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Why On-Site Consulting Bites, And When to Do It Anyway

Are there consultants who love to sleep in impersonal hotel rooms, consume unhealthy food, miss family events and endure flight delays? Maybe. After all, there are people who love to eat crickets.It doesn’t amaze me that old, storied, brand name consulting firms primarily employ an on-site consulting model. After all, those firms are old. Their systems, approaches, and cultures were cemented decades ago, and their notions of how consulting should be conducted are archaic.

But when an independent consultant in a solo practice or boutique firm consistently spends most paid days on a client’s site, it’s surprising. Also counterproductive.

The Downsides of On-Site Work:

Wasted Time – All travel involves unproductive downtime, even if you’re organized to take maximum advantage of your time in planes, trains and automobiles.

Limited Productivity – While you’re on-site at Chocoland Inc, you can’t pursue consulting work with Vanillabean Co., nor can you work on a PistachioRama project or really even take their calls.

Distractions – When you’re nearby, clients are apt to pop in and distract you from real work.

Hassle – You have to get showered and dressed. (Granted, this is also recommended if you work in an office.)

Lifestyle Compromises – Away from home you’re generally not eating as well, exercising as much or spending quality time with your family.

On the other hand…

The Benefits of On-Site Work:

Stronger Personal Bond – When it comes to creating a deep, human connection, face-to-face interaction is impossible to beat. That’s true between you and the clients you meet, and also between the various clients in the room when you’re leading a meeting.

Undivided Attention – Your consulting clients are less likely to be building Minecraft palaces while you’re presenting, if you’re in the room with them.

Large Blocks of Client Time – You can capture your consulting client’s energy for multiple hours to make significant progress; that’s difficult to accomplish remotely.

Richer Communication – Verbal and non-verbal cues foster creativity and can engender better solutions.

Greater Access – Some people, data and information are difficult (or impossible) to connect to remotely. That includes other consulting prospects you meet by walking the halls.

Given these pros and cons, consider the five situations below as…

Guidelines for Travel to a Client Site:

  1. When your relationship with the client is new or has hit a rocky patch.
  2. When a one-to-many interaction is critical (e.g., a group training), and a virtual one-to-many session would underwhelm the client.
  3. When walking the halls could be of substantial benefit.
  4. When a six (or more) hour stretch of hand-in-hand work with your client will produce substantial, forward progress on your project.
  5. When your best (or only) way to access information or people is by being at your consulting client’s site.

Guideline #4 is why I’m a big fan of in-person work sessions even though I don’t generally like on-site project work. Most of my work with boutique consulting firms involves at least one—and often many more—of these work sessions over the course of a year-long engagement.

Do you spend much time at your clients’ sites, and why/why not?


12 Comments
  1. Terry Pappy
    January 9, 2019 at 6:52 am Reply

    Glad you pointed out these distinctions, David. Thanks. I agree with every one, and it is tempting for many solos to go full into the digital level of delivering assessments, training and change management when the relationship bonding experience is critical especially (as you noted) in the early days of the engagement. We can’t deny the value and economy of scale that lies within digital, but I always recommend to my clients to deploy digital solutions as a *complement* to face-time, which is a premium product. Balance is key, especially when you position your digital engagements as “value add.”

    • David A. Fields
      January 9, 2019 at 7:10 am Reply

      Well said, Terry. For all the wonders of virtual meetings, and the devices that allow them (one of my favorites is here), there’s no substitute for pressing the flesh. There’s also no substitute for time at home. Finding the proper mix will help you build a strong, successful, enjoyable consulting firm.

      Thanks for contributing your experience, Terry.

