Sunday, September 14, 2008

On Increasing The Value Of A Consultant

My boss's question, "How can we increase the value of our consultants?" prompted me to write this. She knew the answer of course, but you know how bosses are -- they throw around questions designed to make you think, hopefully solicit your suggestions and make you contribute something new and meaningful.

Why have the desire to increase the value of consultants? Because the total value of its consultants has a direct relationship to the value of the company.

V = P + R

In my constant attempt to simplify things, I came up with the above equation,

  • V - Consultant's Total Value
  • P - Consultant's Perceived Value
  • R - Consultant's Real Value.
A definition from Merriam-Webster Online:

- relative worth, utility, or importance
- something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable

Next, my definition of Perceived Value and Real Value in relation to a consultant's role.

Perceived Value is the type of value that is subjective and is not easily tangible or measured. It is derived from things that make a client feel good, things that do not necessarily have a direct contribution to the required output. From a client's perspective, this can be a set of traits that distinguishes a consultant of one company from another (given that both can satisfy the client's requirements).

Real Value, on the other hand, is the type of value that is objective, tangible and most times, easily measured. It is derived from things that can satisfy the client's original requirements. From a client's point of view, anything a consultant possesses, does or produces that has a direct impact on solving their problems or meeting their needs forms part of his or her real value.

Going back to the question as to how to increase the value of a consultant, my short answer is, as the equation above tries to convey, that it can be achieved through increasing the consultant's perceived and/or real value.

Can the value of a consultant be increased merely by focusing on the factors that affect Perceived Value? The answer is of course, yes. But this isn't a sustainable strategy. Dealing with things on the superficial level is not a substitute for those things that provide Real Value and give lasting results.

What are the things that contribute to Perceived Value?
  • Appearance (Grooming, Clothing, etc.) - Image is everything? Nope. But almost.

    Whether one likes it or not, people are judged by how they dress look. Unless your good reputation or that of your company's precedes you, it's not easy to get away from this. This is especially true during the first few meetings. Over time, once you have proven yourself as a worthy consultant, you can be a bit more relaxed (or rebellious, if you prefer that term) in your manner of dressing. Unfortunately for some companies (referring to both the vendor and the client), they require the consultants to be stiffly dressed at all times so dressing down may not be an option.

    Getting discriminated because of (young) age is a different topic altogether, but dressing up is one way to disguise the age up a bit. I remember a former boss's advice.

    "Looking young can sometimes be to your disadvantage, so I suggest you guys dress up a bit when you face our clients."

    Bottom line, it's not a matter of wearing expensive clothes but wearing the appropriate ones. Do take note that appropriate varies from one client to another. It all boils down to the culture of the company.

    Grooming is simply being neat and as attractive as possible; doesn't everyone try enough of this considering love of one's self is natural? So here are just a few reminders: tidy hair, clean finger nails, good smell, ironed clothes, shined shoes.

  • Speech/Accent - Being a good speaker is not only advantageous to politicians but also to consultants (and managers, teachers, other leaders, etc.). Good speakers are usually thought of as intelligent people, being able to express themselves well. If you're new to a country and your accent is not easily understandable to the people you are talking to, it would be a good idea to slow down and enunciate the syllables. If you have a tendency to stutter or eat your words (not in the other figurative sense), slowing down or taking a slight pause before each sentence would also help.

    For meeting and presentations, nothing beats being well prepared. I guess the same could be said of just about anything.

    The good news is, speaking is a skill. It can be practiced and improved.

  • Confidence - This is about how one carries herself. Of course, confidence stems out from several factors, and not to preempt the other points way down below, but working on those factors affecting Real Value will have a significant effect on this.

    Taking the time to learn your stuff really well is one way to boost confidence. When answering questions, being able to admit what you don't know is not a sign of lack of confidence but of the opposite. Being able to BS your way may sometimes work but is not guaranteed to work every time. As a proactive consultant, you can always exercise the option of saying "I don't know but I'm going to find out" or "I don't know but I know someone who does".

    Confidence starts by knowing what you know and what you need to know. Focus on your area of specialization and talents and be aware of the strengths of your team members.

  • Attitude - Much has been said about how attitude towards life and things in general affect what actually happens. The same things could be said about dealing with clients.

    A positive attitude helps one get through difficult situations, allows one to see things from a better perspective and enables one to learn from mistakes. There's the attitude of constantly showing the willingness to help and make things happen, the attitude of taking criticisms positively and making adjustments when necessary, and the attitude of showing the willingness to make every penny count.

    I once worked with a group of consultants from another company. To the customer's questions or requests, their default answer was, "That's not in our SOW (scope of work)". They said this even when everyone else was just looking for a possible solution to a difficult problem. It's not wrong to tell the client that something is not part of what was agreed upon, but the manner of telling is important, and it's not wise to shut the doors just because something is not part of the original scope as it may show unwillingness to be open to further negotiations.

    That said, having a positive attitude doesn't mean becoming overly optimistic or being a pushover.
What about the factors that affect Real Value?
  • Knowledge - Acquired through education, books, interactions with other people and experience, knowledge, especially specialized knowledge, is among the key reasons why the services of consultants are acquired in the first place.

    Taking time to reading books or articles, or to interact with the bests in your company are some ways to increase knowledge. Trainings, seminars and certifications are worth spending for.

  • Skills - Are you really good at the tools you are using or the products your company is selling? Does your team have the skills necessary to implement the project? Specialized skills are also among the top reasons why consultants are engaged to begin with.

