Episode 4: What Clients Want From Consultants—with Dana Rosenstreich
Deb Zahn: Welcome to Episode 4 of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. My guest today is Dana Rosenstreich. Today's episode is a little bit different because, instead of hearing from other consultants, we're going to get the client's perspective on consultants. Dana works at New York State government and has had a lot of experience working, and overseeing, consultants. She's going to share with us what she likes and what she doesn't like to see and experience from consultants. Then, she's also going to tell us what she thinks the ideal consultant would be if she could build one from scratch. These are the exact types of insights from the other side that can really help you excel as a consultant. That's why I'm so thrilled that she was able to join us and willing to share this information with us. So let's get started.
Deb Zahn: I want to welcome my guest today to the podcast. I have Dana Rosenstreich with me. Dana, welcome.
Dana Rosenstreich: Thank you for having me.
Deb Zahn: It's a delight to have you on. Tell me a little bit about what you do. What kind of work do you do?
Dana Rosenstreich: I work for New York State in the Office of Information Technology Services. My title is Executive Director, but that's actually, sort of, like a baby CIO for a smaller grouping of business areas. So there's the New York State CIO. Underneath the New York State CIO are multiple Executive Directors for all the different state agencies.
Deb Zahn: Got it. And I know that New York State generally does work with a lot of consultants. Do you folks often work with consultants?
Dana Rosenstreich: We work with a lot of consultants and sort of in two different ways, probably more than two, but for my position it is really two. I have individual staff augmentation consultants. Those are hired individually and they work directly for my managers and report to those managers. They may have individual deliverables, but they're generally hired for a longer period of time. They come in and they operate similar to any other employee. We also have larger consulting engagements where we’ll have a consulting firm perform short- or long-term engagements that's outlined in a contract with deliverable, timeframes, and expectations. Those are two different categories of consulting that I interact with.
Deb Zahn: It sounds like two tracks. I would imagine, because it's true with a lot of states, for the augmented positions, that's for positions that you couldn't fill as permanent positions but you still need people performing those functions. The other ones are for whatever that project is. Does that sound about right?
Dana Rosenstreich: Typically, when I hire for staff augmentation, it's for a specialized skill that I either can't get in a state position or it's for a shorter-term engagement. You wouldn't want to have the operating cost of having somebody on staff that would perform those types of skills. Or it's a skill I can't find easily within the State workforce.
Deb Zahn: Got it. So, critical to what you do, you have to have somebody in that seat doing that.
Dana Rosenstreich:That's right.
Deb Zahn: Is there a difference in terms of between bringing folks in for a project versus the staff augmentation? Is there a different feel to how the consultants work with you?
Dana Rosenstreich: Yes and no. It really will depend, but, typically, when we have larger engagements, where we have a consulting company come in where they may bring in a team, my expectation is that there's multiple individuals who I'm going to interact. Obviously, there's a central point of contact for those larger engagements, but I know that I will have a team of individuals. So that's very different that when I have a staff augmentation where I am going, really, to that individual. Their actual employer is somebody that I don't really know. It could be any one consulting firm that provides staff augmentation resources to New York State. Where, as a consulting company, I have a large cadre of individuals that I anticipate we will be able to pull from, depending on whatever the work or the scope of activities they're going to be doing for New York State.
Deb Zahn: So, in the best of all worlds, that would give you that flexible bench that you need.
Dana Rosenstreich: That's right. If something comes up as part of the engagement in a large contract with consultants, or with a consulting company, I know that if we pinpoint one area that the original team cannot perform or doesn't have the knowledge, that really helps New York State get to that final end result. I know that that consulting company is going to dig deep. That's what we're always looking for: those with a deep bench that can pull on resources that maybe were not anticipated to be part of the team.
Deb Zahn: As you know, the point of Craft of Consulting, both the podcast and the business, to help consultants develop their excellence around consulting. It's one of the things that we're focused on. So if you think back to consultants you've had, of either type, what's the best thing a consultant's ever done for you that's made your life easier or really made a difference?
Dana Rosenstreich: I'm not going to talk in specifics because, over my career, I've had so many interactions with consulting companies and multiple consulting companies on the same project. The best consulting I've ever had are those consulting companies that bring a framework. I like when they come with a real strong framework. Then they move off of that. It really acts as just a catapult to really understanding what we need and the problems we're trying to solve. If we focus on that, how do we solve the problems that New York State has or the areas that we're trying to really hone in on…really trying to hone in on that rather than just forcing a framework down your throat. That's when we get the best value. So, using a guideline, but not as the end-all-be-all and really take experience that the consulting firm has had in other areas, usually other states. So for my business area, working with other states and have us talk to those other states or entities that have really tackled the same types of problems we're trying to tackle with that consulting firm. Those are the best.
