Transcript

Episode 41: Strategies to Serve Your Clients Better and Develop New Revenue Streams—with Adam Falcone

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to Episode 41 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. My guest today is Adam Falcone. He is a partner at Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell, which is exactly what it sounds like, which is a law firm. But they do a lot of advisory services and consulting-type work. I invited Adam on to talk about his experience in doing this, and he hits a lot of great topics, including how you help clients when there are significant changes in their markets and changes they need to be able to respond to effectively in order to thrive as a company or an organization. He also talks about how to work with other firms, both as a way to add value to your client, but also as a way to build your business, and he talks about how that's worked really well for him.

Then the last thing is, which I'm particularly very focused on because I've done this, is how to build a product, an online product, that’s really different from traditional trading time for money that consultants often do. This would be a product that requires a lot of upfront work, but then can add value and generate revenue on an ongoing basis without you having to operate in the way consultants traditionally operate. I think that's really important to the future of consulting. I was delighted to have somebody who's done it and done it successfully to be able to talk to us about it. This episode is jam packed. Can't wait for you to hear it. Let's get started.

I'd like to welcome my guest today, Adam Falcone. Adam, welcome to the show.

Adam Falcone: Thank you. Good morning.

Deb Zahn: Adam, let's start off. Tell my listeners what type of work you do.

Adam Falcone: I'm a healthcare lawyer. I primarily represent primary care and behavioral health providers, some social service agencies, for a Washington-based law firm called Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell. I'm in the nonprofit space and we have clients all around the country.

Deb Zahn: How did you get into this type of work?

Adam Falcone: A little bit by accident. I couldn't quite make up my mind after college what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to do health policy work or go to law school, and I decided to split the difference and get a law degree and a master's in public health, knowing that I still wanted to do something interesting. I was interested in public health activities. After working for the antitrust division for a year and doing a couple of policy work in Washington DC, I basically stumbled across my firm by accident. It was a perfect match because they represent primarily Public Health Service Act grantees that are in the space of improving public health and community health for vulnerable populations. I was very glad to stumble upon them back in 2004, and I've been there ever since.

Deb Zahn: What type of work do you typically get called in to do for these clients?

Adam Falcone: All matters related to reimbursement under Medicare and Medicaid programs, as well as managed care contracting activities or any types of contracting activities they have with particular payers or accountable care organizations; setting up new provider networks that want to be accountable for the total cost of care for a defined population; as well as antitrust issues because of my antitrust background. Different providers or groups that are planning to jointly contract with payers or would have significant market share that could raise antitrust concerns, they call me in for those matters as well.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Now I do know you told me before you don't call yourself a consultant. I've always called you one, which I hope is OK, when I talk to others, because I've seen you go through the process of helping your clients make decisions, because all of those things you just said requires them to make a whole slew of decisions. What do you call yourself instead? Is it just the L word?

Adam Falcone: The L word. Yeah, I don't take any offense that you call me a consultant because actually the tasks that lawyers do are very similar to what consultants do. Consultants are brought in because they have a particular expertise or skill sets that are useful to organizations. I think in the same way lawyers are brought in because they have specific expertise that can be helpful to an organization, but yes, I refer to myself as an attorney or a lawyer.

Deb Zahn: OK. I'll start calling you that from now on. In some of the work you just talked about, you obviously do a lot in a market—one that I'm quite familiar with—where there's a whole lot of change happening in the market and quite a bit of uncertainty, which consultants of all kinds and in all different industries often have to face. I know the first step in some of the shifts that have been happening in the U.S. healthcare system, people first had to believe that they were happening. I know you were involved in a lot of conversations with clients where you were trying to help them understand the times, they are a-changing, and they need to change with them, and their first idea isn't necessarily their best idea. How do you work with your clients, first, even before you get to a solution, to help them embrace the fact that business as usual is not going to carry them forward in the way that it has in the past?

Adam Falcone: I think it's a tough question to answer. I think consultants of any stripe, whatever they call themselves, probably have perspective that maybe an individual organization doesn't have because, like you, we interact with many clients across the board. We see many activities happening across the country—different state policy changes, different federal policy changes. I think we pick up on trends perhaps before they reach the client. Explaining, communicating, demonstrating that the changes have affected other similar organizations to the one you're working with, I think that's how you provide the case to them and persuade them that they need to prepare for change, get ahead of change, and plan for change.

