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Episode 6: Pricing Engagements Right and Other Skills with Aparna Mekala

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to Episode 6 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. Today on the show I've got Aparna Mekela. She is the director of the Healthcare Services group at the firm CohnReznick. Aparna's going to talk about her journey from being an internal consultant that was working in a large hospital system, moving on to a boutique firm, and then moving on to some larger firms. She's also going to talk a lot about what she sees differentiates high demand consultants from consultants or firms that just spend a lot of time struggling, in particularly, to get business. She's also going to talk about her approach to pricing a new engagement with clients, and how you can make sure that you end up with the right budget. Then last, she talk about what she sees are key skills for consultants to master. We've got a great episode for you. Let's get started. I'd like to welcome to our show a Aparna Mekela, who is a fantastic consultant that I've had the pleasure to work with before. Aparna, welcome to the show.

Aparna Mekela: Thanks for having me.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Well, let's start off and just tell folks what type of consulting you do.

Aparna Mekela: I'm basically a management consultant for a practice at our firm called CohnReznick. The type of consulting I do is mostly focused around planning, business development, financial feasibility analysis. A whole scope of services that are really focused towards federally qualified health centers. A lot of assistance around planning and support for the health centers.

Deb Zahn: That's great. When and how did you become a consultant?

Aparna Mekela: Oh my, I have been a consultant for 18 out of what I think is now 22 years of my work life. I got interested in consulting because after grad school I just knew that I liked different projects and wanted to leverage some of my skillsets around problem solving. And being able to flex in different areas was always kind of strong suit that I identified. Consulting just seemed to offer a lot of opportunities, a lot of variety. In grad school we were exposed to, I think, folks coming in from the outside world, you know, sharing their work experience.

I got turned on to the idea of being a consultant pretty early, as a person, I think. I was fortunate to kind of work for a hospital system that offered that opportunity to work on many different projects for the system. Then I moved to New York and worked for a boutique consultancy there and kind of confirmed my thoughts about myself and what I was interested in. And I had a great time.  I was constantly being challenged, which is what I needed. I just knew that that was the type of work—whether it was going to be for an organization or for a traditional consultancy—that that's something that would be the best environment for me.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Now I know since you started, and particularly where you are now, you've built up a really great practice with clients coming to you over and over again. What actually enables you to build up a practice like that? Because that's sort of the envy of a lot of other consultants.

Aparna Mekela: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, within our practice, it is really focused around the health center world, around primary care providers. I have been fortunate to work with a practice that is led by a well-known, national expert. So that helps. But it's really about relationships, you know? When I started with our practice back in 2004, I got exposed and introduced by the partners and other senior managers to our clients. I still maintain those relationships with the same clients. Some of the CEOs may have left, but some staff still remain and just continue to be engaged. We've really established those trusted relationships. Obviously, because I've been there for 15 years, everyone knows that I'm still there.

There's a lot of stability within our practice that I think is attractive to clients. The quality of work obviously is very important and knowing their business and knowing what's going on in their universe and environment and being able to speak their language, really helps with those relationships and those reacquiring business opportunities and supporting their growth. I think they see us as a valued partner across many different things. We've managed to represent ourselves as being smart and thoughtful and forward-thinking. It's been a real complement and flattering that they come to us when they're scratching their head thinking about an idea and wanting to brainstorm with us.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Now I know that you've also worked with a lot of consultants, worked with a lot of consultants within your practice and then obviously other consultants. What do you think makes or breaks it in terms of being an in-demand consultant? The relationships obviously is one, what else really makes the difference between those that everybody says, "Wow, can we get them to work for us?" and consultants who spend more time struggling, do you think?

Aparna Mekela: If I'm hearing the question correctly, what differentiates a consultant? Is that kind of…

Deb Zahn: Yeah, what the difference between an excellent in-demand consultant and a consultant who's always trying to figure out how to get business.

Aparna Mekela: Yeah. I mean, I think what differentiates the consultants that are at least in our space is being smart and being able to portray yourself as knowing what's currently forefront in their world and their industry. Being responsive, showing good quality of work. Word of mouth also is very helpful in terms of backing up that reputation that we have in the industry. Responsiveness is really key, you know? I think that perspective clients want to know that you're attentive and that you're thinking about them. Client service world is very different, and I think what differentiates sometimes other consultants, is your adaptability and responsiveness and willingness to kind of be there for them. It's sometimes a trade-off but it is an expectation.