Dana Rosenstreich: Give us a framework. Understand the framework, but then, go off of it. Use it as a springboard to really help us dial in and learn how we can, sort of, solve whatever problems we've got.
Deb Zahn: It's that sweet spot between rigid cookie-cutter "We have our framework and we live and die by our framework and we shall not move off of it," which we've seen. Then the other version where everything's fresh. Everything's custom, in which case, it can often take a long time to get on the same page about what's happening and what are we trying to do and getting the tools and materials you need together to make it happen.
Dana Rosenstreich: Yeah. When you don't work off of a framework…If you don't have some type of a skeleton, when I call you up at 9:00 at night and say, "Oh, my gosh. I've got to give a presentation on the work we've been doing." First of all, I can't have someone bill all night long, to get that back to me and it won't be as polished. So you need that to help round. This is really for consultants who are going to be working with state governments, and I would imagine that this is in private world too, that you're going to have some of the same problems no matter who your client is. So be ready for that. Be flexible. Use the framework but don't be cookie-cutter. That is the kiss of death.
Deb Zahn: Yeah, I've come in as the consultant after the cookie cutters and have heard all the complaints. I always tell new consultants, "Yeah. You have to know your stuff and you have to be well-polished before you walk in, but nobody wants the same old same old because that's what everybody's trying to sell.”
So what's the best from a customer service perspective? You're the client. So it's somebody's job, on the other side, to make sure that you're happy and satisfied. What's the best version of that you've ever seen, someone who cares about your happiness…outside of your family?
Dana Rosenstreich: It's the engagements where the team really goes the extra step in understanding the distinctions of our problems and our needs, not necessarily what they just did in a previous engagement. So it's really trying to get the full monty of, "OK, I'm working with New York State Office of Information Technology Services, and this is what I understand from their organizational challenges that they have, where they sit in the state government, what are their challenges in the larger perspective...not just their own individual problem. Then how would we help them get to what they really want? What is their real objective?”
I think when a consulting firm comes in and just goes to the letter of whatever the contract said or whatever was written out in that request for proposals or however the engagement started, if they're focusing too much on that and not listening to their clients and understanding where they sit, what their challenges are from a day-to-day perspective, like I said, understanding that full monty, that's the best engagement. When they really understand where we're situated and what are the challenges between where we are today and what our goal is. They have to ask those questions.
Deb Zahn: That's right. Then, when they ask them, they have to listen to what you're saying and then adapt. Yeah, one of the worse things I've ever heard that actually made my skin crawl in a similar business is...my friend went to work for a large company and they said, "Our job is not to add value to the client. Our job is to do what's in the contact." He was horrified and I was horrified because I would never work that way. Ever. Projects change all the time. So, especially if it's an RFP process, the folks like you, and at the State, put down your best assumptions about what you think's going to happen. Then reality never completely looks like that and things change.
Again, how would you want a consultant or whoever the lead of the consultants are, to be able to handle that, particularly if there's a cost difference. So, if it's suddenly a bigger task that what we expected and it's going to cost a little bit more, how do you want them to handle that?
Dana Rosenstreich: The dreaded change order process. You want to establish a relationship, a consulting firm or a consultant, if they're working as a one-person shop, you have to understand what your scope is. Absolutely. You also have to understand when a client is asking to be more flexible and agile if scope changes. You want to be able to give your client what they want, but you also have to safeguard your own company if you're the consultant because you can't just say, "Ah, yeah, no big deal. I'll give you thousand extra hours," or, "I'll give you all those extra deliverables.” And I respect that, but I think when you start out with the assumption that you're going to change order your client to death, you're starting out on the wrong foot.
The customer's not always right and any client knows that. Also, a client's going to try to still reach their end objective, even if their objective is changed. So there has to be an establishment between the client and consultant and the consulting company about how far you can take that. That's a trust issue. I respect that, and I think that those conversations are ones that develop over time.