Deb Zahn: You're particularly helpful once they embrace that because then you can help them figure out how best to respond to it and, in your case, how to respond to it without getting in trouble, which is a very, very useful thing. Once you start working with a client who's figured out, "OK, yeah, you're right. You've convinced me this change is happening around me. I need to do something," how do you help them figure out how best to respond to that and do that within appropriate legal parameters?

Adam Falcone: I think the way I view it through my lens is: What are the parameters that the solution can entail? What are the legal parameters that possible solutions for the client to deal with that change will work? Because one thing I found very interesting when I was in law school—also taking courses in the school of public health at the same time—was that the public health students didn't have the same framework or legal framework that I sort of knew already existed. They came up with a lot of creative ideas, except some of them were unconstitutional or illegal or impractical for a range of reasons.

Deb Zahn: Oh, wait, does that still matter?

Adam Falcone: Exactly. In the practical world, you have to think about [the fact that] you're going to have certain parameters, whether they're financial, legal, bandwidth, operational, or whatnot. I think what I can help provide are the legal parameters to set the stage for the discussion. I say I can train, I can educate and say, "These are the legal parameters we have. Now what options work within those parameters?"

Deb Zahn: That's right. One of the things I've seen—because I've been fortunate to see you in action or brought you into the action because we needed that type of assistance—is that you're very good at laying out, "Here's the set of options. This option, here are the pluses and minuses; this option, pluses and minuses; this option, plus and minuses." So as they're making a decision they aren't just jumping to, as often happens in the East coast of the U.S., "I want to do that one." You sort of walk them through, "There are tradeoffs with everything, and if this is your choice, here are the tradeoffs you're accepting associated with that, or here's how you have to do it so you don't end up in jail."

Adam Falcone: Right. I mean, the other advantage I think is important to your listeners is that I think it's always helpful to frame it as various options and not necessarily a single option. Because in some respects, I know that I have a distinct lens and I might be losing out on some of the implications for some of the options. There may be things I'm unaware of, whether they're political ramifications, operational ramifications, or whatnot. In some ways I'm protecting myself because I'm now engaging in a discussion with the client saying, "Here's an option. This is what I think of the advantages and disadvantages, but you might think of other advantages or disadvantages in regard to this particular option that we want to bring in because I'm only seeing a particular aspect of this solution and the ramifications associated with it."

Deb Zahn Hence why engaging them in it so that you get a fuller picture leads them to the right place. That's great. Now I know you also work with—and I'm fortunate to be one of them—other consultants, often as part of teams, which I've said on other podcasts is, to me, absolutely essential—not only for delivering quality work, but also as a business development strategy because you then get reach within networks that aren't necessarily your own. When you work with other firms, what does that tend to look like? What sort of complementary skills do you tend to look for when you're looking for partners, either from other firms or other consultants?

Adam Falcone: Right. I think I'm unusual because I do work with a lot of different law firms and consultants in the work that I do. I would say that I think what's important and what makes for a fruitful relationship is that everybody sort of occupies their own niche or their own space and expertise that they're bringing to the table. If that's not clear, if there's unfortunate overlap in some instances where there could be some confusion about who's providing the advice that the client wants, I think that creates a lot of not only awkward discussions but also discomfort for the client if they receive inconsistent advice in the same lens or the same framework.

What I always try to do is to make sure that everybody knows what space and role they're playing. I usually bring the federal lens to the stage. There are other law firms that may be state based that can bring the state perspective to certain matters. But I think people engage me and my firm because of the national perspective we bring to bear as well as our expertise on the specific federal laws that might govern their programs.

Deb Zahn: That's right. I know we'd been on teams where I was brought in by another firm we both worked with because people just weren't getting along. I get brought in when people are having issues and it's a people issue and an agenda issue. It's not a decision issue. It's the thing that happens before and ...

