Craig Dearden-Phillips: The three rules of good consulting

Building good relationships, specialising and a focus on the end product are key, argues the managing director of Stepping Out

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Consultants sit in the popular imagination as expensive shysters who look at your watch and tell you the time.

I would naturally challenge that, but behind every popular image there is a small grain of truth. We’ve all met the consultant who is "winging it", the over-scented schmoozer who mirrors your every move and laughs too hard at your jokes.

When I was a chief executive, I steered well clear of consultants. I just didn’t want to know. Then I met a good one. He was called John and he didn’t try to sell me anything. He spent a lot of time with me talking about the organisation and, after a while, I felt he had something to offer. He challenged me and wasn’t afraid to do so. He brought some thinking into the conversation that I wasn’t aware of. His networks were incredible and he generously opened them up to me. And this was before any money had changed hands.

Of course, John wasn’t stupid. He was working towards what we in consultancy call "conceptual agreement". This encompasses a period of relationship-building that allows an understanding to develop about where a consultant might provide some help. Where John got me, quite naturally, was to a point where I could see how a relationship with him would help me and the organisation. This came about quite naturally – though, of course, it needed some formalisation. So we agreed this and John worked closely with me for a couple of years as I saw the organisation through some major change. John got paid, naturally, but the amount we paid was minuscule next to the benefits his work was creating.

What surprised me, in a way, was that although John wasn’t underpaid, the rewards to him came mostly from the fact that, through a relationship with me, he was able to make a difference to our charity in a way that didn’t always occur for him in his life as a consultant. He had fun and, because of this, probably gave more than he was paid to do.

When I hung up my boots as a chief executive and started a consultancy business, I thought a lot about John and how he operated. This was how I would be too, I thought. So what were the rules of this new game? Three seemed to stand out. The first is that consulting is, first and foremost, about relationships. People who cannot build relationships never generate business in consultancy, I have found. No matter how bright they are, if they can’t establish relationships they fail to win clients. I am often amazed at the numbers of people I see in consultancy who fail to grasp this essential truth.

The second is that as a consultant it helps to be a specialist. People tend to see their needs in boxes and therefore view the market in comparable terms. This can be tough for consultants, who often carry many tools in their boxes, but, again, the most successful people I see out there have a clear brand around the one thing they bring to a business.

The third rule of consulting is, once engaged, to be super-clear about the improvement the client is looking for and to focus on it like a laser. If you can do that and deliver, repeat business follows as night follows day – and without all the palaver of an open tender.

Finally, this isn’t a rule so much as a truism. As a consultant, you need to show incredible loyalty, energy and attention to the needs of the client. You need to know where they are in their mind, tune into their anxieties and work with them. They expect you to check in a lot and ensure expectations are being met. They want that extra mile, every time. And rightly so.

Six years into a consulting business, these are the truths I see borne out every time. In that time I have employed a lot of consultants in the business and as associates. Again I see the three rules applying. The best consultants fill me with awe at their ability to build understanding with clients and to develop new briefs out of long conversations – which, in turn, become long commercial relationships. These consultants become the people whom chief executives call when they hit problems. When they walk into the room, a light comes on. They are confident, fluent, warm and articulate. They put their arms around situations and move them gently forward. They listen more than they talk and when they talk people listen. They are empathetic, thoughtful and never negative.

Conversely, the majority of consultants I see struggle. They wait for the phone to ring. They try to create products and services rather than build proper relationships. They talk at clients until the door is closed. They fail to stand out in a room and let others take the lead. They lose mental track of a client and then feel surprised that the client has gone. All their energy goes on reports and paper, not on material changes or path-breaking insight into how a business can be better. They leave without changing anything.

To conclude, I think a good consultant is someone who adds a ton of value, not only as an end-product of what they do but also in the act of delivering it. In my experience, it’s not enough just to deliver great end product. You are the product too and in that sense you have to be as good as what comes at the end. Easy to say, but not easy to do.

Happy consulting.

Craig Dearden-Phillips (@deardenphillips) is managing director of Stepping Out, which exists to help third sector organisations to grow their missions

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