It's a little bit different when you have a very short-term engagement and you really can't do that. But, for those longer-term engagements, it's establishing a trust that you may have to change a little bit and, maybe, the deliverable that you thought was going to be 100 hours is actually going to be 150 hours. But you have that relationship with your client to say, "OK, this next deliverable, we're going to have to skinny down and we can't burn as much." Again, that's a trust conversation and a trust relationship that you really have to establish from the beginning.
Deb Zahn: That's right. And the first time you have a conversation with whoever the lead is shouldn't be when there's a problem. You should have the conversation the whole way.
Dana Rosenstreich: Right, and that gets to what are the better interactions I've had with consultants and with consulting firms is when the communication has been really strong and it's not just cookie-cutter reports that you've done for every single client. Those reports have to be, whatever the cadence is, they have content. It's not one-liners because we all know that consulting companies will gloss over areas that are problematic for them—where they can't find the right resources, they're having trouble finding synergy on their own team. So they're going to gloss over those areas. I know that.
Any manager, who's really paying attention, knows when those things are happening. So don't hide it. Be communicative and provide reporting and communication. Whatever works for your client. Sometimes you have to dig deep to figure out what the communication style is. It may be different from engagement to engagement. You have to be ready for that.
I think the good consulting firms understand that and the good individual consultants recognize that too. I think that that's really one of the better engagements I've had are ones where the communication is verbal. It's written. It's just simple emails. It's just however you can communicate on risks and issues and day-to-day activities that are problematic, or not, or going well. Sometimes, actually, engagements go really well and you want to hear that too. But you need to be fed that information really regularly.
Deb Zahn: That's right and not buried in some cryptic report where the risk is buried on page three, three-quarters of the way down.
Dana Rosenstreich: And in speak that is really not useful. I don't want consultant speak. I don't want the spin and you really have to try hard to move away from that. I think some of the larger consulting firms have a hard time with that because they can't show some of the risks, from an organizational perspective. Their risk management teams would have a fit if you gave too much information. Right? You can't show some of the problems that you might be encountering. On the other hand, like I said, a good manager, a good director is going to notice when things aren't right. And it's better to find out as it's happening, when it's a risk and not an issue than when it's two weeks before a deliverable is supposed to be done and there's no way in heck that's going to happen. That's not how I want to find out about it.
Deb Zahn: That's right because there goes the trust. As you said at the beginning, trust is everything, and it has to be earned. You don't just walk in the door and get it. So, just as in the rest of our relationships, being smart about how and when to communicate is everything. If your spouse or partner wouldn't put up with it, then maybe don't do it to a client.
Dana Rosenstreich: It's kind of a good credo.
Deb Zahn: Yeah, yeah. So if you were queen of the universe...I'm going to give you a crown…
Dana Rosenstreich: Oh, my God. That'd be great.
Deb Zahn: I know. Right? So let's say I hand you a crown and I say, like Build-A-Bear, but, "Build a Consultant." What would the ideal consultant—either a firm or individual. What would make you,not only enjoy working with them but want to bring them back over and over again?
Dana Rosenstreich: They have to recognize that they need to have skin in the game. I work in the human services area. So most of the people that I work with are in this for the long haul. They believe that what they're doing really matters to individuals and families and for the country. So the foundation of a good consulting firm, to me, is hiring those people who have heart. It doesn't have to be human services. It could anything. It could be the environmental conservation or, I don't know, it doesn't matter, currency. It doesn't matter. Whatever it is, you need to figure out how to have heart.
And if you don't understand the business area that you're working for, then you need to learn it and you need to figure out, somehow, whatever the objective is of your client, is yours too.
So, to me, if you build a really good—either an individual consultant or a firm— you have to figure out how to make that happen. That's just a person. You know? That's somebody coming to the table with that kind of passion, for whatever it is. Maybe it's just a good quality product, no matter what the business domain. I don't really care how they get there, but that's how, to me, if I was building a really top-notch consulting firm, I would only hire people who understand how to either have that out of the box or get it PDQ. Figure out how to make sure that you care about whatever it is your client cares about.
Deb Zahn: Yeah. That's part of how you also keep up with industry. It's not because you have to. It's because you really care about what's happening. I'm a healthcare consultant, and I truly care about what happens to healthcare in this country. My clients can feel that and they can feel that when I'm working with a mental health provider, I get who they're working with and I get that it's a life or death matter. It really is. Once you're in social services or healthcare things, it truly is that. Now, in other industries, it isn't, but it still matters to people, and at the end of the day, it's ultimately about people.
