"The Accidental Advisor" By Edi Osborne - CEO of Mentor Plus
A few weeks ago, while on a conference call with a group of practitioners engaged in the development and delivery of non-traditional services, I stumbled upon an accidental consultant. You know the scenario. You’ve been to a training program on “How to be a Consultant.” You are inspired by the possibility of being and doing more for your clients. As you leave the training, something takes hold, you’re flush in the cheeks, light headed, maybe even delirious, you start speaking a foreign language to your staff and clients.
At first your staff and clients observe your demeanor looking for signs of illness, wondering if you are the same person they’ve known for years. They’ve never heard you speak like this before. You, too, feel a sort of out-of-body experience as you observe yourself speaking these new words. As you repeat these words they become more familiar, your comfort level rises, those around you begin to accept this new dialect.
Over time your clients and staff begin to embrace the new language. They begin to listen more carefully. Your confidence grows. You’re at a client’s office and you’re comfortably conversing in this new language when all of a sudden the client asks you if you can help their company do all the things this new language promises. But you weren’t really trying to sell anything! AHHHG, your heart races, your palms begin sweat, you swallow hard and say, “Yes!” You smile, your giddy inside, you’ve sold your first consulting engagement. You walk on air back to the office, the high continues as you share the success with your staff, you walk in your office, close the door and ask yourself, “NOW WHAT?”
You thought the hardest part would be selling the engagement, but now you realize you have to put together an engagement letter outlining the scope of the engagement, price it, and then . . . DELIVER IT?” Welcome to the world of accidental consulting. It’s a world the entire profession is beginning to explore at record speed these days. As more and more firms are expanding their service offerings to include non-traditional services, we see accidental consultants popping up everywhere.
When you were starting out in accounting, you had mentors and systems to guide you on how to complete tax returns, financial statements and the like. You were surrounded by folks who had been down the same road before. They understood your fears and knew just how to help you overcome them. You were given 3-5 years to gain a modicum of competence. Your efforts were sheltered behind more experienced practitioners who wouldn’t let you make any mistakes in front of the client. But now, you’re a Partner. Everyone sees you as an expert. They come to you for advice. Clients and staff have high expectations of your performance. You have even higher expectations of your own performance.
As you head out into the world of consulting, you realize you don’t have 5 years to get good at this. There’s too much at risk; client relationships, professional credibility, and competitors are knocking at your client’s door demanding that you move much faster down this learning curve.
It’s no wonder so many practitioners are struggling between the enormous opportunity and excitement they feel about providing new services and the absolute fear that they might fail and embarrass themselves professionally and personally. It would be so much easier to just stay with what you know, but the marketplace won’t stand still for your comfort level to catch up with the demand. Clearly the greater risk in this proposition is in NOT expanding your service offerings. So the question on everyone’s mind is . . . fear or no fear . . . “How do I (our firm) short-cut the learning curve?”
Getting Started - The assumption has to be made that you have already considered the appropriateness of a new service in relation to the needs of your clients. Once you’ve done your homework matching your client base with the specific services, look for training programs that take a “systems” approach to providing those services. Just as you have systems for preparing tax returns and financial statements, you’ll need systems for consulting services. Systems make the process predictable and repeatable and allow for greater leverage across the firm. Once you’ve gotten the training, here are some critical success factors that can expedite your efforts in setting up and delivering consulting services.
Internal Preparation – The old adage, “Measure twice, cut once” applies here. It is critically important to lay a proper foundation within the firm early in the process of initiating your new consulting service. Although many practitioners have jumped in with both feet selling and delivering services to clients immediately following a training program they’ve attended, the only way to leverage themselves is to involve others in the firm.
1. Partner/Team Orientation – The fastest way to learn something is to teach it to others. As part of your path towards mastery, we recommend you teach your newly acquired skill to others in your firm. Not only will your skills grow, you’ll find others in your firm much more likely to support your efforts if: a) they understand the nature and scope of service you are providing and the overall value it brings to the firm, b) they know the clients you intend to target, c) how you plan to approach the clients and deliver the service, and d) what your expectations are of their involvement. By sharing your new skills and vision with others in your team, you’ll also find your personal accountability to the process greatly increased. No turning back now!
2. Strategic Planning – “People who aim at nothing, hit it with amazing accuracy” It’s important to outline the who, what, where, when, why, and how of your effort. Be specific in your targets. For example, “We will engage X# clients over the next six months. The average fee will be $X amount.” It’s no secret that those that write down their goals are much more likely to achieve them.
Segmented Testing – Many big corporations conduct market tests when they release a new product. Given your limited margin for error, it’s important to apply this same “testing” approach to your new consulting program.
1. Client Selection – Many times we try to pre-select the type and size of client that will want the new service we have to offer. You may be surprised to find that a client you thought was too small or too big for a given service, may be the most receptive. It pays to cast the net wide and let the clients self sort. One way to “test” your client base is to introduce a new service offering in your client newsletter with some kind of response mechanism built in. Another way is to survey different client segments to gauge their readiness. Many firms have also used small group briefings or seminars or workshops as a means of sorting through their clients for the low hanging fruit.
2. Packaging/Pricing – Recognizing that all clients are not created equal, it may be prudent to design two or three package offerings at different price points that will allow your clients to self select the level of service best suited to their needs. We call this the “nibble, bite, gulp” approach. For example, in the area of Performance Measurement Consulting when working with hesitant clients, many practitioners start off by adding one new measure a month/quarter in a flash report that compliments the standard financial statements they provide. As the client grows comfortable with this new approach to business management, they get hungry for more and invite their consulting accountant to help them measure more and more activities within the business. Over time, even some of the most resistant clients can be converted by allowing them to initially buy in at which ever level they are comfortable with.
1. Setting up Delivery Systems and Standardized Protocols - during your testing phase you determined which clients buy what products at a given price point. Now’s it’s time to document those various levels of packaging/pricing. You may also learn that there are certain types of client scenarios that are easier, better, and more profitable to deliver on. Design your protocols specifically around those engagements. Here’s a list of some standard protocols items:
· Sales letters, scripts, brochures, presentations, etc.
· Engagement letter format (get approval from legal advisor)
· Engagement planning checklist (Set clear expectations up front for what you’ll need from the client and what you need to do internally)
· Engagement step-by-step process
· Data Gathering (what, from whom, time frames, etc.)
· Analysis of Data (who, how- what tools?, benchmarks, presentation formats, etc.)
· Implementation (actual how-to’s on elements of implementation – work papers from previous engagements are often helpful)
· Follow-up (up-sell your way to additional work, critique of your effort, tie up loose ends, etc.)
The final critical success factor is to make sure to leverage each and every engagement, especially in the early stages of your consulting development. Leverage positive results with client engagements by gathering testimonials, documenting case studies, publishing white papers or articles in your firm newsletter, or an industry association. Leverage the learning gained from every engagement by sharing case studies with the entire team and by applying the Japanese concept of Kaizen by continually improving your internal processes and systems.
As you organize, prepare, and systematize your new consulting efforts you’ll find yourself being able to answer the “NOW WHAT?” question with much greater confidence, leaving the world of accidental consulting behind.