Is Management Consulting for
You? Part Four– Practitioners Call the Shots
by Ulla de Stricker President, de Stricker Associates
and Annie Joan Olesen, President, A9 Consulting
We conducted an informal study among information
consultants on what makes this field a happy, productive
career choice. In particular, we focused on the relationships
between information consultants and their clients.
Among information consultants, conversations about "what
makes us successful" are frequent, and it seems we
share a set of approaches and behaviors that contribute
to a productive relationship with appreciative clients.
But what are the key elements that make for a business
relationship in which we, the consultants, take satisfaction
in a professional job well done and they, our clients,
feel they receive true value for money?
Ever the entrepreneur, Annie Joan Olesen approached
the Danish Union of Librarians' Research Fund manager
and made her case for a modest grant. Thus equipped,
and with the assistance of our colleague, Rebecca Jones,
we set about identifying information consultants internationally
who were willing to share their views. All those we
interviewed gave generously of their time and we thank
them here for the insights they provided.
The study focused on library and knowledge-related
services such as strategic planning, library re-engineering
and outreach, research, competitive intelligence, current
awareness, Web and portal development, and similar "strategic" functions.
We did not consider outsourced services such as routine
quick reference, acquisitions, and cataloging.
Here we summarize the key characteristics our colleagues
saw in healthy consultant-client relationships and
speculate about the implications for professional development.
The Consulting Section of Leadership and Management
Division of Special Libraries Association will hear
about the findings of the study at its annual conference
luncheon in Toronto in June 2005.
Several common themes emerged. They point to, among
other things, a lingering fuzziness among potential
clients about the capabilities of professional librarians.
The Degree Is Only the Beginning
A common observation across the board is that formal
library science qualifications (the M.L.S. degree and
its European equivalent) equip their owners to tackle
the technical aspects of assignments but do not equip
them to succeed in managing client relationships. Our
interviewees stressed that their success rested on
additional skills and knowledge, such as communication,
project management, insight into corporate culture
and risk assessment, people skills, and situational
sensitivity and finesse. In addition, they echoed a
sentiment that success depends on the ability to "change
with changing times," in other words, to adjust offerings
and roles as time goes by and clients' business requirements
Our Profession Is a Mystery to Clients
Interviewees noted that their market reach continues
to be plagued by a lack of understanding on the part
of potential clients concerning the nature and value
of an information professional's services. It can be
a challenge to convince new clients of the benefits
inherent in our unique skill sets and to overcome arguments
along the lines of "With the Web, we don't have to
worry about getting information."
Clarity, Rapport, and Trust Are a Must
Not surprisingly, our key findings reflect an overall
theme of "know and understand really understand thy
client." When an organization entrusts a consultant
with a project, the reasons can range from perceived
convenience through strategic advantage to cost containment ... but
without demonstrable value for the client, the relationship
would not persist. In other words, our interviewees
emphasized the quality of the relationship rather than
the quality of the consulting work. We take for granted
that professionals will supply topnotch work and make
the personal effort to learn about the client's business
culture. Respondents spent relatively little time discussing
qualities such as knowledge of the client's industry,
price-competitiveness, discretion, and creativity (asking
the questions the client would not have thought about).
The emphasis fell on "the stuff we never learned in
Clarity About the Business Arrangement
Painstaking detail in spelling out exactly what the
consultant is expected to accomplish for the client and
at what fee is a must. It can sometimes feel
awkward to "belabor" such details, but the effort can
safeguard against an undesirable development later
on. Ranging from core matters such as the coverage
and scope of a business intelligence plan to operational
aspects such as the time frame for return phone calls,
mutually agreed guidelines for a business relationship
build a healthy foundation for the long term. Moreover,
the process of reaching such an agreement helps bring
to light early on questions that might not otherwise
surface until becoming troublesome.
Of course, as we noted in Part 1 of the series, the
nature of the business relationship is a function of
the role the consultant plays. In some cases, we are
temporary staff substitutes; in others, we are supposed
to work miracles. Each type of role brings along a
unique set of expectations that need to be set out
clearly no matter how difficult that might be
Standard good business practice naturally applies,
e.g., transparency of invoicing. In addition, interviewees
pointed to specific examples of points we have made
earlier in this series:
Be prepared to offer specific contingency
plans. In the case of illness or other situations
rendering the consultant unavailable, what backup
personnel are available?