Adam Falcone: Right. The people issue is a huge issue. I mean, it can be a stumbling block to a lot of the activities you and I have both worked on. The right people have to be in the room for a productive and meaningful discussion.

Deb Zahn: That's right. How have you seen working with other firms or other consultants help you from a business lens in terms of actually getting other projects, getting new clients?

Adam Falcone: Well, I think any time you have an opportunity to showcase your expertise as a consultant or any other kind of professional, that's valuable because people ask each other for recommendations and referrals. Your reputation is gold, right? That's the most important thing—that you have a stellar reputation for the work that you do. Whether you're speaking on a podium, whether you're providing services directly to a client, or whether others have exposure to you as their consultants have exposure to you because you're working for the same client, you ought to look and do your best work because that can lead to additional business. It should lead to additional business in the future.

Deb Zahn: Right. I know a lot of times consultants look at other consultants or firms as competition. I always think, "As long as we can get in a room and do good work together, it does exactly that." If you can showcase your expertise, the client is going to notice it, the other consultants, and if there are other lawyers in the room, they are going to notice it. There is nothing better than that, than building your reputation even if you're not the lead and even if you're not in charge.

Adam Falcone: That's absolutely correct. Absolutely. I think back to when I was starting out initially as a young lawyer at my law firm over 10 years ago, and any opportunity I had—even if I was in a junior role where I was getting exposure to the client or to other consultants or speaking on a podium—were valuable because people seem to have a long memory. I have people who contact me and say, "I heard you speak 10 years ago." I think, "Oh, goodness sake, what did I sound like back then?" They can remember. Those opportunities, regardless of your level or stature at the time, are extremely important.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Great. I've had people come back and say, "I remember a sentence that you said four years ago." I'm like, "I don't remember what I had for breakfast, but OK, that's delightful." You get business that way.

Now I know you also established your firm's first healthcare corporate compliance practice as well as online compliance support services. That's a really important thing for new consultants to consider: What doesn't exist that I can build and then how do I build it? Talk a little bit about what that is and then we'll get into how you put it together and why.

Adam Falcone: OK. I established our firm's healthcare corporate compliance practice. Lots of law firms, of course, give legal advice, but it's very difficult, very challenging for organizations to implement that advice and ensure that they are complying with it. How that legal advice permeates the organization and ends up in various policies and procedures and processes to maintain compliance is not a legal challenge. It's a real operational challenge, particularly in a regulated industry like healthcare. There’s been a gigantic push by both federal government and state Medicaid programs to mandate, in some cases, compliance programs, where organizations have to establish some systems to ensure compliance with the various laws and regulations that apply. That's the what it is. Then the other aspect is that I pushed a lot of this work online because many of our clients are cost sensitive and knowing that they could access some of these resources virtually on the web at a lower price point without actually engaging an attorney for that advice, I knew was important for some of our clients. That's why many of these resources, like you said, are available online.

Deb Zahn: I want to hone in on that because that, I think, is where consulting, or the type of work we do, should head, because traditionally a lot of the work we do is time for money. Someone pays us for an hour of our time or some portion of an hour of our time. At the firm where I just was, myself and a group of folks did our first product, which, similar to that, was an online assessment tool that was based on shifts in the payment methodology, and it did extremely well. We did it with a partner firm. The reason it was really helpful is because it met our client's needs. They couldn't afford to have 5 of us show up for however many hours and dig into everything they were doing. There were certain things they could ask themselves. And as long as they were honest, they were going to get a good enough picture of what was happening that they would be able to act upon it.

Deb Zahn: Now certainly, several of them came back and said, "Can you now help me act upon this information that you helped me uncover?" But that product portion of it—where you can have a price point that’s an easier entry for a lot of clients but still is based on your know-how, intellectual property, and expertise—I think is really important. Was that the first time your firm developed an online product or had there been others?

Adam Falcone: I think that was the first time where the firm had a dedicated online product. All the others had been paper based. I mean, some of the same tools that we made available online were done on a paper-based mechanism or through CDs, but I pushed to have it available online where there is now a user name and password interface where people can log in, buy a product and then use it, and we could update the product in the back end without them even knowing because it was all virtual. It was all online.

