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Episode 42: Consultant Dos and Don’ts From a Client—with Lacey Clarke

Deb Zahn: Hi, this is Deb Zahn, host of the Craft of Consulting podcast. Before we get into this week's podcast, I just wanted to share something that I was absolutely delighted by, and that is that FeedSpot listed the Craft of Consulting podcast as number 4 on its "Top 10 Consulting Business Podcasts That You Must Follow In 2020." I was absolutely thrilled by that. Particularly since my podcast is less than a year old. And I want to thank everybody so much for listening. We've got a lot of fantastic stuff coming in 2020 so I'll take number…for now. We'll see what happens later, but I appreciate all the support. Thanks so much.

Now I want to welcome you to episode 42 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. My guest today is Lacey Clarke, and she is the vice president of policy at the Community Health Care Association of New York State (CHCANYS). This is the association that represents community health centers across the entire state of New York, and Lacey is a client who hires a lot of different consultants. So she is going to give us the inside scoop about what she looks for when she's looking to hire a consultant, what actually gets her to want to hire them and bring them back over and over again, as well as the things that she absolutely does not want to see.

So she gives us a lot of great information in this podcast that lets you get into the mind of a client and adjust what it is that you do so that, ultimately, you get more business and you get more repeat business. So let's get started.

I want to introduce my guest today, Lacey Clarke. Lacey, welcome to the show.

Lacey Clarke: Hi. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

Deb Zahn: So this is another one of those episodes where we get inside the mind of a client. So you're actually not a consultant. You are a client who works with many consultants, and you're going to talk to us today about what you like, what you don't like, all that kind of good stuff. So thank you for being willing to do that. I think that's going to be helpful for a lot of listeners.

Lacey Clarke: You're very welcome. I'm excited to chat.

Deb Zahn: So let's start off and tell my listeners what type of work you do.

Lacey Clarke: Sure. So I work in healthcare policies. I work in Albany and I represent community health centers, which are small—well, not necessarily small—primary care clinics throughout the state. And I try to make sure they have everything they need to provide all the services they need to provide to patients. I spend a lot of time talking to people in Albany, the capital of New York state.

Deb Zahn: Perfect. And how do you typically use consultants?

Lacey Clarke: So we're a pretty small staff at my organization, and especially on the policy staff, there's really just 2 - 2 1/2ish of us focused on policy. So we have a lot of consultants that really help us provide both outside expertise on specific issues and also a lot of strategy—helping us think through a lot of things.

Deb Zahn: Great. And so when you are seeking a consultant, or a consultant approaches you, what is it that you want to see that would make you want to say yes or at least keep talking to them?

Lacey Clarke: I think for my purposes it's somebody that has some experience with the kind of work we do. And that's, from my perspective, either experience working in Albany and working in government and kind of knows the ropes of the government and working in policy, and/or really knows and understands community health centers and how they work. So I think kind of has the content knowledge and can speak our language and understands what I'm talking about.

Deb Zahn: That's right. It sounds like also some process expertise in terms of, every state government is a little bit different. So, for those who live in the United States, they know that each one operates a little bit differently. So you also need someone who knows what the particular flavor is, I imagine.

Lacey Clarke: Exactly. And I think that's especially—I feel like New Yorkers always say, "New York is very different from everywhere else," but I think that's especially important. Again, especially for the work I do. Somebody who understands the dynamics and how to get things done in New York state and what that takes and how you maneuver through a lot of the bureaucracy and other things we have going on in the state.

Deb Zahn: That's right. So they have to show up with those goods. But then, what's the best way to approach you? So let's say they're trying to get some business from you. What's the right way to go about that?

Lacey Clarke: I think also on that note, if there's a reference or recommendation from somebody else I know that really goes a long way. So I think a pure cold call is not really good. That doesn't really work. I don't know who you are. I'm not really sure what's going on. And I think a lot of it is references from other people. I would say a lot of people I've met at meetings where we're at similar types of events and at functions or have worked with other people. So at other conferences I go to, for me, that's really how I find most people I've work with.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Because particularly when you're doing policy or a lot of that type of work, the stakes are so high that you can't really roll the dice on an unknown entity.

Lacey Clarke: Yeah. And I'd say that's very specific to the type of work I do in policy. I think for others in my organization who are doing more kind of technology services or other types of services, it might be a little bit different and they might be a little bit more open to having more of a cold call type relationship and seeing or hearing about somebody, some service that somebody else provides, calling them.

