So you are a consultant full of knowledge, professionalism and industry standards!  You now need somebody to employ you on a consultancy assignment.

Your client is going to be somebody with a problem which he expects you to solve for him.  All very reasonable, provided he has hit on his real problem.  His perception will be that he understands his problem (probably better than you do because it is his business, not yours) and that you have the technical skills that he lacks and can solve it.  He will have an idea of how he would go about it and will probably be ignorant of its wider implications (that’s where your skills come in) so he will have a notion on how much effort is reasonable to put in.  That will be his expectation and it may well be an under-estimate.

The rub comes when what he perceives as his problem is not his real problem at all, but a symptom of that problem.  That means that in order to provide the solution you should be tackling the root cause and maybe the predisposing causes as well. 

On the one hand, just to fix the immediate problem is not going to be very professional and if you just do that you can expect it to recur and for there to be further problems in the medium to longer term.  If you are unlucky, fixing one thing may expose other weaknesses.  You risk loss of client confidence.

On the other hand, the scope of what you have to do has suddenly expanded well beyond your client’s expectation and will therefore cost him much more than he bargained for.  This may also engender loss of client confidence.

In consultancy it is often said that you are as good as your last assignment, so you are now in an uncomfortable position – look unprofessional because your recommendation is implausible to the man paying the bills or look unprofessional because you provide a poor solution given the budgetary constraints.

Such situations need careful management.   They show the importance of documenting what you intend to do, why you intend to do it, and what realistic options are on the table. 

Each option will need to have its timescales and resources enumerated, the reasoning behind it, how long he can delay implementing it, and what it can achieve.   There will be risks and assumptions associated with each one and these must be spelled out.  Is what you achieve going to be tactical or strategic, short-term or long-term, robust or weak?  Are any of the possibilities false economies?  Which is your recommendation?  And in the very worst case, when there is no point doing what your client requests, are you strong enough and professional enough to tell him?

The document you have produced gives your client some choices to review your solutions against his business needs and his business context.  Maybe a long-term strategic solution will not suit him, because the business environment is changing so fast that such a solution will be out of date before it is delivered.  Maybe a weak but rapid solution is unsuitable because of the downstream costs of the poor customer service it implies.

You will have to sit down with your client to make sure he understands his choices.  This is not a bad thing, as the people side of consultancy is as important as the technical side.  You may have to educate your client and raise his horizons.  After all, he is likely not to be the only one who has experienced such problems, and your knowledge and experience should be good enough to explain to him that there are industry standard ways of solving them which he would be foolish to ignore, given that they are the results of thousands of man-hours of experience.

It is an opportunity to do some creative thinking around your client’s problems, manage his expectations, help him to understand his needs and the potential of his business that you can work towards together.  Building and prolonging a fruitful relationship is important – he may give you all the work that needs to be done in the end, but not necessarily immediately.

Handled properly the result should be better than he initially envisaged, and make him feel that even if he ends up spending more with you than he originally intended, you are providing good value for money, and that it was (and will continue to be) worth it.

[Please note:  The use of the masculine in this article includes the feminine as context permits]