Deb Zahn: That's fantastic. For any younger listeners, I'll define CD in the show notes. That was a bit of time ago, but, yeah, I love that idea, especially for something that's compliance-based, which means as regulations change, your things could get quickly outdated if you don't have some easy way to update them on the back end.

Adam Falcone: That was a problem with the paper-based or the CD-ROMs, another old, archaic term. Once those CD-ROMs were given to our clients, we couldn't update them. Having it online gave us control and so we could make sure that time-sensitive information was updated.

Deb Zahn: That's great. For any listeners who are interested in developing some type of a product online, that also lets you scale it. Because again, if I'm doing everything in person, then I can only handle so many engagements at any given time. If it's an online product, then anybody can engage with it at any time, in which case you're able to help more people without just being dependent on your availability. Love that. I was so excited when I saw that, Adam. It occurred to me, I thought I made it up, but I didn't. You did. Maybe you mentioned it and I thought, "Let me copy Adam." How has that done for your firm? I mean, obviously you don't have to give numbers but has that been a successful strategy?

Adam Falcone: Yeah, we actually have somebody else whom I've been able to hand it over to, which is why I say I've established that practice and no longer manage or lead that practice, because I really have been able to turn it over to somebody else who was hired and they manage our compliance practice and our continuum of online products that we offer to clients. We now have diversified the offerings. We have 4 or 5 different products available online. There are various telephone hotline calls that they can do. People can subscribe for a fixed fee and have calls when they need it and not pay anymore for short consults with attorneys at our firm. There are trainings and webinars that go along with some of these products. The woman who is now leading that practice has really taken off and further developed it beyond what I had in mind.

Deb Zahn: Oh, fantastic. I'll put a link to that in my show notes. That's very cool. I like the idea of subscription based because they're going to get new things all the time. If it has ongoing value, subscription pricing makes a heck of a lot of sense. That's really smart. I love that.

Adam Falcone: That's right. They know they have a fixed fee that they pay each year and it's not going to vary based on their use of the services. They can use it a lot or use it very little. It's all the same fee.

Deb Zahn: Right. It generates revenue, but in a way that frees you up to do the in-person, live, TLC approach that clients often need.

Adam Falcone: Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. I'm excited because I think that's increasingly common. I know a lot of consulting firms do it. I've seen a few individual consultants start to venture into that. I think that's where a chunk of consulting, or the type of work we do, is headed and for good reason. As long as what’s turned into a product is good for that and it's not just now we take all our expertise and try to put it in a cookie-cutter package because we know...I certainly have heard from many, many clients that they don't like that. They still want to feel special. They still want to feel like you're there just for them and they should experience that. But some things that are routine can certainly be turned into a product, and that can help them in ways beyond the type of stuff we typically do. I love that and I was delighted when I read that you did that.

Adam Falcone: Thank you. There's a lesson or a kernel of truth that's kind of helpful. When I was thinking about that product and developing it, it came out of discussions with clients about what they needed and what they could afford. I think it's essential for consultants to be sensitive to what your clients are telling you about what they need because they can be the germ for developing unique, online products that can help them in ways that meet their needs.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, that's how we developed ours. We were working with a client, we did this assessment tool, but it was paper, and it took us a lot of time to analyze it. We heard from them that this was really helpful and we realized, well, this is helpful for everyone in this sector that's going through this change, but it would be unaffordable if we could do this. We had conversations with clients and said, "If we offered this, what would make you want to pay for it?" One of the things we heard was online, and another thing we heard was at a reasonable price point. We did exactly that. We followed their instructions and boom, they bought it like it was going out of style. Wonderful.

Let me ask you this. If you were giving advice to professionals who are saying, "Hey, I want to be a consultant," or to other lawyers that want to stop litigating or move into a space that's similar to yours that provides this type of advice or consulting services, what skills would you encourage them to either go get if they don't have them today or to enhance them if they only have them a bit?

Adam Falcone: Well, I guess two skills jump to my mind. First, you have to have a recognized area of expertise, because that's what you're selling. You have to have a defined expertise. If you're shifting gears where you're moving from one substantive area to another, I think you're going to face an uphill battle because you have to re-establish yourself as an expert in that particular area. For people that are moving from one role to another—they’re in government and now want to be a consultant, or they're within an organization or a firm and they now want to move to more of a consulting role where they already have that expertise—they have that because they're an experienced professional.