Deb Zahn: But even then, I know because I've been called before by organizations, they always check up. Like they always, if they haven't heard about the person, they're going to call some folks and say, “Hey, do you know______; do they have the goods, are they going to do a good job?” And I have fielded those calls before, and I know others have made those calls about me before.

Lacey Clarke: Yes, exactly. I'm sure every industry is kind of like this, but it feels like it's a small world in the health care world in New York state. And so a lot of people are working for a lot of similar clients. But that also means that you want to know the people, you want to get the references from other people, but you also know kind of what's going on, like how that person knew somebody else.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Exactly. So what turns you off? So if someone's approaching you and they want to do business with you, what makes you say nope?

Lacey Clarke: I can't think specifically of this example happening, but I would say being overly aggressive. It's just not for me. And I think also really coming in, on that note, very strongly—wanting to say that they're going to be able to, that they have all this information that you don't have, and that, I don't know, I feel like that coming on a little too strong just doesn't work for me really. And I think it's also making sure that they understand the organization and exactly what the role of the organization is. Because I feel like, for me, I work for an association and that's a very specific type of organization. So making sure that people are clear that we are not providing the direct services. Just understanding the dynamics of the specific organization.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And so, at the very least, do your homework so that you actually know. But I think what you said before is important in terms of balance because you want to show that you're eager, but you don't want to cross the line over to stalky and aggressive, or that they're bringing so much to the table that it belittles you and your knowledge in your role.

Lacey Clarke: Exactly. I think that that's part of it too, realizing that we do have some internal expertise here. Not on everything. And we definitely, I rely on consultants who know a lot more than I do about a lot of things. But I think also just being...I know some things about some things.

Deb Zahn: And you want to see that they're going to respect that, which I think is perfectly legitimate. So after you've hired consultants, what's the best thing you've seen consultants do that you were just like, ah, this is great. I'm so glad I hired them.

Lacey Clarke: I think it's being better than me at having a very clear plan. But, really, kind of saying, “OK, so here's what we talked about, here's what we're going to do. I broke it all down. Here's like the timeline.” Just really coming with a clear agenda and proposal for how we're going to work together. I think it's extremely, extremely helpful. And then following up on that.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I like that. And obviously things come up in projects. So I was just on the phone with a client and it's related to policy work that she's asked us to do and things change, and you have to adapt. So, when you're working with a consultant on some type of project, some type of engagement, and things just switch up or they need to, how do you want the consultant to be able to handle that or help you with that?

Lacey Clarke: I think that it's really important—especially it feels like in policy—to be flexible and be able to pivot and be like, “OK, now we're going this way.” I think it's also helpful to have somebody talk it through and make sure we are still going the right way. Like when we turn and things change, to be able to really talk through why this change is happening. But taking the lead from us in the organization saying, “No, we are the experts in this part and we know now that we actually have to go this other way,” and being respectful and understanding of that and able to say, “OK, let's go this other way now.”

Deb Zahn: Gotcha. Now obviously, sometimes that has timeline implications, deliverable implications, sometimes budget implications. And again, what's the best way for a consultant to be able to interact with you so that those things get managed appropriately?

Lacey Clarke: I think that what works for me the best just in a very nuts and bolts kind of thing. It’s like we have regular schedule check-ins and updates just to make sure we're both aware of the other things that are going on. Because I know, for me, I can definitely get overwhelmed and, all of a sudden, I realize that I've told 17 people, but I didn't tell the consultant at all.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Lacey Clarke: For me, it's very helpful to just have a standing meeting that at least I know, “Oh, OK, this is happening on Thursday and we're going to need to check in, make sure that we're on the same page, and that time is set aside so I don't have to remember to make sure to look at the list.”

Deb Zahn: I like that because part of what a good consultant does is pay attention to who the client is. And so if they know that the client has a whole lot of other things going on and they're not going to be able to track in the way that they maybe would if circumstances were different. And so part of what you scope out when you're first meeting with a client is: What's the best way to communicate? What else do you have going on? How much are you going to be able to pay attention to this? But then also switch it up. If an hour meeting on Thursday isn't working for you, maybe we need a Monday morning 15-minute huddle call to say, “OK, what's on deck, who's doing what?”

Lacey Clarke: Yes, yes, yes. And then being available, within reason, as things come up kind of ad hoc. But I think really for me, having the standing meeting is really very helpful.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And is there anything you would tell consultants flat-out “do not, do not, do not, do not do this,” when they're working with you?

Lacey Clarke: Send me multiple emails on the same issue, and on the same day. No, I think I would say also being really not available. I understand no one needs to be available all the time. I feel very strongly that you don't need to be available all the time, at all times. But, if you're working with us on a project or something's going on, to be relatively available so that when you reach out somebody gets back to you within a reasonable amount of time.

