Things to Think About If a Client Prospect Asks, “What is the Longest Time You’ve Worked with Any Client?”

This post is based on a question I was posed on Quora.

Based on this question, my gut reaction is that they are looking for a sense of a) how deep do you go with similar clients in similar situations, and b) what’s the outside norm in terms of project length for a similar clients in similar situations.

Key things to be aware of though are what is the client thinking and what you are thinking. With respect to client thinking, are they really talking about any client? Or are they more likely to be talking about a similar client in a similar situation? Where on the spectrum? In terms of what you are thinking, do you think the client has the right perception about any client versus similar client?

How you should respond depends on where you think the client is anchored and where you think they should be.

If they are anchored on similar clients in similar situations, then you could qualify to what extent you see them as similar and then give a range of how long you’ve worked with such clients depending on whether X was involved or X, Y, and Z were involved. You can use this opportunity to answer their questions while also giving them a sense of your depth of involvement.

If they are anchored on any client, then you probably have more work to close any deal. They may be just kicking the tires. If you want to close a deal, you’ll probably need to figure out how to shift perceptions so that they see themselves as similar to clients you’ve worked with, work you’ve done, and/or processes you’ve used in the past. The client prospect could very well be a fit for what you do, but there is a psychological gap that should be addressed.

How Do Management Consultants Quickly Come Up To Speed On Projects?

This answer is based on the response to a question I was posed on Quora.

Here are some of the main ways I’ve seen consultants get briefed on projects.

  1. Engagement manager – The engagement manager has responsibility for the client problem statement and the problem-solving structure (i.e., project tactics). As the on-the-ground, field leader, the engagement manager can help to get new people on the project oriented both from a high-level and with their role on the project.
  2. Engagement workplans and blueprints – Some projects have clear engagement workplans laid out at the outset. Sometimes the high-level workplan is set out before the project even starts. If not before, then most certainly the workplan is addressed in the first week +/-. These often breakdown the workstreams, key activities, deliverables, project roles, and governance structure. Blueprints which potentially specify the templates that should be completed may even be available in some cases. These structures help keep consultants focused on what matters and may help them avoid re-inventing the wheel.
  3. Management reports – Consultants often get reports normally directly accessible by the management teams. This helps to accelerate knowledge transfer and provides a lay of the land within any limitations of the reports (which may also need to improved based on mutual agreement between the consultant and client).
  4. Peers – Consulting is really based on apprenticeship and teamwork. Consultants often ask peers on the consulting team for information they’ve learned, feedback on approaches, etc.
  5. Industry reports – Consultants often dive into industry reports very close to when they arrive onsite for a new client. This can help the consultant come up to speed about industry-specific terminology, product offerings, competitors, new entrants, regulatory issues, geographical considerations, etc.
  6. Client interviews – Consultants also get very key info through interviews with client management and personnel. These sessions are usually motivated by the engagement workplan and are used to assess the current state of a particular area, identify issues, collect ideas, and get color regarding business operations. It is often preferred that items #1 through #5 are explored to some extent as preparation for client interviews.

How Do Consultants Stay Organized Before Creating Client Deliverables?

This post is based on a question posed to me on Quora.

Individual consultants and engagement managers usually develop their own ways of organizing information. Here are a few concepts I have used (but situations vary widely based on the situation and team composition):

  1. Document the problem statement, the problem solving structure, the set of workstreams and activities to execute the project, governance process, and structure of each deliverable. In some cases the engagement team may create (up front) an entire blueprint to execute the project.
  2. Develop interview guides according to the problem solving structure and conduct interviews with the interview guides in mind. Take raw notes roughly in line with the interview guides. Create managerial meeting summaries along the way and file the raw notes.
  3. Organize notes, specimens, analyses, deliverables, potentially by workstream folders and subfolders. For example, there may be four major workstreams at the top level like assessment, financial modeling, technology options, and business strategy. Here is a chart from my book, The Consulting Apprenticeship, and it illustrates the conceptual concept of workstreams and activities (I could have also included deliverables on the chart, but the sizing for print would have been an issue).
  4. Have clear consultant assignments and owners for workstreams and major activity areas. Have individual consultants organize and present progress (for their realm) to engagement managers and principals at least 1–2 times per week. This helps to both keep project cadence up and put pressure on the individual consultants to be organized and deliver the pieces that they have responsibility for. Make course adjustments or staff adjustments as needed.

Note that some consulting firms also set up “war rooms” where there may be many wallboards, whiteboards, and the like for maintaining an Agile-like environment. Elements of that can eventually get converted into more formal deliverables. You may also run into some tech-savvy clients that also encourage the use of things like Slack or InVision for collaboration and communication with the client.

In summary, careful planning, note taking, analysis, project organization, storyboarding, and regular project leader reviews are needed to keep information organized and a consulting engagement on the rails.

Edit 2/13/2019: Special mention to Kevin Johannes Wörner who has a nice video covering advice for new strategy consultants (9 lifehacks) based on his experiences, including at Roland Berger. I really resonate with Kevin’s comments about how to deal with massive amounts of data and information coming at you in the client environment and focusing on the few items that really drive results. 

