As client work habits and offices adapt to a world that is becoming increasingly flat, consultants should rethink their own approaches to serving clients.
This article was originally published in Consulting Magazine
According to recent Consulting Magazine study more than 51% of consultants reported that they spend an average of 100 days a year on the road. The amount of travel a consultant has to undertake is further fueled by the fact that companies are more global, teams are more widespread, and professionals increasingly telecommute or work remotely. On the other hand, there has been a fair amount of pushback from clients about consulting travel expenses. Given this contradictory situation of sorts, consultants need to start identifying and adopting the right tools to stay efficient in terms of time, effort, and costs.
Think about what Thomas L. Friedman wrote in his 2005 bestselling book, The World is Flat. The book highlighted how economies link together in whole new ways, and that you can “be there” almost as easily as before, while staying “here”— wherever that may be. Fast-forward a decade to 2015 and we find that the world has become flatter than it ever was! For the consulting industry, one that is relationship driven, the flattened world presents changes, challenges, and necessitates adaptation. The implications of the flattened world for consultants can be boiled down to a simple issue:the issue of evolving office spaces.
When we look at the offices of our existing and potential clients, we will notice that something quite paradoxical is happening.
Offices have changed – there are many empty desks and we are seeing unprecedented levels in the use of real-time communication tools like Skype, Yammer, FaceTime, as well as conference calls, file-sharing apps, and endless emails. While the “physical” office spaces are evolving and getting less crowded, today’s workforce is bigger and more widespread than ever before. This is exactly where the crux of the evolving offices paradox lies. On one hand, there are less professionals who work in a traditional office setup and on the other hand, more professionals are dispersed across geographies! Thus, a decrease in the number of professionals in a “physical office space” is not indicative of a dwindling workforce. So how do consultants (both external and internal) continue to engage with their clients and build strong relationships in a world with shrinking offices and client budgets?
In a nutshell, here are three characteristics of evolving offices that consultants need to be conscious about:
1. Telecommuting and flexible work is becoming more common and may challenge the amount of face-time or personal interaction that is possible for a consultant.
2. Some or many of the client team members and even a consultant’s main point of contact could be working remotely or be spread across the globe.
3. Client companies may have shared desks. This means that you can see different people at the same desk on different days or at different times.
The above three characteristics of today’s evolving offices are just a few reasons why the consulting industry needs to be more savvy about the kinds of tools they use. To put it simply; the way clients work is changing, and so the way consultants work with clients needs to change as well. This is the precisely why consultants need to hit self-disrupt mode.
Here are a few recommendations for how today’s consultants can navigate the paradox of evolving client offices:
1. Collaborate even before the engagement starts
This step is about developing a strong understanding about the “what” behind the current situation even before the engagement with a client formally begins. This could mean studying the structures, systems, and processes in a client’s organization. Consultants need to be more diligent about scrutinizing any material that they can get their hands on, in both the real and the online world. This step should lead to consultants equipping themselves and their clients with appropriate collaboration tools.
2. Change how you listen
This step is where a consultant should seek to recognize the “why” behind “what” is happening and what needs to happen. It is imperative for consultants in a flat world to understand more about people that they may or may not meet, but have to work with during their engagements. This flat world forces the consulting industry to change how it listens and gathers insights. This change starts right at the on-boarding phase of the client engagement.
3. Find a better medium
While the first step is about understanding the structures on the client-side, this step is about affecting change on the structures at the consultant-side. For the most part, what consultants need to strive for is the depth of insights that a face-to-face interview will provide but at software speeds! Consultants need to strike a balance with the breadth and depth of client interactions. On one hand, in-depth interviews can yield a wealth of data, but on the other hand, these interviews are time consuming and essentially an n=1 data point. Moreover, one-on-one interviews are typically not scalable. For consultants to be truly effective, resulting insights need to be the right balance between the quantity of data that can be gathered through surveys and the quality of data that can be gathered through in-person interviews. To achieve this in today’s flat world, consultants must cherry pick the most suitable real-time collaboration tools to use.
4. Build rapport (quickly)
In this increasingly flat world and a world where teams are more widespread, consultants need to realize that a well-paced engagement strengthens client relationships. By immediately allowing their clients access real-time and actionable insights, consultants will succeed in driving both client growth and retention. Capturing and sharing real-time and relevant insights builds better collaboration with a large portion of the client team and results in higher levels of engagement.
5. Make “Strategic Conversations” your weapon of choice
Questions merely serve as navigational prompts and tools to help you get the full picture on a topic. A consultant needs to respect his/her clients enough to show his/her cards – tell them the topic that needs to be explored – then use questions not as blocky data points that require an answer but as mere prompts that incite response. Consultants need to keep these prompts as open-ended as possible. Practitioners of Behavioral Interviewing learned to do this in the late 1990s with questions like “tell me about a time that…” instead of “what is your experience?” In short, consultants need to master the art of having strategic conversations with their current and potential clients.
To adapt to today’s “flat world,” modern consultants need to rethink their approaches and be savvy about communication tools, secure file-sharing tools, and analytics tools for clients.