The Soft Stuff is the Hard Stuff

From time to time, pulls articles from the archive to re-share as a Special Feature. Thank you to Graeme Simsion for his permission to republish this article. The article was originally published in January of 2011 and still is very relevant today.


Where Things Go Wrong

For the last few years, I have been giving a class called variously Consulting Skills, Consulting 101, The Professional Consultant, Delivering Business Value, etc. The motivation for developing it was my observation over many years of managing a consultancy that most of our problems could be traced to deficiencies in consulting skills rather than in technical expertise. I would suggest that the same is true for internal service groups, including central data management and data architecture functions.

We should not be surprised. Most of us devote considerable effort to building our technical or specific professional skills, but put relatively little time into formally developing consulting skills. Little wonder we don’t always get the “soft” side of our job right.

I cover a lot of material in the classes, and encourage participants to select a few “take home” messages rather than try to absorb everything. In writing the present article, I put myself in the position of a class participant and asked, “What are the messages that I have found most important in my consulting work?” One that immediately came to mind – work really hard at understanding what managers want – was the subject of an earlier article1, and I have already covered a second: consulting skills are critical to effective service delivery. Here are ten more.

  1. Consultant is a Loaded Word
    The title or role of consultant carries with it expectations on the part of both consultant and client. In the exercise that opens my classes, participants who are given the title of “consultant,” but no additional knowledge or powers, consistently assume (with the agreement of other team members) advisory and leadership roles. These “default” roles and behaviors often don’t represent the best use of the skills and time of the two parties. Challenge these expectations early in the engagement and ask, “How can we work together most effectively?”
  2. Avoid Giving Advice
    What? Surely the role of consultant is inextricably linked with the giving of advice? That may be true, but it’s also true that people enjoy giving advice a lot more than receiving it. Think of an occasion where you’ve been particularly proud of the advice you’ve given. Perhaps you’ve gone home or back to your “home team” and raved about how much you’ve saved the client and justified your role. Now think: Do you really believe that the client is singing the same joyous tune? There are many other ways of helping to get things done other than pontificating. They’re usually more effective.
  3. Initiation is the Most Important Phase
    Consulting assignments that go wrong are frequently doomed from the start because expectations were not properly established and agreed. Like the optimist who fell thirty stories calling out “doing all right so far” as he fell past the windows, consulting assignments can seem to be going well until the crash at the end. Time devoted to ensuring that expectations are clear and agreed is time well spent. If this phase turns out to be difficult, be particularly grateful that you did it!
  4. Show Them Something Concrete
    In establishing expectations, make every effort to show the clients a concrete example of what they will be getting. This could be from a previous similar assignment, or it could be an early sample deliverable. If you’re building a metadata repository, complete a small section in detail first, and get their agreement that this is what they want for the organization as a whole. If they expect a report, show them a table of contents, with approximate number of pages for each topic. Embarking on a project to develop, for example, a “data architecture” without the client having touched and felt one is a sure path to mutual disappointment.
  5. Identify and Manage All the Clients
    In The New Strategic Selling (Miller, Heiman & Tuleja, 2003), four categories of buyer are identified – broadly, the Economic Buyer (paying for the work), the User Buyer (who will use the results and is probably the person you deal with day to day), the Technical Buyer (who will ensure the work conforms to agreed standards / contract) and the Coach (who introduced you to the opportunity). Some people may wear more than one hat, and some hats may be worn by more than one person (e.g., there may be several User Buyers). The authors argue that the salesperson needs to convince all of these players. Likewise, the consultant needs to understand, manage, and meet the expectations of all four groups. It’s not uncommon to work closely with the User Buyer and then have, for example, the Economic Buyer step forward at the end and say, “That wasn’t what I thought I was buying.”
  6. Write a Detailed Plan – and Throw Away the Proposal
    One of the most important lessons I learned as an external consultant was that you seldom get the proposal (initial approach, estimate, quotation, deliverables) right, simply because you haven’t spent enough time with the client at that point. In a three-month assignment, for example, I would propose to devote the first week to writing a much more detailed and better-informed plan with the client – and agree that this plan would replace whatever had been in the original proposal. If the client didn’t like it, they could go elsewhere – they never did. For internal consulting, it’s hard to see any reason that you wouldn’t do this.