The other thing that will differentiate other consultancies is pricing. You know, the adage you get what you pay for sometimes comes through. We hope that we offer quality services for the right price, always. But I think that actually plays out in the consulting space. What also differentiates is the bench. What the breadth of expertise is. Lots of times what I've noticed in my career is that, clients will hire one type of person to do one type of task, but there's a lot of benefit for the client to hire someone who works in a practice that is working on a different type of angle on an issue. There are commoditized services that a lot of us offer, but then there's a lot of value in the fact that, hey, that same consultancy offer business planning or assistance with financing of projects. Maybe we should leverage all of that expertise together for this particular project that we have. I think that's another core differentiator is the breadth of type of services and subject matter expert that this team can offer that they can leverage back.

Deb Zahn: I agree with all of that. The other piece in terms of the bench is also, I find that clients really appreciate when you know what other benches at other firms are. We obviously work together a lot, and we send you guys business; you send us business. Sometimes we work on projects together. I find clients love that. They love it that, first of all, it demonstrates that you care about them and you're not just trying to maximize how much money you're getting from them. You're really trying to help them solve whatever is in front of them, whether you can do it or somebody else can do it. That's one of the things I like about the relationship we've had between our firms. It's always the focus on the client.

Aparna Mekela: Yeah, it's symbiotic. I mean, I think in our space in particular, we're lucky enough that we work with a lot of smart consultants, other contractors and things of that nature. It's also important to tell the client what you don't know and be very up front about it because it's their business that's at risk, you know? I think lots of times, I'm sure you've seen it too, where folks will say, "Well, we can do that" and really don't know what they're getting into. I have a great example with that. I've been getting a lot of phone calls from someone who just reached out knowing that we do a lot of work in the rate setting world, and this particular organization said, "Yeah, we're working with all these consultants, but they can't seem to tell us what is the right answer." It's flattering that they've reached out knowing we can provide a definitive response, even though we're not engaged. But I just worry about the information that folks are receiving out there from folks who say, "Yeah, we know everything we're telling you. This is how it's done." Clearly that does go on when the client is reaching out beyond your consultants to confirm your information. That's something to be mindful of.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. That goes back to the relationship, which is part of what you're doing, is you're building trust. Part of that trust is you tell the truth. I've certainly had clients say, "Hey Deb, can you X, Y, and Z?" I say, "I can Z, but X and Y? No, no, no. You shouldn't come to me for that. You should come to someone who actually knows what they're doing." They're usually shocked the first time they hear me say that because they're not used to consultants saying that. They're used to them saying, "Yeah, we can do everything."

Aparna Mekela: Exactly, exactly. I don't think that's our prescribed format at all. I mean, I think we know what we know and we do it well. We're certainly willing to be challenged and find solutions, but we'll partner with other people to solve that issue.

Deb Zahn: You brought up pricing, which is really important. I've coached a lot of accomplished professionals who are transitioning to being consultants, and that's always the most difficult thing when they start. Before they start to gain that experience and figure out how to price things right. But when you're working with a new client and you've got a new engagement in front of you, how do you approach pricing? How do you think about it?

Aparna Mekela: Yeah. There's a lot of different factors to consider. If it's a service that we routinely provide, there's obviously a prescribed format and pricing of hours times rates, and we know what the staffing is. That's pretty straight forward. When we get unique engagements or engagements that are just nuanced in a way where we really have to think about the budget, the hours, the expertise, and all of that, the way we approach it is, once we have that scope of service defined, we have a bit of a team discussion about, what's different about this where we think we may have to modify hours?

