As one client pointed out to me, “doing a consulting engagement is like getting married. We have to date first”. To understand how to win client work, we have to learn firsthand from the clients on how they choose advisors. Having worked in the strategy consulting industry, including time at McKinsey and Accenture, for over 20 years across the world, I have identified that confidence, feasibility, learning, and relationship are the four key dimensions for strategic advisors to secure consulting engagements. Those four dimensions are also relevant for companies to pick the right strategic advisors.
One of the questions that consultants must always address is how to win client work. Clients issue RFPs and they employ scoring criteria to select consultants. The scoring criteria are typically centered around technical competency and commercial arrangements. Clients’ procurement teams will lead the charge, score the vendors, and go through the selection processes.
On one hand, this seems to be very scientific and it will be difficult for consultants to predict how they would come out of the scoring processes. On the other hand, how do clients really pick consultants? Is the process really that scientific? How do they really score the consultants?
Having worked closely with many clients over my consulting life, the question of how clients select the consultants is a question that I often discuss with my clients. One of my CEO clients gave me the best insights into how clients think about consultants and advisors. This client has worked with many strategy and technology consultants, law firms, and accounting firms over the course of his career, spanning across CEO roles across a number of different companies. He kindly told me his secret of picking a strategic advisor – four questions that he always uses. The four questions are:
- Confidence: Can we as clients believe you?
- Feasibility: Is your recommendation feasible for my company?
- Learning: What can you teach us, the clients?
- Relationship: Can you and I become long term friends?
In his mind, confidence building is the first step of engaging a consultant. He considered a number of sub-questions underneath the believability and confidence:
- Do you know what you are talking about? This is about the knowledge of the industry and the knowledge of the topic at hand.
- Do you understand my issues? Every company is different. Thus, it’s critical to fully elaborate on the consultant’s understanding of the issues at hand to make sure the consultants understand the company.
- Do you know something that I don’t know? The unique insight presented by the consultants will be the deciding factor in building confidence. Internet has provided clients access to as much information as possible. The true insight, driven by past industry experiences and current knowledge of the clients, is going to be the differentiator for the selection.
This is about if the consultants can develop a solution that can solve the clients’ problems. Unfortunately, there are still too many consultants trying to apply boilerplate solutions to problems – the issue of a hammer finding nails. I even observed consultants taking the same recommendations to different clients, without changing the pages.
Feasibility requires the consultants to truly understand clients’ issues and develop custom recommendations for the clients. Some of the questions under feasibility that my CEO clients often ask include:
- What’s your Day 1 answer? Before you even start the engagement, do you have a perspective on what I should do differently?
- How is your recommendation going to be different from the work you have done in the past? Clients don’t want standard cut-and-paste answers. They know what works for others might not work for them. This is why they care about what will be different this time.
- What is the single biggest issue that I should solve for? No solution can solve all problems. The consultant’s ability to prioritize the issues facing the clients and identify solutions that solve the most urgent issues is critical.
Clients don’t want consultants becoming the crutch that they always have to rely on. They want a process where during the engagement, consultants transfer the knowledge know-how to the clients so that the clients can implement the recommendation themselves. The capability building and knowledge transfer are going to be critical factors during the vendor selection processes.
- What knowledge do you plan to transfer? The knowledge transfer should not be standard textbook education. It’s about careful curation of content and consideration of curriculum to transfer the knowledge.
- Who will benefit from the knowledge transfer and capability building? The advisor must be willing to create a customized curriculum based on the different client audience that they are targeting.
- How do you ensure that clients can pick up the recommendation and do the implementation? This is probably the most difficult part of the learning and would require a deep understanding of the client’s business context and culture, the solution the advisor has created, and the willingness of the advisors to challenge themselves to think like the client. The standard answer of “why don’t we just do an extension of the project so that I can help you execute” is just a nice try!
I lost the very first RFP when I went to Asia. The client executive responsible for the work was kind enough to do a postmortem with me. He said “Parker, working with a consultant is like getting married. We have to date for a while before we know if the marriage is right for both of us”. I took this to my heart!
Good clients and consultants will build long term relationships, that are based on trust and intimacy. Client-advisor relationships are often similar to marriages. I traveled with the CEO client who gave me his perspectives on vendor selection on a trip from China to Mexico, a 20-hour trip. We sat next to each other on the plane during the whole flight. If we couldn’t be friends, the 20 hours will have been long torture, for both of us!
The four questions are universally applicable to all of us, across geographies. Focusing on the answers to the four questions, and we consultants are guaranteed to win the work!