What clients want from you, the consultant

I wrote this largely for folks who are doing freelance work. It started as a reflection of experiences working with a number of consultants in different areas in securing real estate for Last Minute Gear, and also folds in my personal experiences working as a consultant.

First, because empathy is the most important tool in collaboration, let’s agree on the two perspectives.

Because these are not mirror-opposites, gaps form. I’d like to focus on the ones that, in my experience, are most problematic.

1. When a consultant isn’t as experienced as the client thinks

Any consultant worth their salt knows that to stay relevant in the game, they have to keep learning. And since few freelancers have the resources to do no paid work while they’re learning a new skill, most consultants take on new projects outside their comfort zone to learn from them.

If you decide to do this as a consultant:

  • take on projects that are less than 50% outside your comfort zone (I’d say 20–30% outside your comfort zone are ideal)
  • be brutally honest with the client
  • give appropriate discounts

If you take on a project that is 100% outside your comfort zone (but you do it because you’ve always been keen to jump to that new zone), there’s a very high chance you will take as long to figure it out as the client would have themselves, meaning that for the paying client, it was a very inefficient deal.

What if you were brutally honest with the client about not knowing what you were doing, and did it for pennies? Surprisingly, in most cases, this will still result in an unhappy client. You may have not stolen the client’s time or money, but you essentially stole a skillset from the client — because they could have learned it themselves and then been able to do it in the future.

Isn’t this common sense? Nope. It’s hard for consultants to under-sell themselves or to give dramatic discounts. You may think it’s easy, but when there are no other projects in your pipeline… well… It’s the same thing as how the generally accepted best practice for hiring is that it’s better to not hire anyone at all than to hire someone bad — but bad apples get jobs all the time don’t they?

This means that as a consultant, if you truly want to move to a new field, be prepared to make a big investment — take time off to truly learn it, get to 80% mastery, and then use a project to take yourself the rest of the 20% outside your comfort zone.

Even for a project in your comfort zone, though, you should be brutally honest with the client about what you’ve done and have not done before. If you’re a designer and have experience with everything except one particular material that the client wants — be upfront about it. Set the expectation so there are no issues down the line.

It may sound like a reversal, but I frequently sing the praises of consultants who I work with (still) who have declined projects from me (and always with a finger in the right direction) based on lack of personal experience. I respect them so much more for turning me down, not less, because in the end, I went to a specialist and got a better result for my money.

(By the way, this advice doesn’t always persist for big firms, because there’s much more value that they bring other than the expertise in a particular project. When I was at Bain, we had entire projects where we had very little true expertise in the industry. That was balanced by the fact that we got up-to-speed very rapidly, and the fact that the project required a capability, such as market sizing, we were very comfortable with. Projects are divided by industry and by capability — you have to be good at one of the two!)

2. When a consultant takes on a project for personal reasons

Your mom has asked you to build her a website. Can you honestly say no? When you’re thinking of taking on a project that doesn’t provide measurable returns, or less-than-usual-rate returns, there are a host of interwoven cultural expectations, social norms, interpersonal relationships, etc.

If you decide to do this as a consultant:

  • be absolutely confident in your ability to do this project as if it were one you were not taking on for personal reasons (basically be professional)
  • be OK with sacrificing the personal nature of your relationship if the project doesn’t end well

It’s the same advice that is given in the context of family-friend investments in a business (or perhaps dating in the workplace), really.

For years, my fraternity hounded me for taking on an official alumni role. I have always declined. Not because I don’t feel like I can do it, but because I know I’m too busy with my actual job. In other words, I wouldn’t have done it as well as I would have if it were my actual job.

Why is this bad? Better a half-ass job than no job at all right? Nope. It’s just like the example earlier about not hiring someone who’s not a perfect fit, but then again bad apples getting jobs all the time anyway. See, if I had been a terrible alumni president, I would have been deeply resented because there’s no way for people to be sure that I had been a better option than the alternative (perhaps a vacant seat). That’s a lot of subjunctive… here’s a more concrete example:

A friend of a friend agreed to do a job for me at a discount. The job didn’t go very well, I constantly felt treated like it was my job and not our job — like it wasn’t prioritized relative to their other projects. They probably didn’t like me very much either because I was pretty vocal about my dissatisfaction, and they were like — chill out, it’s a discounted project!

Once a project begins, discount or not, favor or not, a client expects the job to get done, with the same degree of quality and professionalism offered to everyone else.

For what it’s worth, I’ve actually turned down doing favors for my mom. She’s probably still annoyed about it. But I like to think that she got a better result than what she would’ve gotten if I’d given it my 5% effort, which would have made her much more annoyed.

3. When everyone is busy

Especially where gaps #1 and #2 occur, there arises another gap — miscommunication about roles and who’s doing what. I used to think that projects were finished based on discrete tasks. I now realize that projects are finished when a continuum of tasks are completed. But guess what? Someone has to drive that continuum forward. Someone has to be the project manager.

To be clear, no one likes to be the project manager. Everyone likes to just do the task. If you’re putting on a performance, the performance is what’s fun, not the scheduling, logistics, coordinating tediousness that needs to happen. But someone has to do it, or the performance falls apart.

If you take on any project as a consultant, be super explicit about who will be the project manager, a role that includes…

  • keeping master documents (literally, I mean this in the context of who keeps up with revisions in a document multiple people touch, unfortunately there isn’t Git outside of software)
  • scheduling (think like a Gantt chart, if meetings A and B have to happen before C, and C needs to happen in 1 hour, then scheduling has failed)
  • coordinating (if meeting C requires Pat and Chris to attend and neither of them were notified [2 days in advance, with calendar invitations, and regular reminders], then coordinating as failed)
  • nagging on deadlines (literally nagging… calling people 14 times a day if they fail a deadline, recognizing that their missed deadline pushes everything back)

Because no one likes to do the above, many clients want this to happen: a blindfold lifted off to reveal an immaculate home designed from a single brainstorming session 6 months earlier. While many consultants want this to happen: sitting back in a plush chair and bestowing expert advice here and there.

Bain did a great job of project managing (we had some teams devoted to nothing but this for large clients), which in some ways ruined me for life. I’ve never worked with a consultant who I’ve felt like did not need to be managed. The minute I, as a client, have to ask myself, “I wonder what the consultant is doing” or “what’s the status of…?” then project management has failed. By the way, this is the exact same as a manager-employee relationship. I wrote more about that here.

On the bright side, this means that nowadays, I go into most projects with an explicit email that says — I’m happy to do all the work and coordination, I just need to know your availability for a check-in.

And that’s it! Of course there are tons of other micro-issues, but these to me feel like the biggest, thematic issues that arise. And they’re all solvable (and should be solved) very early in a working relationship.

By the way, you might be wondering, is it wholly your responsibility to address these? The client, after all, is responsible for doing due diligence as well right? Yes, that’s absolutely right. But remember, at the end of the day, the lifeblood of a freelance consultant is reviews & referrals. The lifeblood of a client is not a reverse review & referral from you.

P.S. In the category of succeeding at work, I’ve written a lot of things that can often be boiled down to one general rule of thumb: set expectations. Think about how that manifests across your life. I truly think it makes everything better

I blog about life & work on my entrepreneurial journey. We’re building the best outdoor gear shop at Last Minute Gear!