For new folks that are, again, new to consulting, a lot of the training that I think I've had in conversations for folks building out budgets is, remember that you have to factor in a lot of touch points with clients. You have to factor in, not just the deliverable time, writing, things of that nature, research. Also be mindful of things that, you know, hours and that you're including in your budget that is, I'd say, practice development where you may be teaching yourself, but maybe that time can be leveraged for another project that you hope to get as well. There's a lot of, if it's a new area but you're applying the same concepts, you might have to get up to speed research wise. Folks will not include that in their budgets, they'll just really focus on the deliverables and maybe client meetings and be done with it. There is a lot of stuff that goes on back at the ranch. We have to also remember to leverage different staff types so that you can get some pricing efficiencies. In our world, we have some heavy hitters and we have a lot of subject matter expertise, but they're not going to be doing all of the work. Creating a competitive price to your client is, how do you leverage resources that can help you do that quality of work so that you're working at the top of your license, so-to-speak, right? And you're also giving opportunities for staff to learn along the way.

But realizing that the nature of the project may involve more of a team rather than me. It's kind of a very craft part of your life as a consultant is how do you price something out that is fair to you and fair to the client? There are different strategies about how you include time for sight meetings, travel, things of that nature. Also, just being aware of who your client is, right? Knowing your client or getting some kind of intel about this type of organization is like, are they price sensitive? Seeing what value and working with them in a way to make sure that you're including all of the right components of the pricing.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I've definitely also coached folks in terms of knowing who your client is, trust what you see, and trust what they're telling you. If it looks like or they're telling you “We're not all on the same page,” you're going to need to add time to the contract to help get them on the same page. If you asked, "Do you have a set process for approving the deliverable?" And you hear two different things from two different people, or they straight up tell you, "Well, we really haven't figured that out," believe yourself, believe them. You have to put that time in there because that's where, in my mind, a lot of times that's where budgets gets blown. It's in those types of process details or the extra work that it takes to help get them where they need to be, and you have to factor that in.

Aparna Mekela: You have to ask the questions. Don't be afraid to ask your client the question. Like, "Did you actually do this pre-work?" Or "Do you have data that will actually help us get to that information?" If you don't have that data, then you're going to have to use your staff or their staff to get that up front information. I think the scoping part, all of these upfront discussions are happening in the scope part so that you can price it accordingly, but yeah. It's relatable and relevant for each other.

The other part of budgeting, is having touch points within your project to look at your budget and speak with them frankly and say, "We spent a lot of time on this space because of X, Y, and Z." Rather than drop a bill for overages that they have not heard of before. In my experience, most clients are very open to having those discussions. Those are fair discussions to have, it's just the communication is key to make sure that they realize how the project is doing against the budget."

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I always like to build those into the scope itself. I want to normalize from the beginning, that we're going to check in about the budget. Any time I haven't done that, I've regretted that because the first conversation about the budget you want to have is not when there's a problem or something unexpected happened. Again, any time I've skipped that, I just basically said, "For the love of God, don't do that again." Because it makes your life easier and it makes the client's life easier. You don't want to stress them out by having awkward conversations like that. You want to normalize, "We're going to talk about the budget throughout the project."

Aparna Mekela: Yeah. You know, to go back to your question around how to build a budget and whatnot, I feel like we often skimp out on the project management, right? There's a lot of value in making sure that…Well first of all, you have to meet expectations, and do often not value all of those touch points, those weekly meetings, those client communication updates. Things that you don't put in the budget. That's where a lot of costs actually occur. When you often build out your scope, you're also talking about the process, and communication. The client needs to realize, that time is being billed to them as well. That's something that we sometimes struggle with too is just making sure that we have the adequate time in there for client conversations, touch points, communications. It might take a half an hour to write an email, right? Touch points with their respective project manager once a week just so that we're all on the same page. That's all to make sure that you're meeting expectations and deliverables. I think there's a lot of value in putting that in. Don't discount the project management time.

Deb Zahn: That's great. What other challenges because you've had a long career as a consultant so I know you've seen a lot and you've experienced a lot. For you, if you were talking to somebody who is transitioning from having a, “normal work life” into being a consultant, what's the top advice you would give them?