Deb Zahn: Right. Particularly if things switch up or something occurs, then that flexibility is the difference between you succeeding and not succeeding.

Lacey Clarke: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: That's great. That's really helpful. So, when you think of working with consultants, obviously one of the reasons people work with consultants is it's also a pleasurable experience working with them. So what kind of characteristics or attributes do you really want to see in a consultant that would be one of the reasons that you would want to keep working with them and coming back for more?

Lacey Clarke: Number one, just having a nice rapport, a friendly rapport. I generally enjoy a casual chat. So I think that's nice, but also knowing when to be appropriate, when to be more professional. But also, I think one of the things that's really a benefit to me for working with consultants is that they're in the world more than I am, working with other people and doing other things. So it's also always helpful to me—with understanding the balance of what people talk about—to  hear about what else is going on with the rest of their clients and in the environment. I think that's always really helpful when there's maybe a task we're doing, we're sticking to it, but also to get a flavor of, “Oh, I heard this other thing you might be interested in.” And I think that's always great.

Deb Zahn: Right. Always thinking of you for what's ultimately going to be helpful. But I imagine also just knowing, continually knowing the market more—not just from reading the same things you're reading, but from the work they do in the world and other folks they engage with.

Lacey Clarke: Yeah, yeah. And I think that's very helpful. I think it's also helpful, as I said, we're a very small shop here and so we can't be everywhere all the time. So it's also just helpful to have somebody else who's at other places that could be like, “Oh yeah, this happened over here,” and it's always good to hear about what else is going on.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Which means if you're a consultant, you can't just keep your head down and say, “Well, when I'm there, I'm a different human being than I am when I'm working with you.” You actually have to—and I do this—I hold my clients in my head at all times, and if I see something that I think is helpful to them or potentially a threat, then I put that hat on. And I think about what does this mean to them, and what do I need to do to help them? That's great.

Lacey Clarke: Yeah. And I think maybe I already said this, but I feel like just being personable goes…I did just enjoy somebody that would have a nice chat when I see them out and about.

Deb Zahn: Like human, like you want them to be human. I think that's a perfectly reasonable request. Now, are there any particular skills, whether it's, analysis or writing or facilitation or things like that that you think every consultant who shows up should at least have these?

Lacey Clarke: It's hard to say because we have consultants who do such very different things for us. So people I work with the most, I would say for my purposes, I'm really hiring people who are able to do analysis. That's kind of my whole job is knowing what's going on. So I think that's very important for me. And the writing aspect also, so that I don't have to be worried that the thing they're producing is not going to reflect poorly on the organization. I think facilitation is helpful, but that feels like a very specific skill if you're hiring somebody to facilitate. I'm not ever asking them to facilitate. I'm just asking them to provide us with an analysis and writing.

Deb Zahn: That's right. But writing is one I hear quite a bit. I had one client say to me—about a year ago when we did a big report for them, and it was quite good—thank you. And he said, “I can't tell you how many times I have had to, on my Saturday, rewrite a report that a consultant gave me because it wasn't well written. They didn't even spell check.” For whatever reason, they didn't know to have somebody on their team whose particular expertise is writing and style. Because if you're writing something for policy or you're writing something for a program or you're writing a grant, that's all very different. And those are different skills. And we knew that going in. We knew this was a deliverable. So we had people on the team, including myself, who writing is one of our top skills. And we knew we needed that.

Lacey Clarke: And it really goes to the fact that we're hiring consultants to help us to be able to do our work more, better, more efficiently, get a little deeper knowledge, all of those things. And I don't want you there to be spending my time going back over consultants’ work. That's why I hired somebody else to do it.

Deb Zahn: Exactly. And again, a reasonable request is their job should be to make your job easier. So yeah, no, I love that. This may relate to the other things you've already said, but when you think about who you go back to again and again, is there anything besides the particular things that they know how to do that you think, “I want to keep coming back to them”?

Lacey Clarke: I think it's really a feeling that they're looking out for me, the client, in a creative way. And like you're saying, it’s thinking kind of strategically, creatively about how the organization could benefit. Like, “Oh, I saw this thing and I had this idea that maybe this would work if you guys could move forward in this way.” That really feels like there's somebody who actually has your back, goes a long way. I know it’s just a job, but it's nice to feel like somebody's invested in you or your organization actually succeeding, and not just, “I want to make sure I'm getting...”

