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Episode 242: What Consulting Clients Really Want—with Heather Gates

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. So, this episode is really special because you're going to get a chance to hear from a consulting client.

And this is a client who I've actually worked with for a very long time, Heather Gates. She's the CEO of this. It's a fabulous organization. And she's going to share with you why they look for consultants, when they use consultants, what they like, what they don't like, all of this great insider information directly from her. If you listen to it, you'll be able to get more clients and then delight them when you do, so they keep bringing you back for more.

So, let's get started. I want to welcome to the show today, Heather Gates. Heather, welcome to the show.

Heather Gates: Hi, it's good to see you. Thanks for having me.

Deb Zahn: You know, how excited I am to have you on because you're going to give us the client perspective. But before we dive into that, tell my listeners what you do.

Heather Gates: I am the President and CEO at Community Health Resources, and so I have the lucky job of running the organization and leading us forward.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful! And so, as people can tell, this is actually a true bona fide client. Actually, you've been a client of mine for a very, very long time. I've had the privilege of working with you for 10 years, something like that. That sounds right. And what a lot of consultants don't get the benefit of is like hearing from a client, what they like, what they don't like, what they want to see, and what they don't want to see.

And so there, and there, you can't replace that with hearsay. So, I thought this would be great to have you on. In fact, I thought one of the most important first things we could talk about is when we first worked together.

Heather Gates: It went awry.

Deb Zahn: I'm sure you remember that quite well. And I think there's a really important lesson in that.

So, I thought we might start here in terms of you came to me, hired me to help you with some things, and then you want to say what happened?

Heather Gates: Yeah, well, and it's interesting because working with you was the first time, we'd really worked with a content expert. Yeah, as opposed to somebody facilitating our strategic planning process, which is what we were working on.

And then, you brought someone in to work with us who wasn't terribly good at meeting timetables or the expectations or the deliverables. And what started out as a really great relationship with you directly. Then, working with this other individual did not work as well, so we had to kind of course correct there as we went along.

Deb Zahn: And the big lesson for me is that I brought in someone I didn't know. I brought in two people. One I knew and I knew he could deliver. And then there was another person I didn't know. And it was a big lesson that, that let any consultant listen to this, not have to learn it on their own, which is if you bring someone in…anyone you're working with, you are lending them your credibility, and you darn well better make sure that they're up to snuff.

And that they will earn that every step of the way with the client because you were wonderful in calling me and saying, “Hey, this ain't working. Let's course correct.” Other clients might not have been so generous, and they might just say, this isn't working. There's plenty of other folks I could work with.

See you later. So, that was a first big lesson. And then luckily, things went much better after that. But when you're considering hiring a client, what are the types of things that are often going on for you that you're like, look, we got to bring in someone to help us?

Heather Gates: Generally, as a CEO of an organization, I'm thinking about bringing in a consultant when we feel like we're over our head when they're or and it could be either over our head with process improvement or with content.

Sometimes, generally speaking, it's both. And so, you recognize as an organization when you really could benefit from additional expertise and in a lot of ways. Just a different voice, as well as somebody who will say to you you may think, you know what you're doing, but you really don't.

And this is, you want to consider these other ways of pursuing something. And I think it takes a certain humility as an organization and, certainly, as a leader to know when you are over your head and when you would benefit from that external help and direction. You know, just having someone else kind of guide a process.

The other time when I think it's really critical and usually this is all mixed together, is when facilitating a process is best done by someone outside the organization. Either your board needs that, your management team needs that, or you as the leader need it, which ends up being hugely important to many processes.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, a third, sometimes that third party just lends a little more credibility or distance, or you don't have the baggage that someone else might have when you're going in. Or sometimes I get brought in as a third-party validator and people are like, but I've said that for some reason a consultant says it and suddenly a board member can hear it.

Heather Gates: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's funny…it's almost like it's a given that it has to be somebody outside of the state that you're in. If it's somebody inside the state, they can say the exact same thing as somebody who's from somewhere else. But there is something about the credibility that sort of that neutral person brings to the process.

Deb Zahn: Love it. So, when you're like, all right, we're in over our head, or we need this extra something to come in and help us. What are you looking for when you're thinking, who do I want to actually hire? What qualities or attributes are you looking for in a consultant?

Heather Gates: A number of things really. Somebody who is timely in their response about things and that is particularly critical.

When you're working with a large group, you're trying to move something through a process, whether it's a strategic plan, looking at internal processes, that timeliness is really critical. Somebody who's a good fit with the person who's doing the hiring, you have to have a rapport.

And an ability to really talk to each other and work through issues that come up. That's critical. There's got to be good, strong content knowledge. One of my pet peeves is it drives me crazy if I've hired somebody to do X, Y, and Z with us, and in the end, I really know more than they do about what I just hired them to do, which has never been the case, I will happily say with you.