Aparna Mekela: Oh, that's a good question. You know, it's a different pace. It's a different work day. It’s not a 9:00 to 5:00. So much of our work life across industries, you know, as a society has changed anyway with technology, right? We're all on our phones and even folks who…maybe there isn't a 9:00 to 5:00 sort of lifestyle anymore. The biggest, I think, challenge is being responsive. Again in the client service world, you have to make sure that you are responding, and sometimes that's responding over the weekend, as I'm sure you've experienced, a client will email you and they probably expect you to be checking your emails over the weekend, unless you've told them that. You have to manage expectations also and try and set boundaries. I think that balance is sort of key when I'm sharing with new folks that are coming out of industry and becoming a consultant is that, you know, client service is demanding, but you have to also mitigate some of those relationships and those communications that you have with your clients. I think that's a big piece just sort of understanding that sometimes you just work in crisis also, right? I mean, so many of our clients call us last minute, and being able to pivot and turn to the next thing while you were hoping to spend four hours writing a narrative, all of a sudden your afternoon got bombed because someone's have an issue with a bank that was looking at our financials and said, "Whoa, we have to change this assumption. The bank needs it right away." You know? Sort of understanding that, and knowing what resources that you can lend to, that you can leverage to help you deal with this crisis. Those are things that I right away mention to folks.

I also feel part of communication is the ability to write. When you're hiring new folks, you're hopefully hiring for the skillsets that you need. But if it's a more experienced person, you want to make sure that they're able to communicate and write narrative and emails for reports, for PowerPoints. Things of that nature is something that I always stress that is expected when they state. We'll make sure that that is something that they realize is going to be expected of them.

Deb Zahn: Right. If it's an independent consultant or somebody who's just starting and they don't have those skills, you can acquire those skills. That's worth some Learning Annex time or online course or something. Because you're right, I write quite a bit. That's not the main reason people hire me, but that's required. And I have to do strategic communications. We just wrote a 200-page report. Yeah, that was fun. But that's important, and we need to be able to do it. Generally if new consultants are coming in and depending on the type of consultant, that tends to be a critical skill.

But let me ask you, because you talked at the beginning about, it's not a 9:00 to 5:00, clients calling on the weekend, texting…I did by the way take my alerts off my text so that I wasn't woken up at 2 o'clock in the morning, which has happened. But you and I have definitely talked before about trying to make choices to better balance our lives because we do things outside of the work world that are really important to us. Talk about some of what you've been trying to do to make choices to get a little more balance in your life.

Aparna Mekela: You know, I think that over the last couple years, I've pushed back. I've been comfortable and more confident to tell folks that, "I will not be able to respond to you." I think that maybe took some time for me personally because I did have that mindset. But, one, establishing that was helpful for me. I do catch myself sort of falling back into old habits and wanting to respond right away. I mean, that's still kind of a struggle for me, and it's a work in progress. Always.

Working with my practice, with my colleagues and letting them know also that I have certain restricted hours and time, and really, I think, taking more ownership of my calendar and sort of saying to folks internally and externally, "I'm here and available now versus then." Which again, is sort of a transformation and a transition for me. You have to want to make time for yourself. I mean, as you get on through your career, it can't just be about work.

It has to be providing perspectives and your experience lends to your perspective, so if you've only got the perspective of work, you're not growing. I think that what has helped me is not forcing. Forcing isn't the right word. But I really did want to take some time and do some additional trainings for my own personal development. That's on my time but making sure that work is still work. But carving that time out to take a break and sort of explore personal challenges that will help me for my career, but just me as a person in terms of growth. That is something that I've done for myself to give a little break, give a little bit of a wake up in my schedule, if you will.

I also experimented with cutting back on hours and going to part-time. That was an interesting experiment. I don't know what the answer is, but I feel like in my career now, that I have been able to really make sure that I have time for myself and for my family. I think that's important. I think that, at least I'm fortunate in my practice, that my colleagues understand that and appreciate that and support that. That's a big help, is sort of being able to kind of manage your schedule, but knowing that they trust you to meet all of your other work obligations and things.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I think what you said about experimenting is exactly what I have found. I did go to 80% time a few years ago, and I'm pretty good at setting boundaries, or so I thought. Then it took me about two years—two years! —to figure out how to continually and consistently establish boundaries and normalize those so that I was truly working 80% time. I had to learn that I was actually the main reason it wasn't happening. It actually wasn't, for the most part, my clients. There were always crises, there were always things, but I found about 85% to 90% of the time, if I set boundaries with clients or colleagues, they were generally fine with it. The world didn't come to an end. The work didn't suffer. Most of it was mindset for me and then repetition and practice until I normalized that behavior with myself. But it took two years!

