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Episode 27: What Not to Do When Consulting—with Deb Zahn and Guests

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to Episode 27 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. So I'm going to have a little fun today. I'm going to do another mashup of previous podcast guests who all are going to answer one question and that is: what should consultants never do? So if consultants want to build up a robust practice and delight their clients and keep them coming back for more, what are the things that no matter what, flat out, do not do these things? And so each of these past guests answered that question and the first is from Episode 4, Dana Rosenstreich, and she's actually a client. So you get a chance to hear it from a client perspective of things that she never wants consultants to do and she's hired a whole bunch over the years. Then we're going to hear from 3 consultants who each have a very different take on what consultants should never do. The first is from Episode 10, Kenya Rutland, then we'll hear from Meg Schilkie from Episode 11, and then Episode 18 finishes us off with Libby Post.

Now if you get a chance, also listen to my last episode, Episode 26 with Kate Breslin, that's another client who has hired a bunch of different consultants, is going to talk about some of the things that she likes and doesn't like. One of the things she doesn't like is don't over promise and under deliver. So that's a really great tip for new consultants.

But before we listen to my past podcast guests, I actually want to give you two of my own tips for things consultants should never do if they want to build up a wildly successful practice. So the first one is: don't focus on money, focus on value when you're engaging with perspective clients. Now you're starting a business or you're working at a firm, obviously money and revenue matters. So I'm not saying that it doesn't, but if a prospective client gets even a whiff that it's only about the money for you and it's not about them, it's really going to turn them off and it's going to be harder for you to get clients. So you want to focus on value and you want to demonstrate that in all your interactions with them. So you're asking them questions to get a better understanding of what they need. You've done your research to understand sort of who they are and what context they operate in. And you're really focused on what are the things that you can do to help them. And if you can't, you're going to send them to someone who can, or you're going to tell them you can't help them, which sounds really tough to do, particularly when you're building up your business. But remember they're going to tell other people about you and you want them to tell other people, "Wow, she really seemed to care." So even if they don't hire you, you want to make sure that they say the right things about you. And that should be this person, he or she, absolutely cares about value and I could really feel that when I was in a room. So, that's one tip.

Deb Zahn: The second tip is particularly for new consultants who are trying to figure out how they're going to charge their clients. And there's lots of different ways to do it and I have lots of information on my website about the different ways to charge. But the thing I will tell you is do not underprice yourself. I actually had a couple new consultants ask me recently if they thought it made sense as a strategy to charge less at the beginning to try and build up a client base and then raise their rates later once they start to build up a business. And my advice to them was absolutely don't do that. And there's two main reasons I would not do that. The first is it's going to be hard to change it later. So once the market knows what it is you charge for something, it doesn't mean you can't change it later, it's just, you know, you're probably going to end up having some tricky conversations explaining why you're charging somebody else one thing and someone else something drastically different. That's more on the technical side.

Really from a brand perspective, the reason I wouldn't do that is that price signals value. So if you underprice yourself or price yourself at the low end of the market, what clients are going to think is, "Oh, OK, bargain-basement price means bargainbasement value." And you don't want to have that attached to your brand. You want to be fair and you want to price it for what's reasonable for the market, but you want to price it based on the value that you know that you can really bring folks. And when they see that price, it doesn't mean they're not going to kick the tires to make sure that they're actually going to get value out of that price, but it signals to them that they're dealing with someone at the higher end and they're going to deal with someone who's likely going to be able to help them much more than a bargain-basement consultant.

So those are my top two tips, and I have a whole lot more, but I think it's more important to hear from my guest. So let's get started.

Episode 4-Dana Rosenstreich

Deb Zahn: If you had a brand-new consultant in front of you, someone who's been a professional before but now they're going to be a consultant, what would you tell them, flat out, "Don't do this!”

Dana Rosenstreich: Don't sell. Don't go into the conversation selling. That will happen. If you build that trust and you build a relationship, you will have a long-standing relationship as finances allow. Right? So I'm in state government. Everybody knows that the financial constraints on state and federal governments is intense right now. I don't always have money to spend, but, when I do have money to spend, I'm going to go back to those trusted partners and try to work with them if I can. I mean, obviously, there are contracting laws and all that kind of stuff, absolutely, but you want to build that relationship. Don't try to sell because it's so unattractive when the first and only conversation you have is about the next thing that you can sell your client. Let's get going on what we engage with and then move on.

Deb Zahn: Right because you can tell the difference between the person that walks in because they care and they care about your problem and they're trying to figure out if they can help you, and the person who's got dollar signs in their eyes. It gets icky. Same goes with upselling. The notion that your head isn't fully in this game and you tell me if this is true. There's no way clients can't tell that's happening.

Dana Rosenstreich: We all know, and we've come out of conversations like, "OK, I feel like I've got to take a shower." That was yucky. Right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah. So, step one, don't make your prospective client feel like they have to bathe after engaging with you. I think that's a fair request.

