Are You Committing These Mistakes Consultants Make?

by Alli Polin on June 16, 2015

mistakes consultants make

It can be hard to avoid the big mistakes consultants make if you’re blind to the potholes. I’m sharing my own messy story to help you avoid some of the dips in the road in which I tripped and faltered.

Any consultant will tell you, consulting can be a lot of fun and also at times a very chaotic affair. You’re walking the line of project or program ownership while remaining an outsider. It’s your project, but you were hired to further your client’s success; your success is a by-product.

Years ago, I had the privilege of working on a team that designed, developed and implemented one of the largest live theater-based business simulations in history for a large pharmaceutical company. Our core team collectively put in thousands of hours of work, not including all of the contractors we hired for the training itself. The pressure was on to exceed expectations and create a meaningful learning experience.

We had insane logistics to manage and had hired over 100 actors to play doctors to train pharmaceutical sales reps for a new drug launch. It was our go-live weekend at the Alamodome in San Antonio, and everything came down to this three-day event.

I handled the hiring and preparation of the actors while my colleagues covered other critical pieces of the launch. These actors had no lines to memorize; it was all on-the-fly improv, and they had to pass as established doctors in cardiology and other specializations too.

Working with our casting agent, we held auditions in NYC and LA and hired an extremely smart and talented group of actors who were committed to their parts. I was incredibly proud of their results – they knocked it out of the park. However, this project was not really about the actors and how well they did; it was about the sales reps who needed to be prepared to go-live in the market the following week.

Not unexpectedly, during the three-day business simulation, some of the sales reps were superstars and others were challenged. A few of the reps stammered their way through the mock sales calls and struggled to master the material. Luckily, they had a coach observing every call to immediately engage them in the learning and make improvements over the next few days in the training. However, the problem was, the actors thought that the struggling reps were hysterical and shared their stories with our client.

I was worried that the actors were only telling the bad stories, the biggest flubs, and the worst experiences. They weren’t sharing stories about the great reps who were coming through the simulation and were well prepared to market the newest drug in their portfolio. To me, it was beginning to sound like all of the reps were a mess and not just a small subset.

After the first day of the training, I stood in the front of the room to tell the actors that I wanted them to not only share the bad with our client, but also the good. Yes, flubs are funny but we want to help build confidence too. A little less emphasis on the mess-ups would be great.

Later that evening the senior leader from my company came to see me; the client wanted me removed from the program. I was shocked and unbelievably sad. When I asked why, he told me it was because I advised the actors to no longer say anything bad, stopping the client from getting a realistic picture.

No! No, no, no!

I wanted balance. Okay, maybe a little more weight on the good side, but I never asked them to stop completely sharing the gaffes. I immediately asked how I could make it right and was told I could not.

Here’s what I learned from this experience, and from the decades of consulting that followed, are some the big mistakes consultants make. Are you making the same missteps?

Three Big Mistakes Consultants Make:

Owning the Work and Taking All of the Credit

I had a key client contact but truly felt like this program was my baby. I kept him in the loop at a high level, but he was never in the weeds. I thought he was happy. Turns out, working with Equity Actors, some of whom were famous, was sexy and the client wanted to feel the love. The program was his, not mine, and I should have made him the star of the show.

After the program wrapped, and I left the project, he took over as the primary point of contact and owned the relationships with the actors and the directors. He was much happier doing the fun stuff that he saw me doing for the past year.

  • I could have asked how he wanted to be involved. (Even if it was just socializing with the actors and letting him be in the spotlight)
  • I could have given him far more credit despite the fact that I was doing the work. (He was the employee; not me.)
  • I could have invited him, even when he didn’t ask and seemed too busy. (The choice was his; not mine)

Offering One Sided Insights / Feedback

Yes, I encouraged the actors to share more of the good and less of the bad, but it wasn’t all or nothing. Clients want to hear that things are going well, but also deserve to hear the truth and less than perfect results too. Yes, we can tell our clients that we’re managing them, there’s a plan and it’s under control – it doesn’t mean that consultants should pretend that everything’s perfect when it’s not.

