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Taking Your Practice or Firm to the Next Level… is "Simple"

CEF participants from right to left: Derrick Rome, investment portfolio management consultant; Sarah Alvarez, publisher, Para-Mi Magazine, (para-mi.net); Max May, associate, al berrios & co.; Don Cecci, management consultant; Douglas Long, principal, New Endeavors Consulting, Inc., a strategy consulting firm; Felix Nater, principal at Nater Associates, Inc., a security consulting firm; Patrick Hardy, principal of P. Hardy Technologies, a retail consultancy; and Al Berrios, managing director, al berrios & company, inc (not pictured)
(Wordcount: 1,258; Pages: 3) "So, what you're saying is that I'm not charging enough?!" Few phrases sound better in the English language; fewer still sound better to a consultant. It's not so much catering to the consultant's vanity than a reaffirmation of the consultant's value. But getting past the obviousness of this advice - a consultant's own ignorance of his worth - is easier said than recognized. More important, without a large infrastructure to propose, set, and promote fees, how does the small consultancy ever decide at what point should a consultant raise his rates? And for that matter, how much should a consultant charge? And using what fee structure? These and many other topics were covered at our recent Consultant Entrepreneur's Forum on Friday, July 14th, 2006, a lively and frank idea exchange for consultants of all stripes.

The issue of growing al berrios & co. ("the firm") had, oddly enough, not started with the decision to make more money, but rather with the decision to disprove the convention that the founder has to be pedigreed in order to achieve greatness in the consulting profession. As a result, the checklist I follow has more to establish (i.e. knowledge-base, learning framework) than one focused on wealth (i.e. six-figure income, buy a home), and thus, is going to take a wee bit more time. And although I had always anticipated increasing fees comparable to the best consultants out there, arriving at that point is the same as recognizing when one has become a "success".

Of course, no one can claim to be a success without first hearing someone else call him that first, a doubly challenging proposition, considering that as a straight-laced, logic-seeking "suit", it's hard to accept most claims at face value.

Peer reviews and industry awards exist for this reason, to allow a professional (and his clients) to call him(self) a success. But this consultant has studied incentives and motivation and understands that even at its basest level, industry awards always come with strings (joining a group, paying for tables, etc), diminishing the value of any award. And for a consultant attempting to introduce a new school of thought into the management sciences, a paying, returning, and/or referring client is all the recognition he really needs. Subjecting himself to any evaluation not his own is consequently anathema.

But nevertheless, social benchmarks are necessary to gauge one's progress. And that brings us to our forum. This forum was the culmination of a quest to identify and commit to a success trajectory of my own design, for it was here that a small consultancy could find the answers it seeks regarding its future, an environment that wasn't intimidating, wasn't competitive, and wasn't composed of "part-time" consultants, or more harmful, executives in transition. All our forums are incredibly exciting, but what made this one a particular turning point were the action items I left with, namely, confirming that my checklist was accurate and I was still on track to getting it done.

Discussed at the forum were the following topics:

Prospecting: No other topic dominated like this one, since every consultant has their own approach that works for them including: tactics like leveraging client referrals; to sales pitches based on "honestly" informing prospects that they're looking at the wrong things to fix; to closings that include contractually guaranteeing that client will meet profitability goals by working with said consultant. Consultants encouraged the forum participants to routinely remind prospects that it's better to "put out a little fire out now before it burns down [their] whole house", but ultimately, it was unanimous that relationships supersedes all other reasons for why a client engages a consultant.

Competition: It has always been my personal opinion that no two consultants truly compete. After all, clients pay for ideas and execution, both of which come about in ways unique to every individual consultant. Consultants who feel otherwise shouldn't be considered consultants, but peddlers of common knowledge (or widgets) and thus, worthless. I was relieved to learn that the group felt similarly, as we casually glazed over this topic without much discussion.

Setting Fees: Plainly, charge what you believe you're worth and in any format you want to collect it in, because at the end of the day, clients pay for what they value and get what they pay for and when they pay you, they always get high quality.

Engagements: Project scoping, expectation management, full commitment from senior leadership and "portfolio fits" were incorporated into the engagement itself to manage the consultant's costs of doing business with their client and of course, to make sure the client is happy with the end result. All these things are important because clients are often uneducated on what the final consulting product should look like, or worse, have had a negative experience previously and have only that experience on which to evaluate all future opportunities where calling in a consultant may be the best option.

Portfolio fits are those sort of potential engagements that aren't worth the effort, aren't meaningful, or are just too ethically deficient to even accept. But selectivity poses a real-world dilemma for the entrepreneurial consultancy that invests their limited resources in every pitch and depends on every cent. Hypothetically speaking, if a consulting brand is presented and sold as a product, and delivering service is comparable to making sure your product is on the shelf when a customer needs it, what difference does it make what the client does with it, ethical or otherwise? Model consulting firms don't face this dilemma - they recognize that clients aren't just paying to have knowledge transferred in, but accountability of all types, including ethical, "transferred" out onto them, in the same way big polluters can buy the right to pollute more from light polluters (carbon emissions markets). Regrettably, therein lies the most powerful incentive for clients to work with consultants.

Human Resources: Among the group, the general approach was recruiting and training junior people from schools, but using a traditional approach, where the training wasn't formal and termination process left that investment virtually wasted. Others hired other project managers, compensating them well, but placing strict guidelines for performance, rather than indoctrinating them in their own methods and systems. Others, more operationally-oriented consultants preferred to do the work entirely on their own, which, based on observation, appeared to be more of a perceptional matter borne from their generation.

One of this firm's most distinguishing characteristics is, in fact, its HR model, devised internally and for our own purposes. Our model prefers to grow our own consultants, indoctrinated so their opinions are influenced by our way of thinking and unleash them on important client matters with the expectation they'll sell the client what they want, while simultaneously deriving what they want - a full emphasis on work/life balance.

Industry Diversity: A prickly topic that was left homeless during the general discussion, it was rammed through at the last minute because consultants hate to leave a checklist with anything not checked off. It's no secret that the profession's leadership isn't as diverse as it could be, while the organizations we seek to do serious business with are similarly lacking in diversity. And, including myself, at least one other consultant has had experiences where younger professionals have expressed concerned curiosity about the profession's diversity. But, perhaps in an example of exaggerated concern, no consultant around the table felt their own background or skin color had any impact on the decision of their clients to work with them. They all felt respected for their skills and knowledge and compensated accordingly.

Al Berrios is Managing Director of al berrios & co., an innovative strategy consulting firm advising leaders on the impact of human behavior on their strategies and on how to change their organizations to address the behavior. Write to Consumer Strategies Report at editor @ alberrios.com.


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