Yeah, anything else that you would either, absolutely want to see or absolutely not see?

Dana Rosenstreich: Well, I hate to focus on the negative, but I do think have to choose your terminology really well. So, to not use consultant speak and buzz words that you see in the industry. And every industry has that. Don't do that. That's not good unless you really can own whatever it is that that term risk was referring to, but “operating models” and that, kind of, too high-level conversation…no. Don't do it. Don't do that.

Deb Zahn: So plain language goes a long way.

Dana Rosenstreich: It does and you want to make sure everybody understands where you're coming from. I mean, I would imagine that if a consultant's going into an engagement, they're there for a reason. They have experience. Use that. You don't have to gloss it over with terms and silly stuff that makes it sound different than it is. Talk real. Talk real.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I love that. Anything else that you either really want to see or really not see?

Dana Rosenstreich: I really like the consultants who try to understand where you're coming from and don't, sort of, gloss over some of the risks and challenges that we have, especially in state government. State government is a really special place. So we have challenges that no one really understands and things that are just not easily overcome, but the relationships inside state government and the interactions between organizational structures and the confines that are there for states to really move ahead in certain areas, they're real. And don't assume that those are simple tasks to get through.

I think that, for many state engagements, there'll be a consulting company that just, sort of, poo-poos real major problems that we have in just doing something simple. Procurement law is unbelievably complicated in every state, but in our state, it's extremely complicated and troublesome. Getting the finances established for moving forward with certain projects can be very, very challenging. And it doesn't matter the amount. It could be a small amount or it could be a huge amount. The challenge is usually the same. Sometimes the smaller amount ones are more troublesome than the larger ones.

Understanding what those relationships are. For engagements that require multiple organizations to come together and agree in stakeholder management, don't underestimate that that type of activity takes a long time. There's a lot of history of why one state agency doesn't play well with another state agency, why their visions don't integrate well. So I think the better consulting engagements are when there's a recognition of those. So gloss over that stuff as if it's just, "Eh, no big deal," because, "Eh, no big deal," is usually the major reason why something will fail.

Episode 10-Kenya Rutland

Oh boy, lessons learned? Well, I tell you what, one thing I would actually say pretty demonstrably is: "Don't chase money." But I would say that from the standpoint of, sometimes we see the gig and the dollars and cents, but don't think about all that needs to be done to get to the dollars and cents. And you wind up paying the client for working with them. When it's all said and done, if you follow me?

Deb Zahn: Oh yeah.

Kenya Rutland: I've had gigs where I was like, "Well, somehow, I feel like I'm thanking you for letting me work with you because all the time I'm spending, is huge.” So I think that that is really important. I'm not chasing just the dollar. I mean, there's a big gig, I'd say, "Go nail it." But it's an idea of nailing it for the right reason. I think another thing, too, is being careful who your partners are. You could get pulled into scenarios where your name, your brand, you are forever connected to something that's not good. And I think it's important to have people that have business acumen or business savvy around you, if you're going to partner with them, or at least, and I'd say it this way, at least they're going to bring you up, or more so than, "We're in the same plane, and we can be the blind leading the blind."

And the significance of that is I think that if we surround ourselves with groupthink, and people that are doing things, we're not really going to really move the needle in the right way. Or we might miss something really big. And I think for me, I found myself in a scenario where I had the business savvy, I didn't have the facilitation skills, and I'd connect with people who had a little bit more facilitation skills, but they didn't have business skills. And so when I go land a gig, that was big money or that seemed like it was a larger revenue generator, I think it was sourcing dollars and we start losing quality, the authenticity of the work is there.

And again, that's an easy problem to have, or you want to buy a new this or buy a new that or, "Oh this feels really good. We're making money." I think the other thing that I would say, don’t do is, don't make your life your business. And what I mean by that is, I live KJR Consulting. I don't have any ink or tattoos. But I thought what am I going to get? Maybe it was going to be the tagline, “Get Enthused. Make it Happen” for years. More actually like, "You bonehead, can you not make it about work.” And I guess our premise was like, "What, are you going to look at your arm every day and be reminded of work? It'd be really nice if you put the kids or something like that.”

So it's just like the idea that you have to let go sometimes. And I've gotten to a place now where I can take a vacation. And I have a number two who's amazing. And she said to me, "I'm not bothering you on your vacation. If I find that you are checking email, I'm going to actually tell you and the client, both that you're on vacation. And have it be that they'll reach out to me.” So I have someone that's like calling me out on that. And not everybody has that to start, but I think we over prioritize it, if there's such a word, our business, it starts to feel like everything's about work and your kids, your wife, your husband, your partner, how we...whomever it is in your life, or people or things around you start to suffer, because everything's about the job.

