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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?

  1. Franziska
    January 9, 2019 at 2:06 pm Reply

    David, good list of pros/cons. To add color to #5, the need to be on-site for information: I had repeat projects with a banking client where their external regulations and internal policies required me to be on-site for any electronic access – had to use their laptop at their intranet address for email, scheduling, file access, everything. In theory technologically those things could have been done remotely, but it was a non-negotiable precondition for working there. So I had to swallow the unproductive (standing in crowded subway) 70-minute each way commute 4-5 days/week. But it made me reluctant to pursue follow-on – now I value my time more…

    • David A. Fields
      January 10, 2019 at 1:22 pm Reply

      Fascinating case study, Franziska. External regulations and increased concern over data protection are a couple of reasons I’m seeing more on-site requirements for work. In some cases, as in your case study, there’s only one way to avoid it: don’t take the engagement!

      In many other cases, there’s an opportunity to ask, “Is this on-site requirement truly necessary?” and to develop solutions that are more efficient and more effective for the clients and our consulting firms.

      Color always helps, Franziska, and I’m glad you added some to this conversation.

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