    While it is true that skills improvement happens mostly while on the job, a bit of regular practice outside office hours will also help. For IT consultants, unless you have a special reason for preferring to remain average, having a set up at home of your tools of the trade to play with is not a bad idea.

    This is where passion for what you do comes in; when you love what you do, you will always have the desire to improve yourself and do what it is you ought to do.

  • Intelligence - And I am not only referring to I.Q. Having the ability to deal with new situations is part of intelligence and so is applying knowledge. As defined by Merriam-Webster Online:

    - the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations; reason; the skilled use of reason
    - the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria

    Intelligence doesn't have to be an individual kind of thing. It can be collective. It can be collaborative. In a team, knowing who is good with what is valuable knowledge. Think in terms of intelligence in CIA.

  • Talent - People tend to do a great job if their work involves the use of their talents. Marcus Buckingham in his book First, Break All the Rules (What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently), does a good job of explaining what talents are and why it's important for companies to make sure every role has talent to match.

    Some examples of talents that don't include singing or dancing:
    - being able to explain complicated technical stuff using plain ol' English
    - learning a new language in lightning speed
    - dealing with difficult people and making them agree to what is reasonable
    - finding out why a thing that's supposed to be working is not

    If you are not making the best use of your talents at work, it might be a good idea to switch to another role or, in extreme cases, find a new job.

  • Output - Accomplishing the objective of a project or an engagement is the most important thing. At the end of the day, being able to deliver gives the highest value.
What Else Can Be Done?

According to Marcus Buckingham, a company cannot expect its employees to give stellar performance without satisfying their basic needs first. The basic needs are more than just a matter of money. They include, also according to the best-selling author, letting the employees know what is expected of them at work, giving them the equipment and support to do their work right, and answering basic questions of self-worth and self-esteem by giving praise for good work and caring about their development as people.

When consultants do their best at work and yield excellent output, Real Value is produced.

While a lot of people still give too much credit on appearance, the world is learning that the tag price cut of one's clothing has little to do with what in the person's head and heart. Appearance can be deceiving. I made early mistakes of judging people based on their appearance. In high school, I mistook the Assistant Principal On Discipline to be a messenger. In college, I mistook a doctor for her assistant. Thank goodness, I've learned my lesson since then.

You have to believe before you doubt that most companies are reasonable with their requirements when it comes to dress codes. There's little reason to be overly formal in the manner of dressing when the client themselves are a bit casual in their style. Smart casual Fridays is a good practice as it allows employees to be a little rebellious relaxed once a week while giving them room to express themselves and reveal a bit of more of their personalities. It is expected that companies who require their consultants to dress well, in compliance to their own definition thereof, ensure that they pay their employees at par with industry standards at the very least. With that, there's little for consultants to complain about, unless of course the opposite is true.

Equipment provided to employees, such as laptops for IT consultants, can reveal a little something about the company to its clients. For example, it can send any of the following messages:
  • A company cares about its consultants enough to give them exactly what they need

  • A company is doing well enough to be able provide its consultants better-than-average equipment

  • A company has a culture of being the best in everything including providing the best equipment to its best employees
Paul's story on how he got his company to replace his malfunctioning laptop comes to mind. He was asked to do a presentation to a potential client. He got to the meeting place on time and started his presentation without problems. But at the middle of it all, his laptop conked out and he had to reboot. He apologized to his lone audience and said it will probably take about five minutes to reboot his battered laptop.

"I'm sorry Paul. But can I just ask you to come back when you have your laptop fixed? I'm having second thoughts about hiring consultants from companies who can't even provide their employees with decent laptops."

Paul told his boss and was naturally given a new laptop.

It is not unusual for companies looking for consultants to work with to ask for their CVs during the proposal stage. The Pre-sales/Sales team who provides them should take care that the CVs are not only updated but are also in the best possible condition, content and format-wise. I once had the unfortunate experience of finding out that the CVs of our consultants were circulated when they were not in their best possible state. I was expecting that of all people, the sales people were aware that they were selling not only their products but their consultants as well and knew the importance of the CVs in the overall scheme of things.

For some companies, they care too much about their image that they don't allow their consultants who are assigned overseas to stay in hotels which are not in their list of acceptable accommodations.

When a culture of excellence permeates in a company, the tendency is for consultants to absorb this via osmosis and exhibit this same standard when they're out in the field. In the same way, companies who know how to keep their promise can expect their consultants to keep their end of the deal, producing excellent output that gives Real Value that benefits not only the consultant and the client but also the company.

Some steps that can be taken to steadily increase the Real Value of consultants while progressing towards building a culture of excellence:
  • Hiring an HR Manager that has experience in the specific industry or one that has both the aptitude and open mind to learn as well as to make a meaningful contribution

  • Providing regular trainings, workshops and certifications

  • Requiring periodic readings

  • Building a knowledge base within the company. Having something like a knowledge bank where lessons learned from previous projects and new discoveries in the field are stored and made accessible to everyone. This can be implemented at a negligible cost.

  • Regular sessions with in-house experts and bests in their areas to discuss best practices, both company-wide and industry-wide

  • Setting KPIs, and giving regular (once a year is not enough according to Buckingham) performance appraisals

  • Ensuring that shadowing and mentoring happens between junior and senior consultants

  • Avoiding the Peter Principle, or promoting employees to their level of incompetence or promoting employees for the wrong reasons

Consider this a work in progress. I would love to hear your reactions and/or contributions.

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At September 16, 2008 at 6:27 PM , Blogger ronald said...

since im not yet a consultant, i cant help but look at your article from an employees perspective. most of the things you wrote may apply to ordinary employees too. how about writing something on "increasing the values of employees" or "the dos and donts of employers"



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