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What Clients Really Look for When Hiring Consultants

Want to know what consulting clients really want when they’re looking for a consultant, and how they perceive you? I get a regular taste of this by interviewing consultants for my corporate clients. But for a total immersion into your clients’ world, live through the hiring process. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past month, as I once again try to find the perfect person to add to the staff of my little group. It’s been eye-opening and illuminating.

applicant-response2

Over 200 individuals have already applied for the role I advertised, and all but a handful received a quick “No thank you” response. I bet most of those who were rejected felt extremely frustrated. In fact, a few let me know the depth of their disgruntlement in no uncertain terms.

I get where they’re coming from. They feel the same way we consultants do when clients don’t award us a gig. They’d looked at a detailed job description, felt they were a good fit and knew in their hearts that they would do a good job.

Here’s the eye-opener: look at the parallels between the statements I heard from virtually every job applicant and the statements I routinely hear from firms that apply to be the consultant on one of the Ascendant Consortium’s consulting projects:

Job Applicant Consulting Applicant
“I’ve never done that specific task, but I’ve done very similar work.” “I’ve never solved that exact problem, but I’ve solved very similar problems.”
“I’ve never worked on B2B marketing, but I’m sure the concepts from my B2C experience apply.” “I’ve never worked in your industry before, but my approach works across all industries.”
“I haven’t dealt with the exact issues you’re raising, but I’m a very fast learner.” “We haven’t dealt with a situation exactly like yours, but we’re very fast learners.”
“I’ve held a combination of positions that make me uniquely qualified to work for you.” “Our <yada yada> approach is a unique and breakthrough way to solve this problem.”
“Everyone I’ve worked for will give an outstanding reference.” “Look at my testimonials. All my past clients loved my work.”
“I’m exactly the guy you need!” “We’re exactly the firm you need!”

 

Yeah, you’re smart, hardworking, a fast learner, unique, confident and loved by everyone who knows you. But that’s like saying you’re crème brulee. You’re sweet, and tasty and everyone devours you then asks for more. Fair enough, but if I’m looking for a gluten-free, sugar-free, chocolate delight, you don’t fit the bill.

applicant-response4

All those great attributes you’re touting are table stakes. Everyone has them, and they’re not enough. The person I’m hiring has proven she previously accomplished the exact tasks she’ll be tackling for me, in a similar environment. Similarly, the consultant who gets hired offers a reliable solution to the client’s specific problem.

That’s what clients really want:
a reliable solution to their specific problem.

And that’s why it’s wildly important to focus your practice on a tightly-defined issue. That’s also why you should establish your chops (a.k.a. proof of reliability) in a specific industry or a narrow functional area.

Clients have a lot of options and they don’t have to settle for table stakes. If you think you’re going to win a steady stream of large consulting projects because you’re bright, hardworking, adaptable and have strong testimonials, you’re going to end up frustrated. Just like the young man whose reply to my statement that he has none of the experience I’m looking for was, “Yeah, but how hard can it be?”

Maybe what clients need isn’t hard, but they’re still going to turn to the one consultant that appears to already fit them like a glove. Be specific, be precise, build your experience, and that glove will be you.

fit-like-a-glove

What do you think? In your experience, what do clients really want? Write your thoughts below and I’ll write back.

Some related articles that may interest you are:

How to Create the Perfect Consulting Offering

 The Big Lie You Probably Believe About Your Consulting Firm


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16 Comments
  1. Jim Stewart
    February 10, 2016 at 6:18 am Reply

    It’s a two-way street. Clients sometimes don’t have the slightest idea what they want. They hear some buzzword (“I need an Agile project manager”) not even knowing vwhat that means. So they waste everybody’s time. Sorry but it’s true. Been there, done that too many times.

    • David A. Fields
      February 10, 2016 at 8:22 am Reply

      Jim, that’s absolutely true. Well, sorta. Often clients do know what they want (e.g., “agile”), but they don’t have a clue what they need. That’s why this article wasn’t “What Clients Really NEED!” For years I have been preaching to clients that they should look for outcome expertise, not situation expertise. Sometimes they listen, but often they don’t.

      The research on this is, unfortunately, indisputable. What clients want is an expert who has worked on their exact problem for another company that looks exactly like them. Thanks for adding your experience to the discussion.