Sharing the challenges opens up the client – consultant relationship to craft and implement solutions. It can be hard as a consultant to have access to the same information and resources as employee leadership. It’s important to remember that they want the program to succeed as much if not more than you do.

  • I could have taken responsibility for sharing the good and the bad too. (If I wanted balance, I could’ve led the way)
  • I could have asked the client to share what feedback he was hearing and facilitated a discussion with the larger team. (Choosing discussion over assumptions.)
  • I could have partnered with the client to ensure that the sales reps who were struggling were well supported and do reconnaissance to ensure that they were not all in a single region. (Fact-finding to deepen our shared understanding!)

Never Underestimate the Speed of Whisper Down the Lane  

I simply asked the actors to share less bad and offer more good. It took only a few hours for the request to get bastardized through a lightning fast round of whisper down the lane. Quickly, it went to NEVER share bad, ONLY share good.

People talk and even when you think you are having a closed door meeting, expect that when people leave through the open door, the information will get out. As a consultant, it’s critical to always loop back with your client instead of letting the rumor mill do the work for you. It’s much harder to say “I didn’t do it!” than to get in front of any potential issues.

  • I could have included the client in the meeting, eliminating potential misunderstanding. (Who was I really trying to protect?)
  • I could have looped back with my client to debrief the meeting and tell him what I said. (If out of line, it could have been corrected asap)
  • I could have asked the actors to speak to me if they were unsure of my feedback or direction. (The result may have been the same, but it never hurts to ask.)

The two things that I did on this program that were definitely not mistakes were:

1) Giving it my all and tirelessly working in service of the client’s success.

2) Apologizing to the client and directly asking how I could make it right.
What advice do you have for other consultants or business owners to avoid some of the pitfalls that you’ve discovered in your career?

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Mertz June 16, 2015 at 8:52 am

Alli,

Sharing your experiences and insights always provides much to consider, which is a very good thing. Thank you for doing this.

From my experience, “big bang” projects are generally not a good idea. Even though the client may want to make ALL the changes at once, it may be too much. Coordinating it all is the first challenge, and then add in trying to really connect all the dots across all functions at the same time.

Taking smaller steps toward realizing an overall change is likely the better way. Having this critical conversation upfront is required.

Thanks!

Jon

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Alli Polin June 17, 2015 at 7:31 pm

Jon,

I’m with you, big bang projects and change initiatives rarely work. It’s tough for people to assimilate change and overwhelming them is rarely a good idea. I’ve worked on a fair number of large scale change initiatives and one of the keys is an extensive awareness and communications program in advance of the change in addition to training and ongoing support and communication post change. If one falls flat, the program, and business, suffers.

Thank you for adding your experience and perspective! Grateful!

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Terri Klass June 16, 2015 at 10:48 am

Fantastic Alli! As a consultant myself, I have made my share of mistakes too. For me, the biggest one is not completely listening to the needs of the client. Once I assumed the client wanted me to cover certain topics in a leadership training, but they really wanted their own ideas to be shared.

What I have learned is to make it all about them. I offer honest feedback, give them tons of credit and become an advocate for the participants.

Thanks Alli for your honest and spot on insights!

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Alli Polin June 17, 2015 at 7:34 pm

Great addition, Terri. Thanks! Oftentimes as consultants we have clients who hire us to do work and we assume we define it the same way. Digging deeper to really uncover expectations is critical. Appreciate how you approach it once you’re engaged too. Give your feedback, but ultimately deliver to their vision.

Thanks!

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Karin Hurt June 16, 2015 at 12:47 pm

Excellent post. All vital points. Another couple of mistakes I see consultants make is throwing the baby out with the bath water. They think to prove their value they must show how everything the client is doing is currently wrong. Ths creates more work for the consultant and more expense for the client, while not necessarily doing anything for the end result. Consultants who can build on the foundation already built have the best chance of making lasting change. Another is dissing other consultant. Never do that. Poor taste and bad karma.

