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The Perfect Way to Start Consulting Projects

The moment immediately after a prospect becomes a client your consulting project begins. Beginnings matter. Which is why the best practices to start your projects are discussed below.

Consider some famous beginnings:

“Four score and seven years ago…”**

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”**

“Call me Ishmael.”**

“Seems to me that button is in the worst possible spot.”**

People remember beginnings. They establish the tone for consulting projects, and communicate competence, collaboration, and direction (or lack thereof).

They’re also a critical inflection point

The moment your client agrees to work with you, his anxiety is like a full balloon on a helium tank’s nozzle— if you tie it off properly and quickly, everything will stay under control; otherwise it will shoot to the ceiling then spaz all over the place, knocking things off kilter and alarming people.

client-anxiety-v-time

Of course beginnings aren’t really beginnings. Beginnings are the visible result of thought, planning, preparation, intent and experience.

The producers of Seinfeld considered, reconsidered, wrote, rewrote, rehearsed and taped the first scene more than once before we saw it.

Lincoln framed, reframed, drafted and edited the opening to his address multiple times while enjoying first-class travel to Gettysburg on the Acela.**

darwin-from-the-beginning2

Thoughtfully construct your project beginnings in advance—well before you close consulting engagements. Below are 10 practices I currently follow:

  1. Project Beginnings Plan – Your process for starting new consulting projects should be well documented. It’s part of your overall client-experience plan. You have one of those, right?
  1. Congratulations Email – Within minutes of a client verbally approving an engagement, send out an email congratulating them on moving forward with the project and noting that your work together is going to provide great value. This immediate reassurance is important—it ties off the balloon at the moment of highest vulnerability.
  1. Project Portal – How will you be keeping your client up to date on the project? I use a very simple project portal, which I set up the day the client gives verbal approval. Then I give login information for the portal in the kickoff letter.
  1. Kickoff Letter – Within a day of receiving written approval, send a letter (I attach mine to an email) congratulating the client again on their smart decision and laying out any immediate information they need to know. This could include logistics of the project, immediate next steps, and so forth.
    I typically include the Request for Information and login information for the Project Portal in this letter. (See below.)
  1. Request for Information – You’ll need information from the client, right? Probably quite a lot of information. Send an organized, comprehensive checklist of information to the client within a day or two of receiving approval. That gets them moving on the project immediately and contributes to the sense of “dust flying.”
  1. Internal Kickoff Draft – Your client may want to send a note to his organization letting them know about the work you’ll be doing. Sending a draft of that letter for your client to use is a nice touch.
  1. Interviews – Most consulting projects involve at least a few interview of client personnel. Start scheduling them the day after you send the kickoff letter. That’s more dust flying.
  1. Implementation Plan – If your project involves multiple, involved steps, you may want to send a detailed implementation plan. I cover that plan in the kickoff meeting and include the major milestones in the project portal. Your implementation plan should include the progress trackers you’ll use to measure success.
  1. Kickoff Meeting – If you’re working with a large team and/or on a large project, it’s useful to have an kickoff meeting on the phone or at the client’s site. You’ll usually schedule this within the first week or two. I often have a small meeting with the core team and a larger meeting with every stakeholder and person affected by the project.
  1. Periodic Updates – In your portal, you’ll be providing periodic updates. As soon as the portal is working, set up your system for periodic updates. Remember, updates are a two-way street and you should regularly solicit your client’s feedback on the project.

Those 10 practices are what I use to start every project off on the right foot. What else do you do?


 

8 Comments
  1. Sean Harley
    December 7, 2016 at 6:17 am Reply

    Another highly useful post, David. Thank you. I’ve tried various web portals to keep clients informed with mixed success. Which one do you recommend?

    • David A. Fields
      December 7, 2016 at 7:01 am Reply

      Sean, I’ve designed an extremely simple, one-page portal that I use with my clients. It’s not a project management platform such as Basecamp, Asana, etc. That’s in part because even on my largest projects, my clients see a small list of milestones rather than a detailed project plan.

      Every other week I (with the help of my assistant) then update the portal with an equally simple project update form. [About a year ago I said I’d make both of these available, and I will… most likely after the new book launches in April.] Thanks for the question, Sean.

  2. Jaime Campbell
    December 7, 2016 at 6:17 am Reply

    We have very emotional, inspirational, heartwarming team launch meetings with our clients. They focus on what inspires us individually as professionals and as human beings, what brings us to the table, what our roles and areas of accountability are, what we are each committed to individually, and then the leader of each group speaks a commitment for the team.

    We then handle logistics of communication channels.

    100% of the time that we skip these (usually because we bend to a client’s perception that everything in operations is an emergency), things crash and burn.

    • David A. Fields
      December 7, 2016 at 6:50 am Reply

      Jaime, that’s outstanding perspective and a vivid example of what can happen if you don’t attend to the beginning of your project.

      You and your team may be holding down one side on the curve in terms of warmth and empathy, and you’re using that trait in your favor. Those of us on the cold-and-calculating side of the curve or in the middle can use other strengths to bolster our project beginnings by, for instance, including detailed implementation plans.

      Thank you for contributing your team’s best practice, Jaime. You provide a good model to follow.

      • Jaime Campbell
        December 7, 2016 at 7:58 am Reply

        Pretty strange for a bunch of accountants, but it’s a material part of what differentiates us.

        • David A. Fields
          December 7, 2016 at 10:27 am

          Jaime, you’re right there’s no accounting for accountants. (As a consultant, you’re duty bound to pounce on puns whenever possible.)

  3. Mary Drotar
    December 7, 2016 at 11:51 am Reply

    Great post. I also like to include exercises for the core consulting team, so we get to know each other on a more personal level. A great one is two truths and one lie, and the team is supposed to guess the lie. It is a lot of fun, and you get a lot of laughs. A good way to to get started with a team.

    • David A. Fields
      December 8, 2016 at 7:57 am Reply

      What an interesting practice, Mary. If you have new people on your consulting team, then it certainly makes sense to get to know each other before you arrive at a client’s site. Introducing yourself to a new face at a client meeting then finding out it’s your own consultant can be a a bit embarrassing!

      I also like how you’re bringing your personality and culture into the project from the very start. That’s a great model to follow.

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