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How To Be A Successful Consultant: Gathering Information & Learning

Oftentimes, knowledgeable conversations begin with active listening and strong communication skills. In order to keep the conversations going, consultants need to draw on information from a variety of sources. In this post, I want to answer the question, “Where do you learn about my business?” by discussing another paramount consulting skill: reading. That’s right. Reading. […]

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February 07, 2013

Oftentimes, knowledgeable conversations begin with active listening and strong communication skills. In order to keep the conversations going, consultants need to draw on information from a variety of sources. In this post, I want to answer the question, “Where do you learn about my business?” by discussing another paramount consulting skill: reading.

That’s right. Reading. It seems simple, but knowledgeable and literate consultants always help themselves and their firms stay relevant, know the client, and know the client’s business.

Stay Relevant

There are a lot of outspoken intelligent people, many of them offering advice and knowledge for free. Relevance in professional services firms is a function of understanding the world around you and how it is impacting your client. At the bare minimum, this entails reading the Wall Street Journal every morning, and The Economist every week. Bonus points go to those that seek a balanced perspective and also read The Financial Times or other business press on a regular basis (the corollary publication for government is Government Executive). The goal here is to at least run with the pack. Staying on top of today’s news opens opportunit to develop strategies that build on prior successes and failures rather than repeating them.

Know the Client

To set yourself apart from the pack, you should get to know the client inside and out. Consultants can’t invest in their clients, but should always be looking for information in the same manner as Wall Street Analysts. For this, stay up to date on press releases and news stories (whether they appear to impact your direct client or not). Become a seasoned purveyor of financial statements, both for your client and for its competitors, and pay close attention to the Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) to gain perspective on where the company is going. Gut-check this with the financial data to understand where the client has been, and clarify whether strategic goals are realistic. Perform news searches on the client’s company to see what local press is saying, and peruse articles and editorials on the client’s company to get a sense of how the market is valuing their assets, both tangible and intangible. Bonus points always go to the Consultant who knows about client news before it hits the media.

Know the Business

The final piece in gathering information is the most important to becoming involved in strategy (note: “being involved in strategy” is critically important, even if your firm is only involved in implementation). Find out what trade publications matter to your client’s industry, and read them as they become available. There are scores of industry summaries available that give insight into how business is structured and what factors are going to be instrumental to growth. If your client is involved in international commerce, read country profiles to understand the potential challenges and advantages of foreign investment. Understand the technocrat’s viewpoint by reading the Harvard Business Review. Gather contextual information by consistently reading the McKinsey Quarterly and BCG Perspectives. These will help you answer the questions that your clients don’t even know they want to ask – giving you alpha-dog status.

Borrow the Best

Knowing the client and its business is not really enough unless you can tell them something new. Look beyond the immediate sphere of influence to see what insights can be gleaned from other industries. Take strategies (both successful and unsuccessful) from Federal or public sector consulting and bring them to the private industry. Try the reverse, too. See if consumer packaged goods ideas can be applied in financial services. Stretch the bounds of creativity and do what you can to innovate.

A successful consultant should read everything attainable, and be as informed as possible. There is a visible difference between the dog that runs with the pack, the one that leads it, and the one that runs alone, encouraging others to follow. Strong consultants are in the latter category, innovating and developing value accretive strategies or solutions.

What do you read that helps you serve your clients?

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