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Alli Polin June 17, 2015 at 7:36 pm

Yes! I’ve seen consultants who seemed more determined to grow their footprint than deliver great work and then extend the relationship.

Also, I’ve worked with other competing consulting firms on the same job. Not easy but it’s a part of being a professional – finding a way to make it work.

Terrific additions! Thanks, Karin!

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Carl June 16, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Great post Alli – the separation and balance a consultant must find is vital to the client’s overall success – thanks for sharing a great illustrative story.

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Alli Polin June 17, 2015 at 7:38 pm

Not an easy line for new consultants (and some more seasoned consultants) to walk. Always appreciate your feedback and support. Thanks, Carl!

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Indigo June 16, 2015 at 2:07 pm

Thanks for a great article. A “relationship ruiner” I stumbled into was not being skillful enough in getting a client to see how incompetent his other two consultants were.

I mean they were staggeringly awful! One kept scheduling meetings then not showing up, then telling the client I wasn’t giving them the info they needed (which we were supposed to be covering in all the missed meetings). Another was so (to be blunt) stupid that we would have long meeting after long meeting with me trying to get very straightforward questions answered, only to have him talk about everything other than the questions we were asking.

In one meeting I even had him read me his own company’s internal software manual (which policy forbade him sending to me) to try to get an answer to one of my questions about how we could interact with their software to fulfill the client’s needs. After reading the page, he concluded, “So you see, it cannot do what you are asking.” To which I replied, “What do you mean? You just read me not only that it can do it, but exactly how it has to be done in order for it to work!” That’s how dumb he was. And yet, the client couldn’t see it! He was so overwhelmed by what everyone was saying, so out of his element, that he couldn’t tell that my team was giving him reliable information and that his other two teams were talking him in circles to hide their own incompetence.

In the end, I was not able to save the relationship. I don’t even know what I could have done differently to create a different outcome to this day. What do you do when the client’s internal sponsor can’t differentiate between competent and incompetent assistance?

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Alli Polin June 17, 2015 at 8:00 pm

What a crazy situation! It also sounds all too familiar. I am working with someone who has competitor consultants who are running the sponsor in circles, has her wrapped around their finger, and are giving bad information. What I advised him to do was to get time with the sponsor to share his expertise, thoughts and progress in greater depth; not to focus on undermining the other two and playing their game. It has been hard to get the sponsor’s ear given the circumstances, but it has helped. Also, I advised him to build relationships with other influencers in the organization. The more people who understand his value and the work he’s doing the better. (always helps to have advocates!)

Clearly, these individuals are making your work incredibly difficult and will ultimately take more time and effort. I definitely feel for you! Hopefully, the more you continue to share your progress and next steps, your sponsor will come to recognize and rely on your expertise more and more.

Wishing you all the best!

Many thanks for reading and commenting too, Indigo!

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Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ June 16, 2015 at 4:23 pm

Absolutely fabulous insights and lessons learned Alli. You are so gracious to share your personal stories with everyone.

I have several stories from my consulting journey. Perhaps when we finally meet in person we can share them!

Fantastic post.
Best,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

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Alli Polin June 17, 2015 at 8:02 pm

I have a million from my years in consulting. Shared this one hoping it will help others.

Grateful for your support and connection! Look forward to the opportunity to sit face to face and swap stories 🙂

Best,

Alli

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Scott Mabry June 16, 2015 at 10:52 pm

Wonderful story and great advice Alli. Thank you!

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Alli Polin June 17, 2015 at 8:02 pm

Many thanks, Scott! Your feedback means a lot!