Dana Rosenstreich: There's got to be something, no matter what the domain is, where you understand that objective. You have to learn how to ask those questions. So you really quickly understand where your clients are coming from. Maybe it's just to make more profit. Then you have to be a catalyst. That's what my client wants. They care about just making more money, and I'm going to help them do that because I care about that too for them. Because I care about their company. Whatever it is, you’ve got to put yourself in their shoes and drive towards whatever goal they have and understand from the perspective that they're sitting, "How do I get them there?"
Deb Zahn: That's right. 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.
Deb Zahn: That's right. So, that also means then, since you still have your crown and you're building a consultant, that also means you need a combination of both the hard and soft skills. Because you're in technology, you obviously have to have very specific technical skills and ability and knowledge, but the type of stuff you're describing requires a lot of soft skills in terms of insight to how organizations work, insight to how people work, being able to recognize when you can decide things versus influence. That type of soft skills that not everybody has. If you have highly-specialized technical folks on the team, but that stuff is reality as it is in most organizations, you have to have the people that have the soft skills too. Does that sound right?
Dana Rosenstreich: Yeah, and sometimes that's why, if we were talking to an individual who's going in a consultant, obviously, if you're stronger in one of those areas than the other, like you're a really great technologist, but your people skills, maybe, might be lacking, you really need to focus on that. I've led organizations, now for 15 years. So I a lot of technologists. I believe, absolutely hands down, that everybody, everybody can enhance their soft skills. I'm never going to become a programmer. I have a Masters in public policy. I'm a people person. That's my sweet spot. I'm never going to be a technologist, but technologists and real strong back-side-of-the-brain folks can learn how to learn how to integrate with larger teams and really bring out your soft skills.
I have worked with people who are unbelievable architects and programmers who think way outside the box, and I have watched them become more people-person-like than they ever thought they could. I will never become a technologist because I really can't think that way, but I have seen technologists go the other way. So I have faith that the consultants that come, that are really those high-skilled people that you really do need, that they can enhance their soft skills.
Deb Zahn: Agreed and, sometimes, if it takes extra soft skills, then you have to make sure you have someone on the team that can do that. So, when I'm on teams, I'm usually the something gets dicey, for whatever reason “Deb, go handle that." All the other folks will step back and say, "Deb, a difficult conversation has to be had" or "A difficult strategy has to be worked out where there's a whole bunch of people stuff going on. That's your thing. Go do that." But I expect everybody on my team to have enough people skills that I don't have to be in every single meeting because that's not feasible. It's not fair to the client because, now, we're charging the client more for a deficit in existing consultants.
Dana Rosenstreich:That's great advice.
Deb Zahn: This has been wonderful. Any final words of wisdom you would give consultants before I take your crown back?
Dana Rosenstreich: Oh, I want the crown. I want to keep the crown!
Deb Zahn: All right. I'll lend it to you. Mail it back to me. But any final words of wisdom for them?
Dana Rosenstreich: I think just that you really need to bring yourself to the table. You can't hide behind whatever, if you're working for larger company, you can't hide behind this, sort of, Burger King version of that organization. You need to own it and make it your own. That's how you really become valuable to an organization. If you're an individual consultant, you need to be able to listen to your client and, as a one-person shop, figure out how you can help them get to their end goals. I think both for smaller teams, even if you're not part of a huge outfit, if you're just part of a smaller up-and-coming consulting firm, you really have to listen to your client. Both of those is to listen to your client and not just...don't just phone it in. You can't.
Deb Zahn: That's right because you can tell. You can always tell.
Dana Rosenstreich: You can tell. You really can. So don't think you're pulling the wool over anybody's eyes.
Deb Zahn: Well, Dana, thank you, so much. This has been great. You're actually the first client that we talked to. Certainly, when I first started out as a consultant, would have loved to have heard the client's perspective before I stepped one foot inside of a client's face to say, "All right. Here's what we like. Here's what we don't like, and a lot of things that you brought up I've definitely heard a lot of places." So thank you, so much. I really appreciate your time.
Dana Rosenstreich: Thank you for having me. It's been fantastic.
Deb Zahn: Thank you for listening to Episode Four of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So don't forget to hit subscribe. We have a whole bunch more terrific guests that are going to be joining us and sharing their insights. There's also a lot of helpful information that you can find on craftofconsulting.com. So thank you, again, for joining us. Looking forward to having you on the next episode. Thanks. Bye-bye.