When is Consulting, “Consulting”?

One of the major dilemmas a consultant faces is determining at what point giving too much is harmful for his or her business? Or, when is giving helpful advice “off the cuff” enabling a potential client to harvest information or services for free?

Consultants are not alone in regards to this quandary. Many professionals, like doctors and attorneys, are often solicited for free, professional advice. Many times, people think they are just asking a quick question; asking for a “general idea” or a “ballpark figure”. In reality, we know an accurate answer requires diagnosis, analysis, investigation, and additional information. As a consultant, your strong and affable relationships with others are not only who you are, but is also part of your reputation. If your answers seem “stingy”, you may appear to only be interested in making a buck; if they are generous, you may not only be taking bread off your family’s table, but you could also be endangering yourself and your business. Advice given “off the cuff” can be misguided when you are not well-versed with the company and/or situation. However, the casual answer given off hand could injure your reputation afterwards if your comments are conceived as incorrect or bad advice; for some, it could even have legal ramifications.

You want to build a relationship where contacts trust you and see you as approachable. Yet, you also need to have respect for yourself and your profession. Much of what you provide clients are intangibles-something the client cannot see or touch. However, the effects of what you provide CAN be seen and does have value.

Perhaps the best thing you can do for all consultants is to educate the client. You bring education, experience, a wealth of information and data accumulated both formally and informally. You bring plans, solutions, and paths to successful outcomes. You bring support, guidance and coaching. You will be their biggest cheerleader as you guide them on the road to success. Consulting is more than off-the-cuff advice and clients should realize that tapping into experience-based consulting is a safety net; it typically saves more than it costs.

Consulting or Advice?

This is the question both the client and the consultant should consider. Advice is freely given-often unwarranted. Seems everyone is ready to share their two-cents-mothers, neighbors, friends, even strangers. Consider, “is this what is requested?” Consulting requires going through the storeroom of experience, becoming knowledgeable of the company and situation, researching, analyzing, and diagnosing to apply expertise, experience and knowledge to the situation. The consultant’s day is a pendulum swinging between advising and consulting. How do you know when consulting is consulting? Chef Tony Merola suggests the approach of asking, “Am I on the clock?” This easily identifies the difference. Chef Tony acknowledges that this reply often either brings insult or an end to the conversation, but it is really the only way to know the status of the conversation.
So what’s a consultant to do? You are always going to walk a thin line when it comes to family and friends, but what about prospective clients-the ones that are promising right up to the time to sign a contract or work out the specific details of an engagement? This can be a tricky situation. These individuals may ask small questions mining for information–saying they need to know (blank) before they can make a decision or put you “on the clock”. Be careful about how much you commit. Recognize that disseminating free advice can cause you to be an enabler of unprofessional behavior.

Ask the potential client, “What will you do with the information once you have it?” Most of our clients have picked free information from those in or around their industry and from the Internet, yet are they using the information gleaned? These individuals need to make better use of the data they already have available to them. Others have industry resources at their fingertips, but are too busy or unable to do their homework-they want you to provide the answers. Your answer is to teach them how effective consulting will help them access the right information, understand it, see the real issues and address their pain points by identifying a solution. As a consultant, you not only will guide them to the answers and point the way, but also act as an objective third party leading them to take actions that brings successful results.

So, what can we do to help reluctant prospects take the step to a bona fide engagement? There will probably never be a for sure answer but I am considering the following:

Offer a complimentary consultation. Be sure to let the client know the value of this service.

Example: I, along with the FreshXperts team of consultants, desire to meet your needs, whether that be a short-term, mid-term or long-term engagement. I would like to offer you a FREE, one-hour no-commitment “Get Acquainted” conversation, a $250 value. During this time I’d like to hear and learn more about your company and provide a simple, entry level needs assessment. Again-at no cost or obligation.

During this “Get Acquainted” consultation, I plan to:
Listen to understand why the information or help is being solicited.
Provide a simplistic version of a Needs Assessment
Identify skills and services we have that can help their business.
This meeting will provide a platform for the client to ask questions to assess my expertise and his/her need. This initial business meeting provides the client with an appropriate “vetting” venue-far more productive and efficient for both parties. From this meeting, the prospective client should be able to assess whether our services can benefit his/her operation and we will have a better understanding of the business and its needs in order that we can prepare for future engagements.

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Anthony Totta

Anthony Totta

This industry is filled with passionate people who love what they do. Most come from wonderful entrepreneurial family businesses with a rich heritage. So do I. I've learned from them. The've learned from me. Together we promote nutritionally rich fresh food for healthy living. It's a fabulous journey and a wonderful mission!