  2. Porus Pavri
    February 10, 2016 at 7:30 am Reply

    This is the ideal situation no doubt, David – client’s needs exactly match consultant’s skill sets. But, on how many ocassions does this perfect match occur. A successful consultant in my view should be one who is able to provide the required interventions, bringing his broad range of skills and experience to improve the client’s situation or solve the client’s problem, which in the final analysis, is the only thing all clients are looking for. Ofcourse, to get to the point where the consultant can serve the client, he would need to build trust and respect with the client, which would no doubt be easier if the consultant’s skills and experience exactly or closely address the client’s current situation. But if that criterion is not met, that by itself does not rule out the consultant, I think. It would come down to who, in the client’s perception, builds more trust and candor in the relationship.

    • David A. Fields
      February 10, 2016 at 8:37 am Reply

      Porus, I’m glad you commented. The key in what you said was this: “…build trust and respect which would, no doubt, be easier if the consultant’s skills and experience exactly or closely address the client’s current situation.” That’s exactly the point.

      You’re right that whoever builds the most trust (all three components) will typically win the gig. (For more thoughts on this, see >If You Master This One, Consulting Super Power, More Businesses Will Seek Your Help The question, though, is not what makes a good consultant; it is, what do clients look for when they’re searching for a consultant? If a consultant’s expertise and experience do not match what a client is looking for and the consultant has built trust prior to the search, it’s unlikely that consultant will win the project, no matter how good they are. Thanks for sparking more discussion and clarification, Porus.

  3. Jonathan
    February 10, 2016 at 8:29 am Reply

    David, I think what you say is very true. But I also think one way a consultant can break through client resistance is to ask penetrating questions that really make the client think. That’s been my experience as a communications consultant, at least. If I’m able to do that (which admittedly is not all the time), the client stops dwelling on experience or skill sets and starts thinking of “fit” — and fit trumps skill set most days of the week.

    • David A. Fields
      February 10, 2016 at 8:54 am Reply

      Jonathan, I totally agree. Asking insightful questions is one, good technique for quickly building trust. However, I agree with the final sentence in your comment even more: “fit trumps skill set most days of the week.” Most clients equate fit with relevant experience.

      As consultants we definitely can win projects that are outside our experience base. Most of us win these projects occasionally. Your phrase, “break through client resistance” is telling, though. It’s a lot easier to win projects when our experience matches the prospect’s situation. I’m all for winning projects even when I have to overcome some odds, but truth be told I prefer easy wins. For all of us, it’s easier to win projects if it’s obvious that the problem we solve is the problem the client is experiencing. Thank you for contributing your two cents.

  4. Liz W.
    February 10, 2016 at 8:46 am Reply

    Great post. Another example of not communicating value. Understanding what matters to your audience, in this case solving a problem, and then speaking to that rather than what matters to you is critical. We know we should do this but we don’t get out of our own heads to do this.
    Liz

    • David A. Fields
      February 10, 2016 at 9:03 am Reply

      Liz, as an expert in communication you understand this better than most. And you also see how difficult it is for us to get out of our own heads. We want to say what we want to say, gosh dang it, and clients should just be smart enough to figure out that we’re the best consultant for them. But they’re not. And here’s the harsh truth: if we can’t speak exactly to the client’s problem then we’re probably not the best consultant for the job (whether we win it or not).

      Your insights are always valuable, Liz, and I appreciate you posting them.

  5. Michael Yublosky
    February 10, 2016 at 3:50 pm Reply

    David –

    I must admit I do use a variation of your line (“Look at my testimonials. All my past clients loved my work.”) above at times. But I specifically refer to those recommendations that apply to the same general area the prospective client wants help in or is in need of help – namely their true uncovered problem. And I exclusively use my LinkedIn recommendations so anyone can actually reach out and query someone who has recommended me (except for one soul who has passed away).

    Michael

    • David A. Fields
      February 10, 2016 at 4:00 pm Reply

      Michael, it’s good that you use that line and even better that you have those testimonials. The challenge is when consultants believe that their past successes are sufficient rationale for a new client to use them. Or, when a consultant feels like a client who is aware of those testimonials is misguided for not using him. When you’re pointing out your relevant testimonials, keep in mind that a dozen other consultants also have testimonials. Necessary, but not sufficient. Table stakes, not a winning hand.

      Thank for being brave and confident enough to put it out there that you use one of the lines mentioned in the article. Comments like yours are how we all learn.

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