I think the next step and the most important element, aside from being known, is communication. Because communication is what, in my view, makes you an effective consultant. How you deliver that information to clients in a way that’s acceptable to them, not in a way that’s condescending to them. In a way that you are a valued partner and respectful because you have to re-envision your role and your relationship.

Deb Zahn: Who’s the boss?

Adam Falcone: I guess technically the client hires and fires you so they're kind of like a boss in a way. But really, they're bringing you in because you know something that they want. You have some area of expertise. You have a very delicate kind of a relationship where you are giving them options, as you put it before, or telling them what they can or can't do, if we're lawyers, and giving them a way to respond to that in a way that’s respectful because I always presume that before I'm called in, the client has done some thinking on a particular topic. There's probably some thinking that already occurred. There are probably already people who have a vested interest in particular outcomes. There may be political considerations that you're just not going to be aware of. Whenever you're delivering the news of whether you can do something or can't do something or options, there are going to be ramifications that you're unaware of. I think it's critical to deliver that information effectively, clearly, objectively and respectfully because, where I have not, that has led to problems in the relationship.

Deb Zahn: Yep. We've all had those moments where, for whatever reason, we didn't do it and it didn't go well. What I saw at the firm where I used to work, where we had a lot of really smart, good professionals come in but who had been in charge.

They were the CEO or the COO or something along those lines, or they worked in a government position where they largely told people what to do, and that ain't the way it is now.

Now when you're a consultant, you're using more influence than authority, and your expertise is your credibility. But communication style has to change significantly for some folks if they're used to more of a top down, "I'm at the top and I'm going to just tell people what to do and I'm going to trust that they're going to go do it," because that's not how it often works in client situations. I'm sure you've seen that too.

Adam Falcone: It's interesting to say. I presume that, and maybe other people have a different approach, but I don't always presume clients are going to follow my advice. I give advice. Whether the client accepts that advice and follows it, that's really going to be up to the client and organization. I think as a consultant you have to be OK with that. That you may provide some advice based on your expertise and the client may do something completely different and not follow it. You have to be able to live with yourself with that. Not just your ego has to live with that, you have to be OK with that. If you care about your client, which I hope your consultants do, and what's at stake, it will be frustrating to you that they're not doing what you think is in their best interest, but that's their decision. You have to be able to live with them and live with yourself, that they may not take your advice, and that's OK.

Deb Zahn: It is OK. It's interesting, there have been sometimes where I'm like, "OK, well, I'll see you in a month when that doesn't work out," but I've had a few instances where they didn't follow my advice. They went a different path. There were stumbling blocks and it was difficult, but the outcome was quite good. Then I had to use that as an opportunity to think about, “Should I have presented them with one or two other options that could have gotten them to the same place but matched a little closer with their willingness to do it a certain way?” Then that becomes a learning experience on the consulting side, which you should always do. You should always learn from every single engagement. But I like that. That's great. Is there anything you would tell a new consultant, "Flat out don't do this," besides breaking the law and getting caught? I mean, just don't break the law.

Adam Falcone: Don't break the law is a very good place to start. Early in my career as a lawyer, when I didn't have a lot of experience talking to clients, people from time to time would tell me how to deliver a message, say, "You should say this to the client," and then I would go off and do it. What I realized is that it didn't work to follow what somebody else would say because that other person might be able to say that because maybe they were more senior. They had the gravitas to say something like that and to speak to a client that way. I did not.

I think some of the worst advice you can accept from others is how to communicate to a particular client because how you deliver advice is going to be specific to your experiences, to your personality. You can't speak with somebody else's voice. You have to speak with your own authentic voice. I guess my advice to any new consultants is make sure that you are communicating in your own voice, not how you've heard somebody else communicate a message to a particular client.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I like that a lot. Any time I've coached new consultants, I've emphasized that, but then I said, "But if we're going to talk about communicating, let's talk about what your goals are, where you hope this lands, what you think they care about so that you have a way to critically engage with the decisions around communicating before you go communicate.

