8 – Keys to Consulting

Many young and old (post retirement) friends and acquaintances ask me for pointers to enter the world of Organizational Consulting & Training which I have been in since 1985. I thought it would be good to share generally what I have been advising people for several years. I hope it will benefit many more. It is easy if you are a motorcycle mechanic. What you do is clear. The customer has a pressing need. It doesn’t cost much to repair his motorcycle. So, he comes to you.

But with Organizational Consulting & Training you are dealing in concepts, feelings, emotions, and some techniques which to be effective, depend on the willingness and sincerity of the learner in applying them as well as his expertise in doing so. That is a very challenging environment. The customer’s need is not as immediate or pressing like the man with the broken motorcycle. And he must pay a jolly sight more to fulfill his need. Moreover, his benefit is far less immediate or clear, especially as it depends on what he does with what he learnt from you. Having been in this business now since 1985, I can tell you that it is perhaps the most challenging and exciting business that exists – provided you know what to do.

Let me share with you a typical conversation that I have with aspiring consultants. Maybe you will find yourself in it.

One of them asked me, “How do I become a consultant?”

I said, “By persuading someone that you have something to offer them which is of enough value for them to pay for it.”

Another said to me, “According to my personal assessment, I’m good in one-on-one coaching, Alhamdulillah. There are hundreds of brothers in our community who benefited.”

I replied, “That’s not the point. I’m even better than you. Believe me. Ask yourself, how many are willing to pay you for it? We are talking about earning a living. Not just making friends. People especially in our (Indian) culture are good for free advice. The moment you charge them, they look at you as if you suddenly turned into a snake. Let me be blunt…would we be having this conversation if I had sent you a quotation with my hourly rate? That’s what differentiates a business from a good idea. Until you can make that transition and people are willing to pay you for your advice, you don’t have a business, no matter how popular you are. Try taking FB likes and Twitter RTs to buy bananas. You’ll know what I mean.”

People who are willing to pay for what they get are thankful for it and serious about implementing it in their lives or organizations. If they get it free, they have no value for it and when they fail, they will blame you for it.

There is nothing wrong in telling people that they must pay for what is valuable for them. It is up to them. You are not forcing them. If they want it, they must pay. Or go somewhere else.”

There are two major benefits with being hard-nosed about insisting on payment.

  1. People will value what they get because they pay for it.
  2. You will be forced to deliver quality because they are paying for it.

In my life, I do all work of teaching Islam and work with schools and teachers pro bono, without any payment. For everything else, I charge a fee. My point is that if I don’t, can’t or won’t put a value on my work, how can I expect my client to do so?

Do you still want to be a leadership consultant? Then here are 8 keys – what works and what doesn’t.

  1. Define & Differentiate your product – What do you have to offer and how is it unique?

Differentiation creates Brand

Brand inspires Loyalty

Loyalty enables influence

~ Mirza Yawar Baig

The more clearly you can define your product, the better. It is not what you think you do, but what your customer thinks you do, that matters. That must be crystal clear to him, so that when he has a need in your area of expertise, you are his natural choice.  So, give a lot of thought to what it is that you do and how you tell people about it. Remember that the world of selling is the world of words. Not deception, but palatable truth. Unpalatable truth is equally truthful but not equally edible. So, craft words thoughtfully and take brutal feedback from others about it. Being married to your words is suicide. The key is to define your service in a way that your potential customers see how it can benefit them. Don’t leave that to the customer to figure out. Spell it out for him. Not because he is stupid, but because the need is yours. WiiFM (What’s in it for me) is a channel that everyone listens to. To explain WiiFM means that you must know his business sometimes better than he does himself. Certainly, in terms of an overview from the outside. That is your key differentiator because perspective is a function of distance. Show him why he needs you.

2. Define your customer

Not everyone is your customer. This is the biggest mistake you can make, trying to be all things to all people. That way you are seen as a generalist, nothing to nobody. People like to feel that they are dealing with an expert, even if it is for a haircut. That means that you must learn to say a very definite, ‘No!’ to some businesses. I stayed out of recruitment from the beginning (1994) when recruitment was a booming business. That classified me as a confidant of business managers and owners; not as someone who would probably poach on them to grow his business. I never regretted that decision. It is not to say that all placement consultants do this but enough do to spoil the reputation of everyone. Err on the side of caution in accepting assignments. Only the hero who survives lives to tell the tale. In consulting, if the client fails, you carry the can. So never accept assignments where the outcome is doubtful because you doubt the client’s sincerity or ability to carry out your recommendations. Remember that both success and failures are news; often the latter being remembered more vividly. So, look for quick wins. Both parties will be happier.

