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How to Consult About Practically Anything at Any Time

The art of consulting involves questioning and listening, not declaring and telling. As simple as that sounds, it’s difficult for most consultants to understand. Yet, mastering that essential skill can make the difference between fighting for your professional life and enjoying the good life.

Here is an example of a client interchange with a consultant on the first meeting. The typical consultant responses are in parentheses, and my actual responses are the ones that appear after “reply.” This was an actual instance from my mentoring program.

Buyer: We’ve had a real morale problem here for the last six months that we’ve been consistently unable to improve. That’s why I’m talking to you. (I’ve worked on many situations like this one. Usually, some focus groups help, which I can run for you. I did that at a manufacturing company, and we were able to turn things around quickly.)

Reply: Why do you feel that there’s such a bad morale problem? What’s the evidence you’ve used?

Buyer: We’ve had a higher rate of turnover among people we want desperately to retain than we’ve ever had before. (Turnover can be very expensive, and I don’t blame you for wanting to hit that problem immediately. In addition to the focus groups, we’ll need to do some exit interviews, for example.)

Reply: What other evidence do you have that makes you so concerned about morale?

Buyer: The only other indicator is that our clients are complaining about a lack of service responsiveness. It’s taking many of them two or three calls to have problems resolved. (Service is closely linked to how people feel about the company. We might also want to start an education program fairly quickly to show employees that their actions represent the entire organization. They may well need some service training. We’ve got a program called, “Knock their hats off service.”)

Reply: If key employee turnover and customer service complaints are the only two pieces of solid evidence, are there other things that could explain those symptoms? Are there other changes that have occurred at about the time these difficulties arose?

Buyer: Well, we changed the commission system to less of a guarantee but more of a performance-based measure for field people, we placed the customer service center on a team basis instead of the old single-response system, and we changed our geographic focus to a product focus in terms of support structure. (We need to make sure that the investment in those changes is safeguarded. It could be that you have resistance to change, which is normal, and there are proven techniques to overcome that. Also, we may need a communications strategy to keep people informed of their new accountabilities.)

Reply: It seems to me that we can’t really be certain about how those changes, alone or in combination, may have affected employee performance and productivity. Before we make any substantial investment in something like a morale improvement initiative, would it make sense to launch a study of the causes of the turnover and poor service, and which of the changed elements might be contributing? After all, we don’t want to create more of a problem than we’re solving, right?

Buyer: So what do you suggest? (I can do an immediate needs analysis, start the focus groups, and begin our service training program.)

Reply: Let me put a proposal together with some options that will embrace various returns on your investment, time frames, and depth. I’ll have it on your desk tomorrow. Would that be a comfortable way to proceed, allowing you to choose the option that makes the most sense for the organization?

Note: Virtually all of my replies are questions. I never try to “sell” a talent or an alternative. I try to ensure that the buyer is talking, answering my questions, and assumptively agreeing with my direction. Maybe I don’t look like I’m an expert, but I certainly appear to be someone who’s going to have a proposal accepted.