Aparna Mekela: Yeah. I think that, again, it's a process and it takes time. But give them the benefit of the doubt, right? We often don't, but just don't be afraid to have that conversation. When we're out in the real world and we're looking for services or things of that nature, and we get quotes and professionals say, "Well, we can only do this, we can't do that," you negotiate with them, right? There are some aspects of your relationship with this client that you can say, "What if I do it here? What if we modify it? Maybe can we move that meeting next week because I really ..." They're people, they're humans, they understand that you have a life. I think it's sort of, don't be afraid to ask. Asking and abusing is totally two different things.

Deb Zahn: That's right, that's right. Let me ask you as this is the last question, which is, if you had a time machine, went back in time and could give yourself some advice when you were first starting out, what would you tell yourself or what do you wish you had known then?

Aparna Mekela: You know what, I think I wish I had known how much writing was important. Even before I started as a consultant, I was a hardcore science major, right? Science, numbers, I could write things that were technical in nature, but understanding the full context, and story, and communicating that, is a big thing. It really will support your career as a consultant. The storytelling aspect of it. I think that I'm always in awe of people like you, Deb, who can sort of set the stage, whether it's orally or through a report, and take people along for this ride or this purpose that we all have for this project, and lead them to the end of, "Okay, so here's the crux of it." I wish I focused on that a lot earlier in my career. I think those are things that I tell myself.

Also to network. Continue to network and build those relationships, is important. The other thing I would tell myself is, don't buy into hierarchy. In consultancy firms and the firms in the practices that I've experienced, which have been smaller in nature, I've never worked for a big firm, I've always worked for a small, niche group practice kind of mindset. That's been great for me because I didn't have to deal with, "Oh, I have to take that to this person before I can communicate to that person," and be mindful of all of that. Don't be afraid to step out of your bounds and showcase yourself and speak to a partner or two whomever and have that opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about the project. There are probably some processes in place that you have to do that, but I think that knowing that that's the right environment for you if you're going to be a consultant, is important. I think I learned that a little after the fact, but yeah, those were things that I wanted to make sure. Because oftentimes, especially women, they just feel like they want to fall back and just sort of take lead from others. I think that was something that I wish I learned a little bit sooner or was in an environment that really showcased that. I'm fortunate that I'm in that environment.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Well, any final words of wisdom for consultants who are making the transition?

Aparna Mekela: Always be prepared for everything that's unexpected. I think that when you're a consultant, you have to be open-minded, and you have to see the full picture and not get so caught up on this thing that they're focused on and just realize that sometimes when clients are asking us things, don't disregard it because you think it's not important to focus on. Just realize they're the client, and there's context and rational as to why they're asking you questions. I think sometimes as consultants, we may judge them saying, "Why are you focusing on this?"

You really need to give them a lot of credit and appreciate the work that they do. Really respect what they do, because it's really hard to manage a health center, to do the day-to-day work, and we're there to support them. That is somewhat of a mission of the consultant is really to help them achieve their organizational goals. I like to think of that as an extension of an organization. We're there to help them and really take that mindset of being in awe of what they're doing so that you have a lot of that respect.

Deb Zahn: That's fantastic. Well, Aparna, thank you very much for being part of the show. This has been fantastic. Thank you again.

Aparna Mekela: You're welcome. Good to chat.

Deb Zahn: Okay, well hopefully you heard a lot of helpful information in that. My hope really is that you heard a few things, whether it's about pricing or new skills or things to avoid when you're doing consulting, that you can actually turn around and use in your practice today. Because ultimately what I want is for you to hear some practical things that are going to be meaningful for you and help you actually succeed as a consultant.

So that was Episode 6 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. Got a lot of other great interviews that are coming up. I don't want you to miss anything, so definitely hit subscribe. Then as always, feel free to go to where you can find a whole lot more information. Thanks for joining me on this episode. I will talk to you next time. Thanks.

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