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The #1 Rule for a Successful Consulting Firm

Your consulting firm’s clients sometimes miss the basics–the simple, foundational rules that would make them successful. Alas, neither you nor I are immune to falling into that same trap. Therefore, let’s revisit the most important, underlying idea that will make the coming year uber-successful for your consulting firm.

Dr. Francis W. Peabody taught the #1 rule of consulting (sort of) to his medical students at Harvard in 1926.

This was back in the days before doctors had antibiotics to combat bacterial illnesses, before hospitals bristled with technology, and before chocolate was known to stave off depression. (Seems barbaric, right?)

Anyway, Dr. Peabody stressed that the aim of medicine isn’t to cure the disease or repair the wound; rather it is to provide the person suffering from the ailment with the best quality of life possible. He revealed the essence of successful healthcare:

“…the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”

Dr. Peabody’s admonition could be translated to consulting firm leaders like us as:

“The secret of delivering value to a client is in valuing the client.”

Yet, many consulting firm leaders approach consulting as if the business is about themselves and their firms. About earning money and building a big practice. I’ve even heard consultants talk about clients with derision or disdain.

That’s upside down thinking.

The #1 rule of a successful consulting firm flips that thinking Right-Side Up:

Successful consulting isn’t about you. It’s about them–your clients

Projects, revenue, testimonials and referrals will flow into your consulting firm when you take a genuine interest in the executives who seek your help.

It’s also easier to win business when your empathetic interest in others speaks louder than your calculating self-interest.

As noted political consultant and tireless pince-nez advocate Theodore Roosevelt observed in the early 1900s, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”


What does it actually mean that consulting is about them?

In terms of practical activities, what does Rule #1 look like?

Let’s start by collaboratively considering the idea of caring: what does caring look like, and how do you show clients you value them?

Below are a few thought starters. Please chip in an idea or two.

How to Show Clients You Care

  • Take the extra time to listen.
  • Ask for the story behind the story, the motive behind the motive, the personal gain behind the professional request.
  • Call when you’re not looking for work.
  • Give (some) time and advice even when there’s no project on the line.
  • Avoid actions that could cause your client harm, including causing them to lose face.
  • Turn down a project that’s not in the best interest of the client.
  • Bring in/recommend a different consulting firm when you’re not the best resource for a project.
  • Give the right answer, even if that costs you future work.
  • Think through the impact of your work on the people involved—all the people, not just your decision-maker.

Please add your thoughts too. What does it mean to value your clients?

  1. Tom Borg
    January 3, 2024 at 6:14 am Reply

    Stop thinking about what you are going to say next and how it will make you look brilliant, and instead, really look for the brilliance in your client and build on that.

    • David A. Fields
      January 3, 2024 at 6:51 am Reply

      That’s a great practice, Tom! Thank you for adding that gem to the list.

  2. Eric Bakey
    January 3, 2024 at 6:29 am Reply

    My commitment for my visual thinking firm is, “draw out the best in people to help them see & decide how to solve big problems.”

    Doctors don’t “cure” — they help their patients heal themselves (sometimes with painful procedures).

    Thanks for the reminder David, another fantastic article.

    • David A. Fields
      January 3, 2024 at 6:56 am Reply

      Sharing your confidence in clients’ ability to help themselves definitely demonstrates your high regard for them, Eric. Even if clients need your help to fully overcome their challenges, your approach supports them rather than tearing them down.

      Well done, Eric. I appreciate your contribution.

  3. Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D.
    January 3, 2024 at 7:10 am Reply

    I always enjoy you bringing us back to the things that really matter. A while back I decided I would risk the potential derisive comments from business “winner take all” leaders by including in my email signature “Do the good you can where you are with what you have.” I want there to be no doubt that I’m a caring person–especially since it’s already so evident that I’m smart and good looking! 🙂

    • David A. Fields
      January 3, 2024 at 9:02 am Reply

      Outstanding, Doc! Your signature immediately communicates your caring, warm philosophy. Thank you so much for sharing that with me and other readers.

  4. Dave Stowe
    January 3, 2024 at 7:52 am Reply

    Thanks David for this timely article as we kickoff 2024!

    It made me think about why I continue in consulting after leaving a large firm a number of years ago. Not that large firms don’t have good client service, but client service was second to making the financial numbers for the firm. While we all need to run a profitable consulting business and continue to grow, cultivating genuine relationships is essential to our success!


    • David A. Fields
      January 3, 2024 at 9:06 am Reply

      Well said, Dave. A consulting business can be profitable and Right-Side Up. In fact, there’s a case to be made that a Right-Side Up firm is more profitable over the long run. As you point out, profit is only one metric of success; firm leaders will do well to let other, complementary metrics can lead their firm’s strategies and actions.

      Thank you for underscoring that point, Dave!

  5. frank farone
    January 3, 2024 at 8:02 am Reply

    David, as always, great advice. We often lose sight of why we became so successful from the start, namely providing better service and bringing real value to the client that they can’t get anywhere else, at any price. Back to basics caring for the client is an excellent reminder, thank you (patient metaphor was great).
    This message sparked an idea to reach out to clients!
    Cheers to 2024!

    • David A. Fields
      January 3, 2024 at 9:10 am Reply

      Frank, my suspicion is that your clients know you care about them and that you take pride in providing unmatched value. You’re so naturally great and practiced at those aspects of consulting, that they’re an unconscious strength for you. Shifting from unconscious greatness to conscious greatness gives you the opportunity to up your game even more.

      I very much appreciate your sharing your takeaway from the article, Frank!

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