But you really want to know if the person is putting themselves out there as an expert. That they're genuinely an expert in the area that you're trying, that you need help with.

Deb Zahn: And that can be a problem with particularly a lot of new consultants who have a hard time like putting a stake in the ground and say, this is what I am particularly good at.

And so they think they need to say, I can do everything for everyone, which isn't believable and it shouldn't be believable. You can't. But putting that stake in the ground and saying, if you need this type of support, help, etc., there isn't anyone better to go to than me. If it's over here, I'm not the best person.

And I've had those conversations. You've asked for things. Sometimes I'm like, I am definitely not that person. But this person's very good at that. That's their bread and butter. That's what they do.

Heather Gates: Correct. Correct. And that's important when I think about all the work we've done together over the years. You've often brought in very different people with different areas of expertise, and it's very targeted to what we need at that particular moment.

And I've appreciated that. It means we're getting really good advice and good direction. And that's been something that you kind of own as well. And so that's been great. It's really been helpful.

Deb Zahn: And it's fun to be a consultant with other folks in the mix then you also learn more and you know, it doesn't mean you're an expert at something, but you definitely learn more and you get to see how other people operate now.

There are some consultants who have been told by people who aren't me that they need to have a very precise model, the very defined steps, precise model, something off the shelf that they can go and sell to different folks. Is that ever something that you have found attractive or interesting? Or is that something that you're like, yeah, that's not us.

Heather Gates: You know, I, I actually generally find those things to be pretty annoying. Every organization has different needs and issues going on. And if you're going through a process and particularly strategic planning, which is. One that can be fairly lengthy at times you're trying to bring in a lot of information, assimilate it, and then decide what you're going to do and what direction you will go in.

You never know within that process when you're going to hit some things that where you need to really change direction. And so I find it really challenging to work with somebody who's got their way of doing it. They're not flexible with their client. And you do, you get stuck at a certain point and sort of feel like, wow, I'm working with this person.

I guess I got to continue, but it's not really what I'm looking for. It's not benefiting us. In the process and then, and usually it's not going to result in a good product in the end.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Although they'll keep billing you no matter what. But you, you mentioned switching things up, which is something when we work together, I think we do really well. There are human beings involved.

There's new things that come up. And even with something like strategic planning, there are people who do strategic planning who they do this and a SWOT analysis and they do that and they think there's only one way to do it. We had the pleasure of working on one recently. It wasn't like any strategic planning process that I'd done before and we're using a new model that I hadn't used before.

And we got deeper than we would get if we were just grabbing the same thing. So, even if you don't have a precise model, if you keep just going to the same elements, you're not necessarily going to get to the depth or the breadth you need to help clients make good decisions.

Heather Gates: It's absolutely right.

Deb Zahn: Absolutely right. And I think this last time is a great example of that. And it may have been we're partway through the pandemic or coming out of it that then you're sort of open to anything. You know, it's exactly such a wild three years. I was like, well, all right, well, let's try this.

Cause you never know. But it really resulted in a good understanding of what our challenges were and then what are some of those opportunities were out there and we might not have gotten to those if we had actually even done it the way we've done it previously, which I think has always been pretty flexible.

Heather Gates: Yeah, yeah, I think it's been different every time we've done it, and this time we had to go deep partly because the pandemic threw everything off so much and made it rough for people. We had to apply a different process.

Deb Zahn: Absolutely, absolutely. So, what other than the annoying, I pulled this off the shelf, darn it, and this is what we're going to do with you.

What else would turn you off if you were looking at a consultant and thinking, I don't think they're going to be for us.

Heather Gates: Well, price that matters. You got to know going into something, can you afford the person or not? Yep. If the organization is not in a position to pay for the consultation they need, they really need to appreciate that and, and figure that out.

And you need to figure it out in advance it doesn't work to get halfway through a process only to go, Oh my gosh, this is costing us way more than we expected. I guess the other sort of part of that is, it's really helpful if, if you have a limit to be talking to your consultant about that in the beginning and setting, saying, OK, when we hit certain number of hours, you need to tell me we're at that point.

And then if you need to readjust, you can do that. The other thing is, is more sort of just respectful stuff. Like, I don't want to work with a consultant who's ever going to yell at me. I don't want to work with somebody who's late to meetings, somebody who doesn't show up fully present.

It's almost when you think about the things you expect from the people you work with, you want the same things from a consultant that you're working with.

Deb Zahn: And the yelling, by the way, apparently isn't off the table for some consultants. I've seen some consultants do that. And I'm like, who do you think you are talking to someone like that?