Deb Zahn: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And have you had the experience before of—and I've heard this from clients before—a consultant shows up and they have their way of doing things. They have their framework. They have their tools, and that's what you get, which means that creativity goes away.

Lacey Clarke: Yeah. And I have experienced that and I think it's interesting because I didn't think about that. Yeah. I've had the experience of being like, “Oh, this is so interesting, and this works so well and it's so great.” And then seeing the same thing again presented to somebody else. I'm like, “I thought that was for me.”

Deb Zahn: I thought I was special. Yeah.

Lacey Clarke: Then kind of realizing that it's, here's their package and the package is the same package, regardless of who the client is. After a while I'm like, “Oh, that's just your shtick.”

Deb Zahn: Yeah, yeah. You feel kind of cheap. Yeah. On one hand, it can be good if consultants have tools and things they can work with because then they're not charging you to invent them. But absent that creativity, it's cookie cutter and you aren't going to feel special. Because guess what? You aren't special, in the way they're delivering it.

Lacey Clarke: Right. And I can think of other incidents where yes, of course it makes sense as a consultant that you have your tools. But you modify them and/or pick and choose the right ones that fit with the client. You're not just like, here's my whole box and this is the same box I use every single time. I just deliver my box.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And that's the switching up thing. We're working with a client who I just adore. I was doing strategic planning, and a typical tool for strategic planning is to do key informant interviews. Go out and interview folks and say, “What do you think of this organization?” I did four of them, and I kept hearing a word that you would never want anybody to use for you. I heard it four times and I went back and said, “OK, we need to change what we're doing because that's an issue. That was not part of your deliberate brand in the world, but it’s part of your reputation. So now we're going to pause and what we're going to do is focus on developing a plan for what you want your reputation to be, and then how to get there because this is getting in your way.” And of course, the person was all about it because they realized, “Oh my goodness, I get it. I get it why people are saying that. That's getting in our way. So let's stop.” And so I was using traditional tools, but then those went out the window because now something came up that we have to address.

Lacey Clarke: Right. And that's really understanding. That's being able to be flexible, right. About the client and what’s best for the client and being strategic and thoughtful about that. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I love that. So any other advice you would give if you were standing in front of a bunch of professionals who just became consultants and they were looking at you saying, “Help us understand,” what advice would you give them?

Lacey Clarke: I would say meet your deadlines for sure. Make sure you actually do what you say you're going to do.

Deb Zahn: Love it.

Lacey Clarke: And be an actual human

Deb Zahn: Love that. Yes. Check.

Lacey Clarke: Right. Be creative about how to help your clients and be thoughtful and creative and strategic about ways you might be able to help.

Deb Zahn: I love that. That's a great list. I feel like that should be a list that everybody gets and, before they go into client, they say, “OK, wait a minute. Am I human? OK, yeah, I think I am. I think I got this.” This is extraordinarily helpful. Again, I think a lot of folks who become consultants don't get to hear this and sometimes they get a response. And I've worked with some folks who walked out of a room and it just didn't go right, but they couldn't figure out why. So this is the type of very precise information that's helpful for people to think about how they're going to approach it. This is great.

So now I'm going to ask you that question I ask everybody at the end of a podcast, which is: So life balance is very important, not just for consultants, but for clients too. So what do you do to bring more balance to your life?

Lacey Clarke: I try to make sure I'm spending time with people who are not involved in my professional world, who do things very differently, who have a very different kind of environment they're hanging out in. And I also try, for me personally, to have a creative outlet that I spend some time doing something very different than what it is I do at work every day, and make sure I have other things going on in my life that are not just all health care policy.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Are you going to share what the creative thing is?

Lacey Clarke: Well, yes. I do quilting and I like textile arts. So I’m going back. I went to art camp last summer, and that was very good because no one there did any stressful consulting.

Deb Zahn: No one's asking you what's going to happen with the state budget.

Lacey Clarke: Nope. No one.

Deb Zahn: They're like, “what stitch are you using on that?” That's wonderful. You know, it reminds me, back in the day, when I did a lot more policy. It’s when West Wing was on, and all the policy people I knew watched West Wing and I didn't, and they asked me why, and I said, “because that's my every day.” I watch vampires and biblical plagues and I watch completely different stuff because I'm not looking to relive my day at night. That's not interesting to me.

Lacey Clarke: I completely agree. Yes.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And the fantastic quilting, which I think is wonderful.

Lacey Clarke: Yes. And the quilting.

Deb Zahn: Well Lacey, thank you so much for spending time with me today and again, I think everything you've said is so helpful to my listeners, so thanks again.

Lacey Clarke: Well thank you so much for having me.

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 Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

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