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Magazines > Searcher > June 2005
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Vol. 13 No. 6 — June 2005
FEATURE
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.

Common Themes

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 change.

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 library school."

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 at first.

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 or staff.

• 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 schedules appropriately.

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 very stressful.

• 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; subcontracting; etc.

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.

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