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The First Rule of Successful Consulting

Consultants have much to learn from the words of a Harvard medical professor who was addressing his students in 1926. In fact, you might even call if the first rule of successful consulting.

Dr. Francis W. Peabody taught before doctors had antibiotics to combat bacterial illnesses (and give rise to superbugs), before hospitals bristled with technology (and a three-day stay cost more than a small house), and before chocolate was known to stave off depression (I have nothing bad to say about chocolate).


Anyway, Dr. Peabody saw 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.”

Too many consultants 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.

But the first rule of success is understanding that consulting isn’t about you. It’s about them–the clients. In my vernacular, that’s called Right-Side Up thinking. Dr. Peabody’s admonition could be translated to us as:

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

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

It’s also easier to win business when your empathetic ear trumps 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 mean to care for your client?

This isn’t a question most consultants spend time pondering, and I’d like your help translating the grand concept into actions. Let’s create a list together.

In terms of practical activities, what does caring look like; how do you show clients you value them?

Below are a few thought starters. I hope you’ll also 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 consultant 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? I’ll update the article to include your suggestions.

  • Susan reminds us that being authentic is critical, and that sharing about yourself personally (i.e., being vulnerable) is another way to demonstrate you care for your client.
  • DJ gave an example of an annual check-in with his client as an action that shows he cares.
  • Dan added that we should demonstrate that we’re fair when it comes to finances and even give money back if that’s appropriate. (Shocking, but true.) Check out his case study in the comments.
  • Tom brought up interrelated points that all show your care about your client: act with integrity, own up to your mistakes and make amends when you do err.



  1. Rob Evans
    October 5, 2016 at 7:12 am Reply

    Focus on client care or true customer service is often a forgotten art, lost in the science of business. Excellence rests on both. Thank you for the reminder.

    • David A. Fields
      October 5, 2016 at 9:22 am Reply

      As you point out, Rob, good consulting is an art. It transcends logical approaches and sophisticated analyses. Those parts help, of course, and they are part of the art too. Thank you for being part of the discussion.

  2. Paul Donehue
    October 5, 2016 at 8:00 am Reply

    Good article, David. As usual, right on the mark! If we lose focus of the person or people involved, and only focus on the deliverable components of client relationships, they won’t last…

    • David A. Fields
      October 5, 2016 at 8:21 am Reply

      Paul, you’ve made a good point: the first rule of consulting is how we create long-lasting clients who give us repeat business and introduce us to other clients (all of which adds up to a healthy business). Thank you for highlighting that benefit.

  3. Susan
    October 5, 2016 at 9:08 am Reply

    Most of my clients become my friends. I listen (off the clock), find out about their families and give them advice when requested about navigating the waters of their work. My mom died this summer after I was caring for her 24/7. Clients knew, as I had to carve out the time from them. All but one sent me sympathy cards, and one sent me a plant. I found years ago that change is accomplished through relationships, which must be cultivated. If you don’t have that relationship, recommendations may not get implemented. Caring about them as people is important. Relationship building just to get work done will be seen through. I genuinely care about them, and they pick up on that.

    • David A. Fields
      October 5, 2016 at 9:27 am Reply

      Susan, first, my condolences on the loss of your mother. It sounds like you were a very caring, attentive daughter and your mother was blessed to have you with her during that difficult time. Your clients’ behavior reveals underlying truths about our business: we are working with people–feeling, caring, connecting individuals who are emotional beings and want to connect with other emotional beings like us, and most the people we encounter are fundamentally good and supportive.

      Thank you also for underscoring the importance of authenticity in our actions. Nurturing relationships requires a genuine interest in other people. And genuine interest in others is a good place to start for every consultant.

      I’m going to summarize those points in an addition to the article above.

  4. DJ Peterson
    October 5, 2016 at 11:22 am Reply

    Thanks for this reminder David to always keep the client experience in mind. I had our annual touch base with a client recently—CEO of a $30B global company. We’ve worked with him for 3+ years. Per your suggestion I asked him how we were doing. He said “You are very easy to work with.” I took that as a supreme compliment: We are not a big flashy brand, we might not always be 100% right, but we get him what he needs in a way that is simple, fast, no fuss.

    • David A. Fields
      October 5, 2016 at 11:27 am Reply

      Congratulations, DJ, on the outstanding feedback from your client. I’m particularly struck by this offhand phrase: “We get him what he needs in a way that is simple, fast and no fuss.” That exactly encapsulates what most clients are looking for. Nicely said. I’m also going to add your annual touch-base into the list above.

  5. dan markovitz
    October 5, 2016 at 12:12 pm Reply

    Be willing to give back some money. I’m in the middle of a long term project with a client that’s having a tough year, and due to other projects, I was unable to visit the client at all in September. I cut my monthly fee in half. In the long run, the $4500 won’t matter to me — or to the client — but it was a signal that I care about their financial health and recognize that they didn’t like having me away for so long.

    • David A. Fields
      October 5, 2016 at 12:43 pm Reply

      Wow, Dan. Giving the client money definitely isn’t something that would have occurred to me right away, but you’re right. You’re showing your sensitivity to the client’s financial situation. Recently I gave a client a large credit when a project turned in an unexpected direction. When the next project arose, the client expected me to use the entire credit, but the first alternative I presented was priced below the credit. As with your example, the integrity and selflessness that demonstrates goes a long way toward building trust and enduring client relationships.

      Thanks for the unexpected contribution. I’ll add it to the list above.

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