I love to golf. I love sporting events. I just got a bike last weekend. A Mother’s Day gift is we got bikes. And the cool part about it was I rode a bike for the first time, with an intent to go somewhere. For the first time I bet you, Deb, in maybe 20 years, it was the greatest feeling of just being there on a bike not even a motorcycle can take that. But it was like a great feeling, which I don't have time for a bike, I got to get in my car to hurry up and get somewhere because I’ve got to hurry and get back and do more work. It’s the general mindset. Don't forget to take care of yourself.

And remember the people and things around you that are going to make you show up as somebody who's not wired and crazy, trying to hurry up and finish the gig because you got to go, but instead say like, "Hey, we got to take care of some stuff today. My job is to bring some peace to this space, bring some enthusiasm to this space today and help you get through your challenge." And I think that as we run our businesses, as we saturate the market because there's a lot of consultants, they wanted to be the best people they got at work, think about the things that are going to really help you remember, "I've been in my life journey.”

And I fast forward to wanting to have my two older kids be in my business and work in my field, and I think about what would it feel like if I have my grandkids on my lap one day, and they're looking at their parents and saying, "This firm has been great. It must be nice working for Grandpa?" Or whatever they will call me right? And I can say “It’s been a great run.” And when legacy, which I hope to have one that's good, when biology calls and it's my time to go, people can look back and say, "That firm made an impact." But more importantly, "That guy was a good guy. He was balanced in the way he did his stuff." That's something that I really value and that I love to be able to say, in whatever time my time is up and I’m there.

Episode 11-Meggan Schilkie

Meggan Schilkie: I don't overly “yes” clients. So one of the things for me when I was a new consultant starting out. I know I was sort of eager to please, right? It was a new role with new functions and new relationship. And I had this idea that the client is always right. To be responsive to them. And so I think I was a little eager to please. On the “yes” side. You have to balance that.

And one of the ways to do that, is to remember that, mostly they're hiring you for your expertise and your advice. And so that means telling them things sometimes that are harder to hear. And learning to do that in a way that they can hear it. So being able to say things like, "I know you're going in this direction, and you think this is the right thing to do. But can we possibly step back for just a moment, make sure we have looked at all our options. That you're making the most informed decision that you can make. That you have all the data and information available to you to make this really important decision."

Not to sound like you're upselling or elongating the process. But to just make sure that you really want them to be as successful as possible. And so that would be one of the top things I would say.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Any other don't that's sort of a burning don't for you.

Meggan Schilkie: I would say don't try to be all things to all clients. Right? That's the other piece of the equation that is easy to fall into. We're not all experts in everything. We can't possibly be. It's OK if a problem or an issue arises for you that you observe or identify with your client or they identify for you to say, "You know what? Not the right person for this. This is a little bit outside my expertise. But I will absolutely help you find another consultant. Or, if necessary, another firm or another resource to help you get this problem solved."

Rather than trying to sort of blindly stumble forward and be all things to them and answer all of their issues or problems or questions. Even when some of them may fall outside your expertise. That can be hard to do. But it's really important, and it demonstrates your integrity as a consultant. And it demonstrates that you care about them and their needs and making sure they get met. Not about selling them consulting services or billing them for the work you're doing and trying to do everything for them.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Because, ultimately, it's about value. And you want to make sure they get it. And clients love it when that happens and they don't always experience it. So it's a good thing for them to know that at the end of the day, you know it's about them.

Episode 18-Libby Post

Libby Post: Don't give it away for free.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Libby Post: I mean, I can't stress that enough. The other thing that you don't do and here's the why, don't sell your soul to the highest bidder because you have to be able to sleep at night.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Libby Post: You have to be able to get up in the morning. When I do political work, I have a litmus test. Candidates that I work for have to be pro-choice and pro-LGBT rights. I don't care if they're running for dogcatcher because the person who runs for dogcatcher today runs for the state Senate tomorrow and ends up being a US senator or something even higher than that.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Libby Post: You know, stay true to who you are and your values, especially if your values drive the work that you do.

Deb Zahn: Right. Yeah. I have given folks that advice before because I only do what I consider mission work and have done extremely well. I haven't had to do anything besides mission work, which actually gets me more work because my clients recognize that I am in it for exactly the same reasons that they are.

But I know a lot of new consultants who are just worried about paying the bills and it's tough to say no. And I always say that saying no in that moment is the best thing to do, and you've got to save shelf space for the things that are truly meaningful to you.

Libby Post: Right. Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: If you don't it's easy to go down a path and wake up one morning and you wonder, "Why the heck am I doing this?"

Libby Post: Right. Right.

Deb Zahn: I want to thank you so much for listening to Episode 27 of the Craft Of Consulting podcast. I'm going to have a lot of other great guests and content that are going to be on the show. So don't miss anything. Hit subscribe, and, as always, you can go to my website at You can also dig in there if you want more information on how to set what your prices based on value, as well as information about different types of fee structures, if you're figuring that out. And then lots of things on dos and don'ts for consultants and lots of things on how to have life balance because that's one of the things that's near and dear to my heart. So, thanks so much. I'll talk with you on the next episode. Bye, bye.

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