3. Decide your fee

I have a basic rule. Stand in front of the mirror and say the number aloud. If you feel comfortable with it, it is the right amount. Do some hard-nosed analysis about your finances and see what you need – not want – need. Then base your fee on that. Develop a mindset of contentment, so that when that figure is reached you have no stress. Then whatever else comes thereafter is icing on the cake. Remember that once you quote a figure to a client, that is what he will pay you lifelong. Your or his, whichever ends first. He will demand a salary raise every six months from his employer but will moan like a cow in labor if you ask for a raise once in six years. So, be careful what you quote. “We are going to give you a lot of business, so give us a discount”, is the oldest, most threadbare line that exists. Even more than, “What are you doing tonight?” So, don’t fall for it. Giving a discount to someone who will actually give you a lot of business means that you are tying yourself down to a low productivity client in favor of others who would have been more productive. Quote fairly and confidently. Perception is in the mind of the listener but before that in your own heart. If you are confident of your product or service, then be sure that people will come to you again and again. I have not made a cold call since 1995. It is as simple as that.  

Remember that your real customer is only the one who is willing to pay you. All others are like footfalls in a mall. They came to walk in an air-conditioned environment, out of the heat of the day. You happen to be there, so they are passing their time in your shop. If they walk away, so be it. Not everyone can afford a Bugatti. Just make sure that you are a Bugatti and then relax. Your buyer will come. How else do you think Bugatti makes a profit? The one who walked away wanted a car. Not a Bugatti. Every Bugatti is a car but only one in a million is a Bugatti. Right?

4. Deliver premium and demand premium

Buy me because I am cheap – is not a slogan that ever appealed to me. Remember no matter what you charge there will always be someone in the market who will pay that to you, once. It is repeat business that is your bread and butter – so ensure that your customer is so tremendously satisfied that he will not only call you again, but you become his natural choice. The repeat customer is the only one who can compare you to others, because he has experienced you once. Make sure that his experience with you is so superior that everything else pales in comparison. He then becomes your ambassador and there’s no better or more effective ambassador than a customer who experienced you and was delighted.

Selling cheap has several problems: You position yourself as a low-quality provider (default implication of cheap); the client will never agree to a fee raise later so you lock yourself into a low remunerative bind and you can almost never pitch for high-end work. Nobody will consult the trainer of security guards when the Board wants advice. So, positioning is critical. I have found that positioning based on quality is best. If you deliver top quality, you get a very good name and people don’t care what you charge. Those who still count pennies are not your clients. Smile and leave them. The fact is that if you are not confident about your product or service then don’t expect the client to feel confident about you.

‘Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten’

(Gucci family slogan).

5. Do only work that you are passionate about – leave the rest

That is because you can’t deliver quality unless you are passionate about that project. Never do anything for the money. Do it for love. Money will follow. Money is the natural consequence of all quality work. But if you do something that you don’t believe in you will never succeed. That is why I have always refused work for cigarette and liquor companies and companies who are known for corruption – no matter what the fee. I have also never done sales training because it doesn’t excite me. I teach leadership where I am paid to do it and I teach it free where the client (like schools) can’t pay me, but I believe that they will benefit and need that training. That gives me practice with a variety of audiences and builds equity in the market. Work for love and you will be loved for it.

Genuinely want the best for your client. If you are not interested in the welfare of the client and are working only for the money, it will show and it will go against you. Genuine interest means that you will end up doing more work than you may have anticipated, including some that is not billable. But being genuinely interested means that you won’t grudge or regret that. Take only projects that interest you because if you want to succeed in a project and make a mark, then you will need to be mentally engaged with it 24 x 7. You can’t do that unless it genuinely interests you. That too will show. Genuine wanting the best for your client also means that sometimes you will tell your client to go somewhere else if he needs something that you know someone else can provide better than you can. It is a tough call and that is why you need to think beyond your income. Remember that in the end it all comes back. People remember and are grateful and will promote and recommend you. Consulting is not business. Consulting is friendship. I have worked with this philosophy for the past 38 years and never regretted it.

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate

There is no getting away from this. Talk to people, write things, and share with everyone. Have an abundance mentality. It all comes back. Speak at conferences and seminars. Offer to teach (even if it is for nothing) management development courses at business schools and training establishments – pick and choose of course – but do it. This will teach you the skills of dealing with people. It will energize you, expose you to your potential client base and give you visibility and credibility. Over the years, I have taught at IIM Bangalore, Asnuntuck Community College, Enfield, CT, SVP National Police Academy, Hyderabad, SSB Academy, Bhopal, and Faculty Development Courses at the St. Xavier’s College, Hyderabad, Osmania University, Hyderabad and the Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. All for next to nothing in terms of money but great networking benefits.

Answer phone calls immediately, always respond to emails, call people just to say hello. Have a toll-free number where your clients can reach you. Never leave a phone call unreturned or an email unanswered. Good people skills are far more important than anything else. People hire you not only because of competence but because they like you. Competence is a given. It must be there. Being liked is the decision maker. Communication is the key to being liked. Aspiring consultants who play (or are) hard to get are digging their own graves. Nobody loves you enough to chase you. That will happen one day provided you build enough equity. But it will happen after a lot of hard work. I once had a client wait for two years for me to return from America to do some work, but the exception proves the rule. If you are not reachable, someone else is. No matter that you think you are the best in the market. Even if you are, they don’t know that until they work with you and if they can’t reach you, if you don’t return calls or mails, that will never happen.