  7. Regular Progress Meetings
    Of course, we know that we should have regular progress meetings – but in the heat of developing deliverables and meeting deadlines, these are often skipped or given only cursory attention. Assignments that get into real trouble have typically been off track for a long time. Weekly progress meetings that require agreement that the work is on track set up a situation in which mutual understanding of the position can never be more than a week astray.
  8. Put Your Hand Up
    I ask class delegates to draw an outline of their hand on the front cover of their notes. I want it to be the first thing they see if they ever reach for the notes for assistance with a consulting problem because my first message is to put your hand up for help. Most of us have a boss in our consulting organization. It’s crucial that he / she knows there’s a problem. Often the senior person is in a position to assess the real impact, provide resources to assist, and smooth the relationship with the client. And, you can sleep at night. Of course, if you’re an independent consultant, you may need to call a mentor…
  9. Build a Support Network
    On the subject of mentors… Consulting can be a lonely profession: you have to serve both your manager and your client, and probably feel that you are expected to have the answer to any question in your area of expertise. I strongly suggest that you actively build a network of people – if necessary in other organizations – who share your technical specialization. Just one or two people may be enough, but you need to have them. And I’d also strongly advise you to ensure, in advance, that you have someone to turn to if it all gets too much to cope with. That person can be literally a lifesaver.
  10. Put Yourself in the Client’s Shoes
    Here I am, running out of numbers, having promised ten points. If I could offer only a single piece of advice to consultants, it would be to put yourself in the client’s position and ask, “What would I want here?” In broad terms, reflect on your best and worst experiences with the professionals or service providers that you deal with – your physician, your accountant, your lawyer. There are models for good and bad behavior aplenty here. And when you encounter a difficult individual, ask yourself, hard, deeply, “Under what circumstances might I behave like this?” You’ll learn a lot about the situation if you focus on these circumstances rather than the client’s personality (which you are, of course, powerless to change).
  11. Follow Up
    Hey – you said only ten points. A common mistake is to assume that the job is done when the deliverables have been tabled and accepted. Always follow up – and try to schedule and budget for such follow-up at the outset, when it’s easier to sell and only a small percentage of the total commitment. You want to see the client(s) and the results of your efforts down the road for several reasons:
  • To explain and / or fix any issue that may have arisen with your work (the blame falls on those who have gone).
  • To gain feedback on your own performance (a formal post-assignment review by a more senior member of your organization is an excellent practice).
  • To confirm that the client will provide a reference for the work.
  • To discipline the clients to continue with the work – your meeting may prompt them to check that list of actions in the report you produced.
  • To learn about what works and what doesn’t. For me, this is the most important reason: Too often consultants “cut and run” and continue to recommend approaches that do not work, simply because they haven’t been around to see the long-term outcome.


Ten (or even eleven) points do not constitute a course in consulting. Certainly, it’s well short of the amount of information that most readers will take in on their technical / professional specialty in the next six months. There’s a balance problem here, and I’d strongly encourage you to resolve to devote some reading time – or even class time – to working on consulting skills. Buy a book, share some anecdotes, do some reflection. Of course, that’s just my advice…

Author’s Note: My thanks to Corine Jansonius for her helpful comments on the draft of this article.

Share this post

Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion was, for twenty five years, a data management consultant, educator and CEO of a successful consultancy. He is a six-time keynote presenter at DAMA conferences (in the US, UK and Australia), author of two books on data modeling and recipient of the DAMA professional achievement award. He holds a doctorate in information systems and an MBA from the University of Melbourne. At the age of fifty, he decided to try something new, and enrolled in an undergraduate program in screenwriting. When he couldn’t get his movie made, he decided to rewrite it as a novel. The Rosie Project spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list and was the ABIA Australian Book of the Year in 2014, with translation rights sold in forty languages. Sony Pictures have optioned the screenplay. The sequel, The Rosie Effect was also a bestseller. His upcoming novel, The Best of Adam Sharp, features a database administrator as the romantic hero.

scroll to top