Clients and recruits alike often wonder how consultants learn so much about new things, often in a small time frame. Even more common is the question “how do you know so much about my specific business?” In this post, I wanted to address two of the most important skills a consultant has: listening and communicating. […]
Clients and recruits alike often wonder how consultants learn so much about new things, often in a small time frame. Even more common is the question “how do you know so much about my specific business?”
In this post, I wanted to address two of the most important skills a consultant has: listening and communicating. I’ll also discuss some tips for communicating to build trust and get results.
Listening is the subject of many recent articles, including this one from the Harvard Business Review, which discusses the differentiator amongst great leaders. Leaders produce value and engage employees by building trust through interaction. A consultant leads through influence and expression of knowledge. This is why listening is crucial for our work, and active listening is paramount to success in consulting engagements.
Active listening differs from regular listening in that the goal is to gain a deep understanding of assumptions implied from statements made. How would an outsider perceive a discussion? A good consultant asks many questions about the topics discussed to gain a robust understanding of the counterparty’s experiential knowledge.
A successful consultant also thinks about the questions. She creatively seeks sources for those answers and then listens actively while digging into the conversation to gain depth in understanding. Creative sources are essential because there may be more than one key relationship on the project.
The “magic” skill that consultants possess is communication. Distilling the knowledge gleaned from listening and reading into transformational advice is a difficult skill to master, but is essential to building trust. There are three elements to communicating effectively in order to build trust:
1. Answer First
Clients don’t always have a lot of time, and they care about results. They also care about the value of a consultant’s advice. At the end of the day, they are paying for us to provide good advice in the most efficient manner. Structuring an answer with the response first is a simple skill that can be refined with practice: start your communication with the answer to the specific question that was asked. “I recommend that you move forward with X development” or “I recommend that you divest your department of this technology.”
Getting to the answer first makes it clear that there is a reason to keep listening. Practice this with your friends and families, and watch the results compound, then listen for how often people use the technique in real life and be amazed at how rarely it occurs.
2. Tell Me Why
What does your advice matter if you can’t back it up? Once you have structured your answer, summarize the conclusions of your analysis, and be brief about it! “This business unit is losing money at X rate, the employee attrition rate is rising faster than your hiring rate, and the customers want new products.” Now you’re digging into the root issues of your recommendation. Back these up with facts and figures, but don’t go overboard. How do you know that the attrition rate is rising? What (or who) told you that the customers want new products? Convince the listener in the same way you were convinced.
3. Know Your Limits
Outline the risks inherent in your suggestion and the data that you have not yet gathered. This tells the client two things:
1) You understand that there is no “golden ticket” to solving a problem
2) You know where to go next and you have an idea of what you might need to analyze to make your recommendation even more concrete
Doing this effectively should take no more than 30 seconds, and will give the client all the information they need to know to make a decision on their own.
Try it! Recurring clients come back to you because they trust you. Satisfied clients engage consulting services because they believe you understand their business and are invested in their success. Great consultants succeed by effectively communicating this understanding.
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