Identify clearly at the outset who is performing
project subtasks if the consultant has subcontractors
Ensure mutual understanding about the amount
of informal consultation and "checking in" between
the client and the consultant. Some clients prefer
the freedom to focus on other things while knowing
the consultant is addressing the project; others
would rather remain in the loop at all times. Most
relationships seem to find a middle ground where
the consultant gets in touch with the client in the
case of a new opportunity or unforeseen circumstance
that may affect the work.
Expect to depart judiciously from
the original work plan. If your research uncovers
something surprising, you may want to alert the client
immediately rather than sit on the findings until
the next official report delivery date. Of course,
in-depth knowledge of the client's business environment
and situation is key to making such departures from
Rapport and Consideration
One respondent pointed out without hesitation the
importance of the "human element." We paraphrase: "A
successful relationship calls for a higher standard
of what would normally be thought of as professional
virtues we are, in effect, psychologists." That
observation truly resonated with us, as we have often
observed how a client can experience a situation as
Breaking down a business challenge into manageable
parts is one skill that brings strongly positive results.
The client's entire outlook can change for the better
simply as a consequence of seeing that "the impossible" is
in fact made up of several "do-able" elements.
At the same time, you must recognize the reality
of the client's experience. Superb listening skills
are a must. It helps to remember, "Perception is reality." If
the client experiences dejection and anxiety about
a situation or project, allow all the time needed to
fully explore any concerns. "I've been there" is
a helpful approach.
When the project involves working with a
team of people, allow for sufficient interaction
time to gain insight into the group's dynamics. Such
insight can help determine how to respond appropriately
in the case of differences in opinion about how a
project should proceed.
In a similar vein, you must have a finely
tuned sense of interpersonal appropriateness. A shared
chuckle can have the effect of bringing the client
and the consultant closer as persons; conversely,
out-of-place humor, however innocent, can be detrimental.
Gauging the client's work style and
seeing whether you need to match or counterbalance
it is another useful element in your toolbox.
All in all, bringing your humanity to the project
has a salutary effect. We want the client to feel secure
with us not only as competent professionals, but also
as trusted individuals.
Trust and Reliability
The "soft skills" emphasis emerged in various considerations
of the matter of trust. The client must feel a sense
of total conviction about your ability to deliver on
the job … and then some. These composite statements
summarize those considerations:
"You know you have built a good relationship when
the client instinctively begins to turn to you for
assistance and advice in matters unrelated to the original
project. It's not done overnight, but with time it
is possible to demonstrate the critical mass of sound
judgment, insight, and savvy that will make the client
take your word, no matter what the topic under discussion."
"A reputation as someone who can be counted on to
come through no matter what and then demonstrating
that trust as being justified time and again is
a powerful lever in achieving and maintaining a successful
relationship with clients."
The Implications for Professional Development
Over and above pointing to "business savvy" as a
desirable skill to add to our information specialist
repertoires, our interviewees confirmed the sense we
have long had that the success factors driving a good
business relationship between a client and a consultant
are very similar to those driving a good relationship
between typical special librarians and their managers.
In other words, we feel every librarian can benefit
from building the "soft skills" discussed here.
Given that many librarians report obtaining their
business development and client relationship management
skills by trial and error and application of ordinary
common sense, it merits consideration whether some
how-to modules might constitute a valuable offering
by professional library-related associations for their
members: How to gain the trust and respect of executives
by projecting an understanding of the relevant business
processes? How to create rapport and comfort to support
clear communication? How to deliver value at all levels
of the business interaction? How to leverage "whole
person thinking" in any work situation? How to understand
where others are coming from? The list goes on. Enhancing
one's overall professional qualifications with a good
dose of interpersonal dexterity can make a very positive
contribution to our careers. We shouldn't need to gain
such competencies the hard way.
We would welcome the availability of a curriculum
developed for would-be consultants. Our experience
leads us to suggest it could be structured very simply
in three "streams":
The launch and management of an information business:
Market assessment; service definition; pricing; contract
elements; contract negotiation; contingency management;
Marketing and sales/business development: Techniques
for identifying high-potential clients; developing
the "pitch" based on highly specific value propositions;
measuring and communicating ROI; mastering the sales
presentation; using professional networks; etc.
Client relations: Project management and communication;
quality assurance; reporting and articulating positive
outcomes as well as challenges; dealing with people-related
issues; building rapport and trust; etc.
Should any faculty of information science or professional
association wish to develop learning tools for prospective
consultants, we are available to consult in the matter!
Ulla de Stricker's typical assignments focus on strategic
planning for information services and knowledge management.
Annie Joan Olesen offers a wide range of knowledge
management and business intelligence services.