Heather Gates: Correct. Arrogance is another quality that I'm not particularly fond of and then just a fundamental lack information. Again, that goes back to that element of whether the person is really capable of delivering what they say they're going to deliver.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And I think also for consultants, even if, if we're not working directly with another consultant, if they're in our sphere and, and if you see something, say something. If you see bad behavior, you need to, you need to call it out.

I actually don't think you know this story. I was working with someone else, and it was a female CEO. And it was this male consultant from this other firm. And I'm in a meeting. She starts to speak, and he literally shushed her. He said, shh. And I thought my head was going to explode. I grabbed him immediately after that meeting and I said, under no circumstances will you ever speak to her that way again.

She didn't know how to handle it. She was so shocked that anyone would do that. But I called him out and I said, “That was sexist as hell. I will never want to see that again. And if I do, I'm not going to wait until after the meeting. Just so you know.” I think it's important for other consultants to do.

We know why consultants get a bad name. And if we, if we want to change that, then we have to speak up when we actually see it. If we see a consultant gouging someone, which they do, if we see a consultant selling and then bringing in people who don't know anything about the topic, we should say something. We should help our clients make sure that they actually get what they need.

Heather Gates: Well, how true because and you know, it's interesting. I have not, I don't think I have ever had the experience of a consultant making me feel sort of belittled. Or anything, but you know, there are times when if you're with somebody who's really an expert on something, you can feel kind of out of your league, and so I think one of the qualities that is great ,and a consultant is even if they really know a lot more than you do about something.

You don't, in the end, feel like you're incompetent. That's right. Their job is to sort of help you learn and come along, in a way that leaves you in one piece, both emotionally and otherwise, so that you feel like, oh, OK, this was a really helpful process, not something where I'd walk out the door and sort of feel, wow, I really didn't know what I was doing.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, and I should go work at Burger King. What the heck? Well, and that gets to the sort of client experience, which I tend to define value in what consultants do is value equals results plus experience. And experience isn't a naturally occurring phenomenon that only that it's only excellent most of the time.

And so what are, what are some of the ways, and you've mentioned some of the things you don't like, which the reverse of those I imagine are what you like, but what have you experienced where you're like, that is, that was such a good experience, that aside from the actual results we got, that just felt right.

Heather Gates: I think that there are two parts to that. There's the work that happens kind of in the meetings, in the discussions. What you think of as the contracted work. You know, the scope of work. You're doing those meetings and that work together, and that works well.

What I have also found helpful and probably one of the things that I most value about the relationship we've had over time is it's all that stuff that happens outside of that formal process. So, it's the, Oh gosh, I need to ask Deb X, Y, and Z. And I email you or call you. And I say this is going on, what's your advice?

And so that feeling of, it's a collegial connection that obviously starts with that initial work, but really just evolves into a relationship that is more about how you work through problems and issues. It's sort of inside and outside the contract and not to the point where you're like my personal consultant on every issue that comes up.

But when I run into different issues, I have never thought twice about reaching out to you. And that's hugely valuable.

Deb Zahn: And that's the tone to set. I mean, a lot of new consultants have problems sometimes with boundaries and so they end up doing a whole bunch of things for free.

But my feeling is, particularly if I'm working with someone, I care about them, I care about what they're doing, I care about the impact they're having in the world. It doesn't bother me. And you're one of the folks that I've worked with that can do it. Pick up a call, call me any time. I ultimately care about what's right for you and also look out for opportunities.

So, I actually mentioned you in a meeting earlier today when somebody was talking about something happening in your state and I didn't hear behavioral health providers. And I said, Hey, but what about. So, sometimes a really good consultant also looks for threats and opportunities and is a voice when they happen to be in the room and nobody else is saying something.

And it doesn't matter if you're getting paid for it or not, it should be something you're doing.

Heather Gates: Right. Right. And I've felt that often when we've talked about something, and I know you're kind of looking out for us both as an individual organization and as a representative of the field.

And so it's good to know that if you are in that kind of conversation, you're not compartmentalizing. Oh I've been working with CHR over here, but I'm working with so and so over here. And so therefore never, never the two shall meet. And that's a huge value, and in all honesty, that's a value of really good relationships.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Which at the end of the day is what it's about.

Heather Gates: Correct. Correct. And whether it's with a consultant, whether it's with a state agency, a federal agency those relationships are, are very often how the work gets done in a way that is much more positive than how it might get done otherwise.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And I think consultants who are going to be really good and also have a robust business and all of that, know that and build that into what their day-to-day life is like. Like I'm not fielding like random calls from people all the time. It's not what my life, but there are certain folks I work with that I know if something's going down, I'm going to reach out to them or they're going to reach out to me.

And I consider that a normal part of my business. That's not an anomaly. OK.

