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Rule #2 of Successful Consulting Firms

A nearby grocer prominently displays a sign proclaiming, “Rule #1: The customer is always right.” That’d never work for consulting because, well, clients aren’t always right.

Rule #1 of successful consulting is to remember consulting isn’t about you. It’s about them–the clients. Got it. What’s rule #2?

Let’s talk about rules for a moment.

My first boss in marketing explained the freedom of a tightly written strategy: when you’re crystal clear about your target and the activities that will or won’t help the business, then decision making is easy. (In hindsight, he may have meant, “Stop being so creative, David, and just do what you’re told.”)

A tightly written strategy implies rules. Clear definitions of what’s in and what’s out.

Rules are great. They direct your conduct, telling you what to do and what not to do.

A good set of rules will save you time, boost your productivity, and promote harmony in your consulting firm. They can push you to delegate, deflect distractions, and dismiss bad consulting business. Plus, without rules, teenagers wouldn’t have anything to rebel against.

Among my rules. for instance: I schedule no calls with consulting clients before noon, I will waive my speaking fee for certain (well-defined) audiences, and I eat no more than two chocolate truffles before my bedtime snack.

Rules are particularly effective if you’re trying to change certain behaviors or achieve a difficult goal. For example, if you never seem to find time to write thought leading articles you might decree, “No email in the morning before writing.” The close cousins of rules are rituals, such as, “Every work day starts with 15 minutes of writing.”

Rule #2: Develop a set of explicit (i.e., written) rules

More precisely, Rule #2 for a successful consulting firm is to write the rules for the three main elements of your consulting business: winning engagements, creating value and infrastructure.

Your rules for winning engagements could specify the parameters of assignments you accept, and govern your prospecting. (Example: Don’t ever give a firm, fee quote before completing a Context Discussion.)

Your value creation rules encompass the client experience, productivity, deliverable quality, and so forth. (Example: Respond to client phone calls within two hours.)

Your infrastructure rules define how you run your business, including interaction among team members, assignments, and work/life balance. (Example: Assistants, not consultants, book travel.)

I’ve shared a couple of examples of rules I use in my firm. What’s one important rule you follow to keep your consulting firm on track?



25 Comments
  1. Derek
    May 23, 2018 at 6:20 am Reply

    Rule #12: Never be the first to read David’s blog – you miss all the good comments.

    • David A. Fields
      May 23, 2018 at 7:09 am Reply

      That was very funny. Fortunately, everyone else now has your comment. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Simon James
    May 23, 2018 at 6:35 am Reply

    I’ve started creating SOPs for my new agency, but I never thought of having stated rules.

    So now I have #1 and #2. I guess #3 would be, if something needs to be done more than once, set up an SOP.

    • David A. Fields
      May 23, 2018 at 7:11 am Reply

      Excellent rule, Simon. You’re right on the mark, too. We try to notice every task that is repeated then capture the procedure in a process manual. That way if one or two of us are out (say, scampering about Italy for a month), other folks can ensure the tasks still get done.

      I appreciate you contributing your rule #3!

  3. Kevin Lawson
    May 23, 2018 at 8:23 am Reply

    Adding to my ritual: Comment on articles, like this, that influence my thinking. {Building Visibility, right?} Thanks!

    Stated rules also benefit teams and align multiple factions around a common purpose. I see where this applies to change management and adding structure to unstructured teams in larger organizations too.

    Very Helpful, and thanks again.

    • David A. Fields
      May 23, 2018 at 8:42 am Reply

      Great combination of rules and ritual. Totally agree with you that explicit rules help align teams. They also spark much needed discussion, because rules reveal the assumptions on which they’re built.

      I’m glad you started your new ritual of commenting on articles today, Kevin!

  4. Jennifer Ledet
    May 23, 2018 at 8:59 am Reply

    Great tip, David. I think setting “rules” is helpful in keeping me (aka my ego) from taking on clients and/or projects that really aren’t a good fit and that I will ultimately regret. I create rules that are in alignment with my values and then don’t end up resenting my clients. As always, thanks for the pithy and on-point reminder!

    • David A. Fields
      May 23, 2018 at 9:05 am Reply

      Very insightful and self-aware comment, Jennifer. It’s so flattering when prospective clients knock on our doors and request our services, that sometimes it’s tough to turn them away even when a plethora of little red flags are sprouting out of their heads (metaphorically, of course). As you eloquently put it, a clear set of rules saves us from the mistakes our egos would happily make.

      Terrific contribution to the discussion, Jennifer. Thank you for adding that insight.

  5. Ellen Cogan
    May 23, 2018 at 10:12 am Reply

    Sometimes I’m so eager to help prospective clients that I give too many free suggestions for improvement and then they don’t need to hire me. So a rule which I have been TRYING to follow, is don’t give away too much before the signed contract and some payment.

    • David A. Fields
      May 23, 2018 at 10:26 am Reply

      Ellen, your situation offers the perfect opportunity to talk about some best practices (a.k.a. rules of rules): make them specific and make it easy to recognize when you’re breaking them.

      You may find your rule easier to follow if it’s clear to you what “giving away too much information” looks like. For instance, I’m happy to chat with any prospect for 30-60 minutes gratis; beyond that, an engagement is required. Similarly, a prospect can receive generic recommendations, akin to what’s available in my books and articles, free of charge; however, client-specific recommendations based on their individual situation is consulting and that comes with a fee. Those types of rules are easy to follow because I can easily see when an action would step over the line.

      Thanks for joining the conversation. Your comment highlighted an important lesson that benefits all readers.

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