Consulting engagements sometimes start like this: You show up on day one, and the first thing the client asks is, “We’re in the middle of doing XYZ-is that good? Or should we do ABC instead?”
Yes, you’re there to advise. But you’re just getting started, so a lot of assumptions are in play.
The first assumption a consultant inevitably makes is that the client knows their business and their requirements best, especially early on. Hence what they’re doing and thinking is probably mostly okay. Hence there’s an inherent reluctance to advise changing the client’s course.
Lately Bitlancer has been consulting with a client that just started a new venture. They needed some custom software, and were already evaluating vendors when we came onboard.
Our first day on the job, the client gave us several vendors’ proposals to evaluate. They were on a path to spending significant money. Did they really need to?
Based on technology experience, we had some hunches that lower-cost alternatives might work equally well. But because we didn’t yet understand all the business particulars and had many unanswered technical questions, we were reluctant to suggest a major change. So we helped them choose vendors and “stay the course.”
We later learned that the solutions our client chose did, in fact, underserve their needs in relation to the cost. Had we spoken up at the outset, the client could’ve investigated alternatives and probably saved money.
What’s the moral of the story? It’s that consultants and clients need to balance and test their assumptions about “who knows best.”
For example, Bitlancer engagements often start with us saying to the new client: “Pretend we’re a full-time employee that you just hired. Whatever you’d have that person work on first is probably what we should work on first.” This approach reflects our view that the client knows their business and its requirements better than we do. Just because we’re consultants doesn’t mean we don’t have to learn the ropes.
But this is where the balancing act comes in. As consultants, it’s fine if we feel that we have a lot to learn. But we shouldn’t be overly hesitant to offer preliminary thoughts based on experience that run counter to what’s on the table-despite various unknowns.
Yes, it might seem less risky to let a client move forward as planned and see what happens than to say, “Stop, I have a different idea.” Because the outcome of that idea could be all on you. Whereas if the initial direction is off, at least part of that is on somebody else.
Either way, the cost of being wrong frequently warrants articulating and testing assumptions. It’s only natural that there will be a learning curve for both parties at the start of an engagement. Putting concerns on the table upfront could add the most value in that situation.
Next time I have a hunch along these lines, I’ll be more inclined to speak up.