Heather Gates: Right, right, right. The other thing that I have found over time is even, so you've given me a lot of advice over the years. And there are times when I've taken that advice and there are times when I haven't taken that advice.

And I'm sure there are times when I haven't taken the advice, you sort of thought, God Heather like, you really need to pay attention to this. And, yet I don't ever feel like you come back later and say, see, I told you, you really should have done X, Y, and Z.

You're very much about sort of let's look at what's happening now, figure out what's the best strategy, and moving on. You know, you're not trying to do my job. You're trying to help me do my job better. Oh, goodness.

Deb Zahn: No. And the thing is, is that your clients have agency, and you want them to, you don't actually want to work with a client that struggles with agency.

That's not a fun engagement and just is going to take whatever you do and do it, but not. It'd be really a, a deliberate decision. Deliberate decisions are how changes actually get made. That's how innovation happens. That's how everything else happens. And so part of the gig is, yeah, sometimes you don't take my advice and sometimes that's a bad decision and sometimes that's a good decision and sometimes it's a neutral decision.

And that's OK. That's again part of any, I mean, that's describes any relationship that we have in any other aspect of our lives. And it works the same way in consulting. So, if you were standing in front of a new consultant and you were saying, look, let me give you some advice. What would, what would be one of the top things that you tell them that you haven't mentioned already?

First and foremost, establish trust with your client. And you do that by incrementally building on deliverables. So, pay attention to how much you can deliver, how many, maybe how many other clients you're managing at the time. And really, really make sure you can deliver the, the worst thing you can do is to take on too much.

Heather Gates: And then if you can't produce what you've promised very quickly, the trust gets eroded. And so that is important. Just being accessible. Being available. All those fundamentals I mentioned about beyond time and the basics are pretty important. know when to bring in other people.

You know, I think that's pretty crucial our field is complex and problem solving is hardly ever one dimensional. So, helping the client as a consultant figure out what expertise might they have internally already and what other expertise needs to be brought to the table is, is going to be really helpful and useful.

And then boy, communicate, communicate, communicate that is. And so if it is not a good fit, just own it and move on. Cause the worst thing is when you're working with somebody and you get to a point and you know, it's just not going to work and neither party wants to say that. And they worry about hurting somebody's feelings or whatever it may be.

So, that's also really critical. So, checking in frequently about is this, or are your needs getting met? Is this working well? Are we doing what you want? That kind of thing.

Deb Zahn: Right. And that could also be caused by something shifts in the market. There's something new that happens and maybe you were a fit 10 minutes ago, but guess what?

You aren't now. And I think, and what I always tell other consultants is when the switches like that happen and you can't be the person that helps them, you have to not think about it as lost revenue. You have to think about it as gain trust, gain trust, enhanced relationship, enhanced accredibility. And since having a robust business is no different than having a robust organization. It's a marathon, not a sprint, then over the long term, that's going to serve you better than freaking out Oh my gosh, but that means I'm not going to get that money in my pocket.

Heather Gates: Correct. Correct. And also realizing that when all is said and done, it's a small world, very small. So, if things are not working with that client, we'll eventually talk with some other potential client and that that will really affect reputation. So, that's why that honesty and that communication is so critical so that you preserve your reputation even if the fit was not great.

You sort of honorably handle how it's not working.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I love it. So, Heather, this has been such invaluable information. I forgot to tell you this. I always ask the same last question on my podcast.

And I'm just going to jump at it. I think I actually know that you have a great answer for this, but how do you bring balance to your life, however it is you define that?

Heather Gates: Oh, golly, this is one of my favorite questions. I think it's so important for all of us. So, I bring balance to my life through being outside, hiking, exercising, gardening, being with my children when I'm able to, my adult children now. They live in great places. My son lives in Idaho and my daughter lives in Puerto Rico. So, I have wonderful, wonderful places to visit. I love to cook.

And at work I rely on my team. I really try to, I don't try to take on working on things that are not my area of expertise. So, if we need to do something with our budget, I turn to my CFO. I don't try and do it myself.

I use the Calm app now, which I love. And we bought it for all of our staff so that everybody who works here has access to it.

You know, I think that answering that question is so personal. Everybody does it a different way, but we all learned the last three years that attending to that is really critical and almost lifesaving to some degree. So, I feel lucky that I have a wonderful life, and the advantage of many years of doing this and some insight finally into how to achieve that work, that balance in my life.

But I feel pretty fortunate.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Well, Heather, thank you again so much. This has been fabulous. I wish I could have had this conversation when I was a brand-new consultant. This would have helped me solve some problems early on.

Heather Gates: Well, you've as, as a consultant, you've helped us be a better client. So, I've learned a lot working with you over the years. So, thank you.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up in a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything.

But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those. And then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it. Share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up.

So, as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode.

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