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Are You Committing These Mistakes Consultants Make?


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It can be hard to avoid the big mistakes consultants make if you’re blind to the potholes. I’m sharing my own messy story to help you avoid some of the dips in the road in which I tripped and faltered.

Any consultant will tell you, consulting can be a lot of fun and also at times a very chaotic affair. You’re walking the line of project or program ownership while remaining an outsider. It’s your project, but you were hired to further your client’s success; your success is a by-product.

Years ago, I had the privilege of working on a team that designed, developed and implemented one of the largest live theater-based business simulations in history for a large pharmaceutical company. Our core team collectively put in thousands of hours of work, not including all of the contractors we hired for the training itself. The pressure was on to exceed expectations and create a meaningful learning experience.

We had insane logistics to manage and had hired over 100 actors to play doctors to train pharmaceutical sales reps for a new drug launch. It was our go-live weekend at the Alamodome in San Antonio, and everything came down to this three-day event.

I handled the hiring and preparation of the actors while my colleagues covered other critical pieces of the launch. These actors had no lines to memorize; it was all on-the-fly improv, and they had to pass as established doctors in cardiology and other specializations too.

Working with our casting agent, we held auditions in NYC and LA and hired an extremely smart and talented group of actors who were committed to their parts. I was incredibly proud of their results – they knocked it out of the park. However, this project was not really about the actors and how well they did; it was about the sales reps who needed to be prepared to go-live in the market the following week.

Not unexpectedly, during the three-day business simulation, some of the sales reps were superstars and others were challenged. A few of the reps stammered their way through the mock sales calls and struggled to master the material. Luckily, they had a coach observing every call to immediately engage them in the learning and make improvements over the next few days in the training. However, the problem was, the actors thought that the struggling reps were hysterical and shared their stories with our client.

I was worried that the actors were only telling the bad stories, the biggest flubs, and the worst experiences. They weren’t sharing stories about the great reps who were coming through the simulation and were well prepared to market the newest drug in their portfolio. To me, it was beginning to sound like all of the reps were a mess and not just a small subset.

After the first day of the training, I stood in the front of the room to tell the actors that I wanted them to not only share the bad with our client, but also the good. Yes, flubs are funny but we want to help build confidence too. A little less emphasis on the mess-ups would be great.

Later that evening the senior leader from my company came to see me; the client wanted me removed from the program. I was shocked and unbelievably sad. When I asked why, he told me it was because I advised the actors to no longer say anything bad, stopping the client from getting a realistic picture.

No! No, no, no!

I wanted balance. Okay, maybe a little more weight on the good side, but I never asked them to stop completely sharing the gaffes. I immediately asked how I could make it right and was told I could not.

Here’s what I learned from this experience, and from the decades of consulting that followed, are some the big mistakes consultants make. Are you making the same missteps?

Three Big Mistakes Consultants Make:

Owning the Work and Taking All of the Credit

I had a key client contact but truly felt like this program was my baby. I kept him in the loop at a high level, but he was never in the weeds. I thought he was happy. Turns out, working with Equity Actors, some of whom were famous, was sexy and the client wanted to feel the love. The program was his, not mine, and I should have made him the star of the show.

After the program wrapped, and I left the project, he took over as the primary point of contact and owned the relationships with the actors and the directors. He was much happier doing the fun stuff that he saw me doing for the past year.

  • I could have asked how he wanted to be involved. (Even if it was just socializing with the actors and letting him be in the spotlight)
  • I could have given him far more credit despite the fact that I was doing the work. (He was the employee; not me.)
  • I could have invited him, even when he didn’t ask and seemed too busy. (The choice was his; not mine)

Offering One Sided Insights / Feedback

Yes, I encouraged the actors to share more of the good and less of the bad, but it wasn’t all or nothing. Clients want to hear that things are going well, but also deserve to hear the truth and less than perfect results too. Yes, we can tell our clients that we’re managing them, there’s a plan and it’s under control – it doesn’t mean that consultants should pretend that everything’s perfect when it’s not.

Sharing the challenges opens up the client – consultant relationship to craft and implement solutions. It can be hard as a consultant to have access to the same information and resources as employee leadership. It’s important to remember that they want the program to succeed as much if not more than you do.

  • I could have taken responsibility for sharing the good and the bad too. (If I wanted balance, I could’ve led the way)
  • I could have asked the client to share what feedback he was hearing and facilitated a discussion with the larger team. (Choosing discussion over assumptions.)
  • I could have partnered with the client to ensure that the sales reps who were struggling were well supported and do reconnaissance to ensure that they were not all in a single region. (Fact-finding to deepen our shared understanding!)

Never Underestimate the Speed of Whisper Down the Lane  

I simply asked the actors to share less bad and offer more good. It took only a few hours for the request to get bastardized through a lightning fast round of whisper down the lane. Quickly, it went to NEVER share bad, ONLY share good.

People talk and even when you think you are having a closed door meeting, expect that when people leave through the open door, the information will get out. As a consultant, it’s critical to always loop back with your client instead of letting the rumor mill do the work for you. It’s much harder to say “I didn’t do it!” than to get in front of any potential issues.

  • I could have included the client in the meeting, eliminating potential misunderstanding. (Who was I really trying to protect?)
  • I could have looped back with my client to debrief the meeting and tell him what I said. (If out of line, it could have been corrected asap)
  • I could have asked the actors to speak to me if they were unsure of my feedback or direction. (The result may have been the same, but it never hurts to ask.)

The two things that I did on this program that were definitely not mistakes were:

1) Giving it my all and tirelessly working in service of the client’s success.

2) Apologizing to the client and directly asking how I could make it right.

What advice do you have for other consultants or business owners to avoid some of the pitfalls that you’ve discovered in your career?

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