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Jacky June 18, 2015 at 7:29 am

Hi Alli, thanks for sharing! My biggest learning when I started my business 2 years ago was to always stick to what I believe will create value for the client. And sticking to what I am good at. Giving other work to colleagues who are better at something I do not like to do (energy drain) or are not good at. If that means losing business, so be it. At least I have been honest. Things I have encountered by observing many other consultants in client systems which caused a breech of trust and an end of the relationship are also worth while mentioning:

Being too comfortable with a client, expecting they will keep buying from you without you maintaining a close and honest relationship, overcharging without justifying your work or without having in between check-ins to discern value for money, not sharing anything personal / private about yourself with a client (and they start wondering who you are, really?), bad mouthing other external consultants in the system, engaging in internal gossip and secrecy, flaunting internally that you hang out with the CEO scaring people away, sharing confidential information about a person with another person in the system, using copyrights and IP of others claiming it is your invention (truth will always come out), fully avoiding courageous conversations with the client when there is an emerging conflict and then blame your client for ‘unethical’ behaviour, writing demeaning blogs about your client (because you feel mistreated) in which they can recognise themselves, not being critical towards your client (pushing back respectfully when you do not believe a service will create value), introducing collaboration partners to your clients too soon without really knowing them and then find yourself in a precarious position due to this person’s behaviour. Boy I have seen it all in my short 2 years as an entrepreneur! Discernment, openness, intimacy, honesty, clarity and believing in creating value together (including saying no when it does not) are key for me. I learned a lot from observing other consultants in client systems nationally and internationally and I decided to ALWAYS start and maintain intimate client relationships from a place of abundance and honesty (trusting that it will lead to meaningful work), not from a place of scarcity (trying to make money). I love your statement about ‘the speed of whisper’. So true!

Looking forward to that coffee one day 🙂
Thanks again for a great post. We never stop learning!

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Alli Polin June 18, 2015 at 8:27 am

Jacky! Thank you for not only reading but also your generous comment. As I was reading I was nodding right along. I too have realized in my business that all work that comes my way is not the right work for me to say yes to in the end. Money is great but a match between passion, skills, needs and value matter immensely.

I worked for one of the world’s largest consulting firms for over a decade and then for a very small shop too before starting my own business. In all cases, I saw countless examples of the behaviors you mentioned. I hope that if my old client (from approx 15 years ago – wow!) recognized himself and the story he would feel like I addressed it with integrity and learned from the experience. I see many consultants who never stop and learn (or so it would seem) and take on approaches and personas that make me question how the clients continue to engage them.

Truly grateful for your insights and sharing. Also, YES!! Here’s to a future coffee in Amsterdam… or NY 🙂

Best,

Alli

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LaRae Quy June 18, 2015 at 12:34 pm

I love how you wove your own story and experiences through this article—very powerful!

I know I often to tend to think I’ve gotten the whole story and then spout off suggestions and/or directions without having a real handle on what is going on. I jump to conclusions based on what I think I’ve heard…often those conclusions are biased and heavily influenced by my own perception of how things should unfold.

Love this post…great advice for coaches and consultants!

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Alli Polin June 18, 2015 at 11:47 pm

Thanks, LaRae! It took a long time for me to share it and own it. The sting lasted for a while.

Like you, I will assume I have the full scoop – and act. Sometimes there’s more. This was one of those times, but as the consultant, I had a responsibility to help him make informed decisions and fell short.

Appreciate your insights and feedback! Thanks!

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Chery Gegelman June 19, 2015 at 12:01 am

Great post Alli!

Thank you for sharing your hard-learned lessons. Those are the ones that alter my behavior the most!

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Patricia July 6, 2015 at 7:52 pm

Always a source of great learning. I have just started pitching organizational clients with whom I would hope to have a transformational relationship that pays well. I am using all of the insight from your post and the comments until I can afford to work with you directly.

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Alli Polin July 9, 2015 at 12:33 pm

Patricia,

Thanks so much for reading, sharing and your feedback too! I’ve worked in consulting since the early 90’s and the learning never ends. Glad this is helpful. Wishing you all the best as you expand your business with organizational clients!

Best,

Alli

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