No More Root Canals
You don't need to be around the consulting business long before you'll hear a client refer to a consultant (or an entire firm) as difficult, arrogant, condescending, or just plain snooty. Not all projects go exactly as planned, so it's not surprising that some clients grouse about their consultants. Such barbs come with the territory.
And some projects call for consultants to "break glass" to achieve the client's desired outcome, in which case, a certain amount of pain is expected. But what if, as one client put it, working with consultants is like having a root canal? No firm in its right mind wants a reputation for being that hard to work with.
Do you even know what your clients experience in working with you?
Too many consultants measure a client's satisfaction postmortem, based on the effectiveness of the transaction. If the project delivers the desired outcome, on time, on budget, and the client pays the bill, the project is deemed a winner. Rarely does the client's experience enter into the satisfaction equation.
Now is the time for consultants to make the client's experience an integral part of the business.
In their 1999 book, The Experience Economy, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore advise executives to battle the onslaught of commoditized goods and services by managing the customer's total experience: "Businesses that relegate themselves to the diminishing world of goods and services will be rendered irrelevant. To avoid this fate, you must learn to stage a rich, compelling experience."
Every consultant/client interaction evokes emotions, whether it's a presentation, a meeting or even a voicemail message. Consultants can encourage a positive response by adding experiential elements to traditional, transaction-based consulting processes. The resulting emotional reaction will help establish a connection between you and the client that helps build the relationship.
What do I mean by adding experiential elements to the consulting process? Think Southwest Airlines, Las Vegas, or Disneyland. OK, maybe it's over the top to think a consulting project could be "the happiest place on earth." But you get the idea. Those businesses attempt to create memorable, emotional, and positive encounters for their customers. The experience is a big part of the service.
This idea isn't a stretch for most consultants. After all, delivering top-flight client service is in the mission statement of every consulting firm on the planet. Of course, consultants aren't in the entertainment business, like Disney or the Las Vegas casinos. But why not tear a page from their book and apply it to the marketing, selling and delivery of consulting services?
Some consultants already focus on the client's emotional experience. Ask Doug Hall, author, consultant, and founder of the Eureka Ranch. The "ranch" is a colorful, energetic environment where clients attend facilitated sessions to experience the "Aha!" of new ideas, whether that's imagining new products or breathing new life into old ones.
Hall's team never loses sight of its objective, which is to deliver extraordinary value. But they use an intense, challenging, creative process to shake loose their clients' best ideas. This isn't a style-over-substance approach to consulting. The consulting team conducts rigorous fact-gathering, analysis, and solution development - just like every other consulting firm.
This trend is picking up steam among other consulting firms, as they apply experiential elements to their visual identity, marketing communication, business development, and consulting offerings.Suzanne Lowe, author of Marketplace Masters, believes that creating a positive emotional experience for clients can be a real market differentiator. That's because your client's specific experience is very hard for competitors to copy.
The opportunities for experiential consulting are enormous. Dump the stuffy status meetings, staid group sessions, and boring presentations. Take a look at your own consulting approach and products. You'll find specific areas where you can tweak your consulting services to create memorable experiences for your clients. And there's no reason why you can't adopt a systematic, experiential approach to marketing and selling too.
Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson, in his unpublished manuscript, Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management, makes this observation about human nature: "You remember 1/3 of what you read, 1/2 of what people tell you, but 100 percent of what you feel." What clients are most likely to remember about you is their emotional reaction to working with you.
Consulting is a high-touch business, and one bad experience can pull the roof in on a client relationship. As one consultant said to me, "If you mess up a client's experience with your firm - even just a little - it takes a lot of white paint to cover that black mark." Fortunately, the converse is also true. One great experience can cement a relationship for the long-term.
Consultants who bring a cold-fish, know-it-all approach to the table, even if they have talent and skill, may find success in the short-term but will stumble eventually. There are simply too many great choices out there. Clients will turn their backs on "root canal" consultants, and go with the firms that deliver results and a great personal experience.
Michael W. McLaughlin is the coauthor, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, and the editor of Management Consulting News and The Guerrilla Consultant. Find out more at www.guerrillaconsulting.com and www.managementconsultingnews.com .
Many more articles in Sales & Marketing in The CEO Refresher Archives