Figure that out and then go be yourself. Be authentic but professional obviously. But be your authentic professional self so that it doesn't sound fake and it doesn't sound like it's someone else's words, because clients can kind of tell when you're reading someone else's script." I've been on the receiving end of that and it feels kind of icky and it definitely doesn't make me trust them because it makes me wonder, "Well, who do I have in front of me now?"

Adam Falcone: That's right, because they were just parroting somebody else's statements and they weren't making the communication direct and specific. As a consultant, you have your own relationship with a client if you're speaking to them.

And you have to be conveying information as yourself, not as somebody else said it to you and not as somebody else would have said it but how you would have wanted the information delivered based on your own personality and whoever you are and your relationship with that individual organization. I think that's where some relationships went sour was early on; the clients thought it was disrespectful because I was just talking to them like another attorney would've spoken to them. That was not appropriate to my level, if you understand what I mean.

Deb Zahn: I do, yeah. You're building a relationship in the same way as if you were building any relationship. If it's a romantic relationship, you're not only going to just repeat love songs. You should actually say what you think and feel. You're building a relationship with the client. They want the goods, they want the expertise, they want the right advice, but they also want it from a real human being who cares enough to feel connected to them. Wonderful. I love that. Don't break the law.

Adam Falcone: Don't break the law. That's right.

Deb Zahn: OK. I think if anybody leaves with anything, start with that. No law-breaking, and then everything else we said. Let me ask you this last question. I ask everyone this because I think it's so important. I know you have a young child at home so I suspect this I'll tune into that. How do you bring more balance to your life? Because I know you work hard and you work a lot.

Adam Falcone: Well, I have two children at home now, two under the age of 5. I think work/life balance, I've heard people say it's a myth, and I think in some respects it is because it's not necessarily in balance. It's not just that if you achieve work/life balance, it's a 50/50 split or something along those lines.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Adam Falcone: It's about what's the right balance for you and your family and that makes sense. It's a constant struggle. I mean, what I found with my kids is that there's always something new or some event or some new issue that you're dealing with. I think that's true for any family, whether you have children or not, is that you have full lives, personal lives going on outside aside of work. You have to, at some point, create some separation and some lanes to channel those activities.

One of the things I've done in particular—as a remote worker where I don't work in my law firm's office—is to make sure I have a separate place to go to work that's away from my home. Because I know then I have dedicated space for a particular time during the day and basically it's all work, unless some urgent issue comes up during the day or some other personal matter that I've decided I need to take the time to devote to. I think that separation is important to develop, that kind of balance that's appropriate for yourself. Then vacations and weekends and evenings, that time is golden. Whether you put away your phone or turn off your work feed, whatever is appropriate, you need some downtime, because that recharges you and I think makes you better in your work time, a better consultant to have that separation. I think striking the right balance, separating work and personal lives to the extent feasible and possible, is critically important.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I agree. Unless I'm with a client, I work out of my home now. I used to be in an office. Now I work at home, but I have a dedicated home office. When I'm here, it's the work zone. When I'm not there, it's not the work zone. Occasionally I'll put on the AirPods and unload my dishes when I'm on a conference call and not the main speaker. If any of my clients are listening, I never do that with you but otherwise, I'm in a dedicated space. It's almost like a ritual of walking in here, and now I put on my work hat, and when I'm walking out the door, I take off my work hat. That helps me create something that looks more like what I want my life to look like. That's wonderful, very helpful. Well, Adam, thank you so much for joining me on this episode. This has been enormously helpful, so thanks again.

Adam Falcone: You're welcome. It's been a pleasure.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do three things. If you enjoyed this episode or any of my other podcasts, hit subscribe. I've got a lot of other great guests and content coming up, and I don't want you to miss anything. The other two things I'm asking you to do—one is, if you have any comments, suggestions, or other feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those in the comments section. And then the last thing is, if you've gotten something out of this, please share it. Share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure they also have access to all this great content and the other great content that's coming. As always, you can get more wonderful information and tools at craftofconsulting.com. Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.