The Thirsty Dog Blog by Jason Price | Seattle

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What Keeps You Up at Night?

This is the ‘meaning of life’ question in business development for management consulting.  Business Development and Leaders in Consulting are trained to ask their current and prospective clients this question.  It’s their money shot.  The hope and intent is that it will lead to clients spilling their guts about all their problems.  It’s also an easy way to show comprehension and empathy when we’ve just met.  A few nods here, concerned glances there, affirmative grunts in the right place – and bingo, we have a relationship.

I’ve been there so many times.  Listening to all the issues you are facing while thinking silently, “eureka, I’ve struck gold!”  The information you share by answering this one simple question will dictate the conversation now and in the future.  It gives the Biz Dev/Partner/Account Manager leverage and allows them to pry into your business as far as you’ll let them.  By exposing those skeletons in your closets you are now putting yourself in a position of submission.  Of course, you don’t have to hire them – but they will now throw every solution they have at you all the while assuring you that they can help you with your problems.  The good ones do the slow roll – one baby step at a time without overwhelming you with their competence.  The bad ones throw in everything and the kitchen sink – usually in a 30-60 minute meeting or lunch.

Needless to say, cautiously approach the good and take your time vetting them.  Throw the bad out with the baby and the bathwater.  Both want to sell you something but only one is desperate.  The other is patient and willing to listen more and perhaps collaborate better which may play to your advantage over time.


Sealing the Deal

As a client I’m sure you’ve been there.  You hire a top firm, expecting the best results.  You know the partners, you have relationships – maybe you even worked for/with them at a point?  You feel good, handshakes all around with a little backslapping and upbeat banter.  You have cocktails at happy hour to celebrate.  You’ve made a decision and you feel good about it.  Your consulting project is about to kickoff next week with a rock star team from a great firm with a solid reputation.  What could go wrong?


It Happens to the Best of Us

Everything starts out fine on your consulting project.  Consultants show up, smiling and enthusiastic.  If you’ve hired a local firm they are bright and chipper – no early morning flights from across the country and juggling of multiple firm responsibilities.  People are working diligently, meeting rooms are filled, project slogans are minted and the buzz is palpable.  Green pastures ahead – the kickoff meeting goes great, everyone is gung ho, you’ve made the right choice.  Yes!


Things Fall Apart

But no…one day in the future, you start to notice the cracks in the foundation.  You start to wonder if things are as they appear on the surface or if you need to dig deeper.  Those little doubts creeping into your subconscious start to materialize into real life worries.  Some of your people start to swing by your office asking for a minute to chat – only to leave a half an hour later after dumping some baggage about ‘the consulting project’ on you.  You begin to realize what’s keeping you up at night for real – it’s this damned consulting project.  Then you suddenly realize – I have a problem.

The dance usually goes like this:

  1. You start seeing your consultant PM working more hours than normal/budgeted
  2. Your status reports start creeping to ‘Orange’ because the consultant doesn’t want to alarm you by saying your project is flaming ‘Red’
  3. You are ‘casually’ taken to lunch by the Practice Leader/Account Manager on your account to ‘catch up’
  4. Your notice your invoices starting to creep up if you are on a Time & Materials arrangement (risk mitigation hint: don’t do these for project-based work)
  5. You begin to see people you don’t recognize working on your project being brought in as supplemental ‘quick hit’ staff
  6. You are offered some additional time from an ‘expert/leader’ who is familiar with the type of work your consultants are doing
  7. You get invited to play golf/eat at a fancy restaurant/go to the game with the Managing Partner

If you haven’t figured out what’s going on by step 3 or 4, then the bomb will drop at step 7 – likely on a hole with a long fairway and few other players around.  Plus, it’s bad etiquette to swear loudly on a golf course  (unless you are Al Czervik).


What to Do?

Don’t wait until it’s too late to find out you are hosed.  You can stem the tide of risks becoming real issues if you manage the engagement like a true executive sponsor.

Here are some basic ways to stay in the loop and keep from getting snowed or snowplowed:

  • Communicate with leaders (both FTE and Consultant) on your project early and often.  Bring them together and talk to them separately to see if their stories align.
  • Set expectations on when you expect to be brought into the loop – when, how and how often
  • Spend time asking the first, second and third question – dig into the details
  • Build monthly reviews into your contract where the consulting firm’s project leader and engagement leader are present – set expectations on what is to be covered during these review
    • Drill them during these meetings
    • Examine and dive deep where there seems to be misalignment between consultant leaders
    • Ask for budget updates complete with earned vs. burned figures as well as forecasts
    • Ensure the top 3-5 risks and issues are covered in depth
    • Ask where they need your help
  • Make a call to the consulting firms partner every 4-6 weeks as a subtle reminder that you are paying attention (and hoping they are too)


These might seem like simple 101-level things but the saying ‘the devil is in the details’ holds true here.  As an executive sponsor, you are as accountable for success as the firm you hired.  You need to take responsibility in setting expectations and then continuing to follow up.  It’s easy to blame consultants for failure and take credit for success but those are signs of weak, ineffective leaders.

Consulting projects are generally collaborative efforts – it takes two to tango.  So be clear, pay attention, foster honesty and trust vs. fear of retribution and keep an eye out for the 7 ‘tells’ outlined above to ensure success.