  2. Robin Goldsmith
    January 9, 2019 at 8:02 am Reply

    If you don’t like traveling, that’s fine; but don’t confuse the travel with the consulting it takes you to. (By the way, many of my consulting clients have been closer to home than my downtown offices; and often travel to a client site from a hotel is much quicker than getting to one’s own downtown office. I also often welcome flights’ opportunity for some head-clearing.)
    Effective consultants first and foremost understand their clients, which takes effort and close interactions. I’ve learned (and written a book about) that people often don’t understand their REAL problems and latch onto inappropriate presumed solutions. When a client says I understand them better than they understand themselves, I know I’m actually providing the value they’re hiring a consultant to provide. That comes from investing my time with them to understand what’s going on in their actual habitat and apply my analytical consulting skills to further understand why and what to do about it.
    Instead, too many consultants and analysts in general simply take dictation, relying on the client to already have figured out what their REAL problem is and what to do about it. That certainly can be, and often is, done remotely. It also often misleads and results in perfunctory and inadequate/ineffective advice.

    • David A. Fields
      January 9, 2019 at 8:20 am Reply

      As you said, Robin, it’s easy to confuse travel with consulting, and it’s also easy to confuse “showing up” with consulting.

      Excellent consulting demands Right-Side Up thinking, and deep attention to the client’s actual needs right along side their professed wants. Whether you’re in person or remote, taking the time to learn the root causes of your client’s challenges is one key to delivering high value.

      I’m glad you highlighted that point, Robin.

  3. Kenneth Russell
    January 9, 2019 at 9:32 am Reply

    Interesting comment you made above, David – <>.

    Much of my work for my best client is at their site. This is primarily due to the need to use equipment they have for new development and optimization. For 2 years we have worked together and have grown the team appropriately. I have recognized for quite a while that each visit has to add value or else I am just another employee putting in time. Desk work can be done from the home office and needs to be kept to a minimum while on-site to focus on the specific skills I bring when I arrive on-site. Bringing value makes the flight, hotel and restaurants worthwhile.

    To that point, when the focus of the work is on-site – ie plant start-up, process optimization, I insist on being on-site because these activities cannot be properly conducted without being in the center of the action. Again, value addition is key.

    Thanks for another awesome article.

    • David A. Fields
      January 9, 2019 at 10:55 am Reply

      You’ve hit the nail on the head with a situation where on-site is mandatory: access to information, people or other assets that you simply can’t get remotely. A plant startup sounds like the sort of thing that would need you to be there.

      That said, I always challenge myself (and others) to ask, “Is that really the case?” when I think something must be done on site.

      Fabulous case study, Kenneth. Thank you for contributing it.

  4. Kenneth Russell
    January 9, 2019 at 9:44 am Reply

    The comment I was referring to was: it’s also easy to confuse “showing up” with consulting.
    Sorry for the confusion

    • David A. Fields
      January 9, 2019 at 10:55 am Reply

      No worries. Thanks for the clarification!

  5. Carole Napolitano
    January 9, 2019 at 10:39 am Reply

    I couldn’t agree more about the value of on-site consulting for building relationships at a visceral level that can’t be matched virtually. (In fact, a client shared with me that he had just learned that references to “chemistry” between people is not metaphorical: when we are physically present, we actually breathe in the other’s pheromones … which cause a chemical reaction in us.) I also think there is something to be said for the visibility on-site consulting allows … as a hedge against the risk of out-of-site, out of mind. I tend to view the “pop-ins” (point #3 under “Downsides”) less as distractions than as informal opportunities — not only to build relationships but also to gain information that might support the work or open up another opportunity, since often people take advantage of a spontaneous opportunity to share something that is on their mind. One more thing: on-site work also provide the opportunity to connect with support staff — in the interest of honoring their roles and creating the kind of good will that results in gatekeepers who are eager to help when you need their assistance to make something happen.

    Thanks, as always, David, for a thoughtful article.

    • David A. Fields
      January 9, 2019 at 10:57 am Reply

      Great points, Carole. The interaction with support staff is an interesting benefit I hadn’t highlighted, and I appreciate you pointing that out. The key, of course, is not rationalizing the time spent on-site and, instead, keeping the balance right. Terrific addition to the discussion!

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