Notes on being a consultant, ala you don€™t want to be one

Oh, consulting! It runs the world and often lives into the ground.

For a long time it was hard to explain exactly what I did for a living. Friends would often make the joke that I was like Chandler from the TV show Friends, as no one knew what he did for a living either. For many years, I refered to my job title as “consultant” (though I actually worked for a firm). It’s not that I’ve purposely set out to be vague, it’s just that my job description was in a constant state of flux on any given day. I have a fair amount of expertise and when called upon I came into varying sizes of corporations and solved whatever problem they had.

However, I’ve noticed that in the past few years, that answer often results in the following statement from whomever asked the question in the first place. “I’d really like to be a consultant, it sounds (fun|interesting|easy|other adjective).”

My reply to that statement: no, you don’t. I have reasons. Most are due to horrible clients and the horror stories you usually only read about in books.

The stigma of the consultant

Too often the word consultant comes with a negative connotation (or if you prefer, perception). Usually boils down to “consultants cost a lot of money but don’t (do|make|produce) anything” or “you couldn’t get a real job uh?” If you care to read about said negative connotations and the theories of why, there’s a very good thread on LinkedIn about the topic.

The most trouble I ever had with the title wasn’t even initially, it was after years with certain clients when there was a change in management. It was then that the word “consultant” usually made new management say “you’re an outsider and don’t care about our bottom line.” This of course was not true, but new management rarely cares about what I’ve ever had to say (numbers be damned!).

First rule about consulting, don’t talk about consulting

Much like fight club, you don’t talk about consulting. Some clients do not want it known that they had to bring in a consultant to accomplish some task. Heck, they may not want it known to someone in their own company. I call this working in the shadows. I’ve got a list locked away of clients I’ve done work for that I can never discuss with anyone. Sounds cool right? It’s not. You’re walking away with a check and that’s about it. Don’t expect a magic endorsement or something to add to your portfolio…you worked in the shadows remember?

You’re not part of their team

Some clients don’t want you to be part of the team. Others do, but you’re really not. Sure, you may work with a team…but you’re not part of it. I’ve worked inside companies where I’ve had a desk on site and they’d almost prefer you didn’t speak to anyone unless it was job related. They don’t want to have to keep you on and they sure as hell don’t want you to be valuable to people in their corp. Yes, I know. It sounds odd because it is; you’re called in because you have some special knowledge…and they only want that knowledge in small doses (and sure as hell don’t learn anything). Some people can’t handle this sort of isolation.

It’s a thankless job

Working with certain clients will leave you hollow inside if you don’t have an iron will. The reason for this is because they don’t care about you, many just want it faster, cheaper, better. Hit all three of those an guess what you’ll end up with….nothing. It’s a thankless job because no matter how hard or how long you’ve worked with certain clients, you’ll never get a thank you. People I’ve worked with have been brought to tears for going beyond the call of duty for clients, and getting not even an nod of the head.

Numbers are a catch 22

One of the things I’ve done particularly well at is save people money via operation automation and process reorgs. No matter how well you do eventually numbers will be of little use to your cause to keep a client. Take it from someone who at one point had saved a certain firm some $15 million a quarter (no, I didn’t fire anyone). Were they happy? For a while. Then a merger or three, and next thing you know it’s “that’s not good enough.” Have to admit, that one hurt.

There is no such thing as a straight answer

One of things that constantly kills me is that people are not straight shooters. You want to bring stuff in house? That’s fine let me know if I can be of assistance. I’m not out to get you, I’m just trying to help. But often getting a straight answer is near impossible…and then somehow it becomes your fault. Case in point would be requirements or specifications. I can’t count the times I’ve been yelled at over requirements that were poorly conceived by someone other than me. Imagine trying to get a change request signed off…it’s like a boxing match were you’re getting thumped with “it’s your fault, we’re not paying for your mistake.” Sigh.

Patience is not a virtue, it’s a survival tactic

Many clients call you in because you have an expertise they don’t have in the company and they only need you for a specified period of time. The problem is, they think they know what they need/want…but often that is not the case. It’s a dangerous situation of hand holding, trying to lead them to the correct answer as to save them time and money. It sounds so easy…but it is not. It will test your ability to take abuse (“that’s not what I want, you’re trying to gouge me!") and test your patience (“as we’ve discussed in the last four meetings, it works as such…"). I’ve seen people lose it and walk out on clients (which doesn’t help for the negative connotation by the way). Then again, I’ve also had to break up fist fights between directors over budgets. Think of it like wrangling kids…but with more attitude and upper body strength.

The list goes on…but there are good things too

I really don’t mean to put everyone off of being a consultant. You get to work with some very amazing clients whom never meet any of the above criteria (I know because I still have some of the good ones). The problem is, along the way you will no doubt meet some that do all of the above and make life harder then it has to be for not only you, but themselves.

It’s hard to build trust over spans of time only to see your trust compromised by fear that is unfounded. Sometimes, you have no recourse. Sometimes, things just go off the tracks. When that happens, it sets the tone on what you do next. You will get stabbed in the back, you will be underappreciated, you will get called names. Heck, all three of those things happened to me in the last week! You cannot let such things define you or your response.

I can’t tell you what to do. I can tell you what I do. I check my emotions at the door. I keep a calm head when all others have not. I understand people are not rational a lot of the time. I try to help even in the face of adversary. I try make a it a win for all stakeholders involved.

A lot of the time, that’s enough to get to the point of sorting out the root cause of the anger/fear. Then things can progress and everyone can be successful.

One for the road

I can’t say this article is exhaustive of all my experience on client work and consulting (prepare for the book I’m calling “A life of juggling irrational requests into small money”…I’m kidding, there’s no book, take a joke people it’s okay to laugh).

The long and short: most people I’ve met just don’t understand what they’re getting into with consulting, especially the points above. They hear about the flexible side of possibly working from home and the increased chance at doing what you love and other the good points…but they never hear about the bad side. When the bad hits, it hits them hard and sometimes knocks them out for good (I can sadly count 11 people I know who went into the consulting business….and quickly left).

So next time you hear someone say, “hey consulting, that’s for me” make sure they get a full checkup first.