge and the experience. That doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly omnipotent. There may be trial and error as you work on solutions to your client’s problems. You are expected to narrow down the trials more quickly than the client could do on their own and to think of approaches that they haven’t tried already.

However, along the way, you should also be picking up new tricks and approaches or learning how to tie your area of expertise to adjacent areas. It will not only make you a better consultant in the future, but it may also allow you to expand your future suite of services.

What’s the biggest lesson you ever learned from a client? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

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Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

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