7. Document and focus on your own training

The written word has high credibility. So, write. Record meetings, thoughts, ideas, and questions. Then read them. You will be amazed at how much you will learn. Every year or so, go over what you have recorded, and you are likely to have the makings of a book on hand. I wrote 40 books in 38 years of consulting. Almost all of them this way. You will be amazed how much research and learning happens in the normal course of life, except that we don’t record it. Beat the rest. Record your learnings. Books are an excellent way to build credibility. They are also a strong way to advertise what you have to offer without having to be crass enough to talk about it. A book is a quiet but confident statement of who you are and what you have to offer to the market. People trust the written word much more than the spoken word. In the words of Martin Luther King (Jr.), ‘If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.’ This also keeps you busy in the lull periods where you may otherwise fall prey to anxiety and stress. So, write.

Ensure that you invest in yourself by upgrading your own skills. Set aside time and a budget to invest in your own learning. Read and get trained on a regular basis and you will find that to be a competitive advantage. I have found this an unassailable argument on the rare occasion when someone says to me, ‘But so-and-so charges less than you do.’ I say to them, ‘Ask them what they spent on their own training in the last 12 months.’ Nobody ever came back, and I never lost a client for this reason. The hard reality is that if you have not upgraded yourself, then you are not fit to offer anything to the client. His reality changes daily with greater complexity, more demanding challenges, and an ever more ambiguous environment. How can you help them if you are still living in the stone age? Remember that consulting, especially leadership consulting is not about technology but about helping your client sell his dream and then help him to create a concrete roadmap to achieve it. It is about building trust, keeping confidence and being there for them.

8. Finally, never compromise your integrity no matter how hungry you are

Remember that your client is not the one who feeds you and the One who feeds you doesn’t lack resources. So never do anything which is against your beliefs and values. Have the highest values and live by them. That is the biggest incentive in my view of being an independent consultant – that you can afford to live by your values. And guess what? Not only will you never starve but you will gain a huge amount of respect in the market which you can’t buy even if you wanted to. For example, I have always insisted on clients respecting copyright and never agreed to use photocopied instruments, books and so on. On one occasion, I had to walk away from a very lucrative assignment from a very famous company (you’ll be surprised if I told you the name) because the training manager insisted that I used photocopied MBTI questionnaires to ‘reduce cost’. She said to me, ‘But everyone does it.’ I told her, ‘I am not everyone.’ That was in my very first year as an independent consultant (1994) when I was very poor and hungry, and it hurt very much to walk away. But I did. And as they say, the rest is history.

Another aspect of integrity is to keep the confidentiality of the client. Especially if you have high profile clients, others will try to put pressure on you to talk about them. By all means share the good stuff. But anything that is confidential like business information, personal information about anyone, any plans that you may be privy to, must all remain completely confidential. Remember that it takes years to build a reputation for integrity and it takes a single instance to destroy it. It doesn’t matter whether you did it deliberately or accidentally. If you, did it, it is a bullet in your forehead. Instant death. A reputation of high integrity is your best brand, your greatest asset. It is your signature, your key differentiator in the market and it is what you will always be remembered for. I can say with great pride that I have worked with GE from 1994, but have never been asked to sign an NDA (Non-disclosure Agreement). So also, with all my other clients. I have never signed an NDA with anyone. Not that I would have refused. If someone has a policy about it, I have no objection to following it. But nobody ever asked me to do it. As I mentioned earlier, your reputation is your greatest asset. By far greater than anything material. Don’t sell it for love or money. It is simply not worth it. Guard it very zealously and jealously. It will benefit you all your life.

Consulting is hard because it means that someone else must feel that the advice that you will give them is worth paying for. So, it needs hard work, consistent results and extremely good social skills and interpersonal relationships. But like a giant wheel, it is hard work to move it but once it is rolling, it builds momentum on its own.

I hope this is helpful and gives you a start. We must work very hard – very, very hard to begin with. That is why passion is important because it will keep going up the long uphill climb when breath is short and burning in the chest, your legs are leaden, your back is a mass of pain, and the sweat is pouring off your brow like rain. But you keep climbing because you know what awaits you at the top. To sit on a rock and watch the world at your feet, your face cooled by a gentle breeze and your body slowly relaxing as you gaze down – not up – at the clouds.

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Salil Dutt

Very insightful Mirza ji. This stuff is right off the cuff, unadulterated and borne out of grass root experience…
Few like to put their money where their mouth is. The road to credibility and knowledge has no short cuts. It is hard and painful. It is indeed a road less traveled. But the fruits are the sweetest.
Great blog. Thanks

Salil Dutt

As always Yawar Bhai you are incisive and precise. You have seen and lived it all. It was quite enriching. Thanks.

Arjan van Lit

It was more than just a pleasure to read your article on consulting again. The 8 keys you mentioned are tightly connected to the values we share, both in our professional as in our private life. The role of consultant as trusted advisor is not only connected to full time consultants, but also integrated in many other jobs. To explain that I use the equation David Maister developed, below you will find a short article in which I try to explain how this equation works. Trusted advisor and Self orientation Many bookshelves are filled with books about the role of… Read more »

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