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Process Skills—Tools of the Trade

Let's say you have 20 years' experience in your consulting area, but no actual experience as a consultant. Is that enough? Absolutely not. Consultants require a number of other skills and expertise in the consulting process. I call those process skills.

Process skills are those skills that help you identify client needs and wants, build relationships of trust with your clients, and ensure that you offer each client exactly what the client needs.

The process of determining what your client needs (and delivering it) is what sets apart the consultant from a salaried employee in the same field. An em-ployee is often told what to do by a manager or boss. It's expected that the employee will do what he or she is told to do.

Working Words

Process skills refer to the tools all consultants need and use to ensure that their advice and recommendations are as in-formed as possible. These tools include interpersonal communication, group facilitation, data gathering, and diagnostic skills.

Not so with a consultant. While your client may have an idea of what she wants you to do, it's your professional responsibility to assess whether what the client wants is what the client needs. And the two are often not the same.

Your process skills allow you to make that assessment. Let's look at the essential process skills.

Interviewing Skills

To succeed as a consultant, you need to build trusting relationships with your clients. You also need to get the information necessary to make judgments and offer advice that fits the individual customer. You can't make use of your specialized knowledge if you don't understand the client's situation.

To complicate matters, clients are not always able to provide this information without guidance. It's your role to provide that guidance through the interview process, by asking questions, helping the client clarify his or her needs, and conducting discussions that will elicit the information you need without being confrontational or alienating your client.

Group Skills

Unless your client involves only one person, you are going to be working with a group of people. Groups can be as small as two (for example, a husband and wife) or as large as several hundred people (for example, employees at a large corporation).

Groups skills refer to the tools and techniques a consultant uses to obtain information from groups, but they also include

  • Creating an atmosphere so group members feel comfortable speaking and participating.

  • Dealing with group disagreements.

  • Using techniques to keep group discussions on track and positive.

  • Employing public speaking skills.

Consultant Crashing

A consultant ill-prepared to deal with group dynamics and the anger, resistance, and confrontation that can occur in group meetings is likely to crash and burn, first temporarily, then permanently. Difficult situations will occur, and your skill in dealing with them constructively will determine failure or success.

Not only do you need these skills during the consulting project, but they are also absolutely essential in the front-end phase: getting the contract. That's because the process of getting a contract often involves interacting with a group of decision makers to convince them they should hire you.

Data Collection and Observation Skills

Suppose a client contacts you with this complaint: My staff turnover is high. Every year we lose about 50 percent of staff, and it's killing us to hire and train new people every year.

A poor soon-to-crash-and-burn consultant may take a quick look around and tell the client to increase salaries. But a good consultant avoids the quick and easy answer and instead investigates. The first question that must be answered is, "What is causing the turnover?" Without knowing this, it's impossible to suggest informed solutions. The consultant needs to collect data and make observations regarding the work environment.

The skills needed to get the pertinent information or data on which to base recommendations are known as data collection and observation skills.

Consultants have a wide range of tools they can draw upon to collect data. The more tools you can use and the more expert you are (there's that breadth and depth thing again), the more likely you will hit the mark with your advice. Here are a few of those tools:

  • One-on-one interviewing

  • Small group discussions (facilitation)

  • Small- and large-scale surveys

  • Direct observation of how people work, behave, and interact

Interpretative, Diagnostic, and Logic Skills

No question that getting information is absolutely critical to providing a great consulting service. However, information on its own is not enough. You must interpret the information to provide an accurate diagnosis. That requires diagnostic and logic skills.

What do these skills comprise? Giving a complete list is difficult, but here are the major abilities they include:

  • Delaying judgment until all available data have been considered

  • Weeding out the relevant from the irrelevant

  • Using different sets of data to confirm or disconfirm a tentative diagnosis

  • Applying statistical techniques to large quantities of data

  • Putting your personal biases on hold

  • Knowing when to follow your gut feeling

Consultant Crashing

A common consultant error involves developing a "pet way" of seeing things, and then seeing every consulting project in terms of that one way. For example, a team development consultant might tend to see all problems as related to faulty teams. A human resources consultant might look at exactly the same information and see the problem as one of hiring the wrong people. Be aware of your pet ways. Recognize that you need to be flexible.

Negotiation Skills

Consultants are always negotiating. You negotiate a contract, a time span, and fees. If you are involved in the implementation of a solution, you negotiate how the implementation should be carried out—who is responsible for what, when, and how it should occur, for example.

Project Management and Time Management

Finally, consultants need the ability to manage their time and to complete projects on schedule and on budget. Although most of us think we are fairly organized and systematic in our personal lives, consulting tends to highlight any project- and time-management flaws.

These flaws become apparent because a successful consultant juggles several projects and tasks at once, and it seems that everything needs to be done yesterday. The consultant's task is to make sure that if something really needed to be done yesterday, it was done yesterday.

Project and time management thus require the ability to prioritize tasks, develop plans of action that make sense, and maximize personal productivity. Wasted time and missed deadlines mean lost money (and lost future contracts).

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