Thoughts About Finder’s Fees to Other Professional Services Providers as a Consultant

This answer is based on a question posed to me on Quora.

I’ve only used finder’s fees sparingly over the course of my professional services career. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Some of the best referrals for me have come from other people that currently work either for the client or as a consultant to the client. Providing a referral fee can sometimes create a conflict for those parties providing a referral. The same applies to me providing referrals.
  2. Other referrals come through people that know me or know of me. In these cases, I may provide a referral fee (or something else) more as a unwritten gesture than as a contractual, business regularity, mainly since business through these channels is very much appreciated but more irregular.
  3. Unless designed properly, the referral fee can be stranded between a space where not enough incentive is provided (or even insulting to the referrer), too much incentive is provided and margins are decreased too much, and/or an unwritten obligation is created where the referrer feels overly responsible as to whether the referred is successful or not (as opposed to being arms length from both the referred and the client).

Others may have different experiences, so make sure to get some other perspectives.

How Do Consultants Handle Situations With Clients Who May “Laugh” at Them Relative to Projections and Opportunity Outcomes?

Here are some thoughts on how consultants prepare for and handle these types of situations:

  1. Projections may be initially tested in safer settings. If projections end up being perceived as too wild or aggressive, it is better for this to happen in a working meeting or separate session before a “final” presentation is made. Following an iterative process and managing client expectations reduces risk for the consulting team.
  2. Projections are usually based on models with assumptions being made transparent. By making assumptions and modeling transparent, some focus can be taken off of the actual projections. The focus is more on the process and the assumptions, which of course lead to the projections. If the client disagrees with the assumptions or the process and modeling, problems can be resolved to minimize the possibility of clients “laughing” at the consulting team for the projections.
  3. Models and projections are often built by keeping the client team involved during the build process. This further minimizes risk of the client being surprised at the end. It also helps to increase ownership of the projections by the client. All projections have limitations of some sort. So let’s all own both the insights and limitations of the analysis.
  4. If the consulting team was not able to follow any of the processes above or if the consulting team could only feasibly do some of the elements above, then senior people on the team may need to handle a client that disbelieves the numbers and “laughs”. As example of how this could work, the partner could simply assert confidently that they believe the numbers and that a separate session could be set up to go through them. Another alternative might be for the partner to say that the consulting team will take a second look and perhaps one or more of the client members could be involved. Yet another option might be for the partner to suggest that some other scenarios and sensitivity analyses be performed. I will say though that consultants use their analytical training try to avoid being orders of magnitude off when putting forth projections. Or if they are going to provide projections that may be wildly off, they caveat that up-front.

All said, consultants try hard not to let situation #4 come up by actively working on items #1-#3 to reduce risk. It is important to remember that in consulting, the process is an essential part of the deliverable.

The post above was reproduced from a question that I originally answered on Quora.

Tips on How to Sell Consulting Services Without Giving Away Everything During Pre-Sales

A lot of consultants fear that they will give away too much in terms of advice during the pre-sales process. Here are some thoughts on how I’ve tried to keep sales processes on track:

  1. As you are engaging the client prospect, try to envision the big picture for the solution approach to the prospect’s business problem. For example, you may see that the client needs to a) better articulate the problem statement and the key priorities (vision), b) decide on an approach (strategy), and c) execute on all the tactical operational things to carry out the strategy (tactics).
  2. Communicate the big picture approach to the client.
  3. Try to add some value by helping them to articulate and refine the problem statement and perhaps also add a detailed item or two that they should consider as part of the more detailed solution approach workstreams. Yes you might consider this giving something away, but you will need to be able to add value and show the client how you are thinking to be able to sell to them consulting services. The client prospect needs to be able to trust you.
  4. Keep your pre-sales activities pretty tight. For example you might limit your pre-sales sessions to 2 to 3 meetings of 1–1.5 hours each. This will also help to provide some separation between planning and doing the work. If you are doing a good job selling your services, you should be able to tell within say the first 1-3 sessions whether you have a serious sales prospect and what the high-level requirements are to close the deal. Note you might be able to get to a high-level proposal or conceptual approach after the first 1–2 meetings.
  5. For many deals, you should be making it clear to the prospect that you are trying to better understand the problem statement so that you can propose the right approach to solving the problem; you are not solving the problem right there as solving the problem will take days, weeks, or months of collaboration and work.

To recap, make sure that both parties understand the problem statement. Both parties should understand the approach and should appreciate that solving the problem will take both time and work. Offer some value to the client in advance of sale; this does not necessarily have to be much, but you need to establish credibility and trust. Finally, set some expectations on the cadence and timeline to get to a proposal or no-go decision.

A Helicopter View of a Management Consulting Proposal

I’ve often been asked by new consultants to provide insights on structuring a proposal. Here’s a conceptual, high-level summary of a typical proposal:

  1. Executive Summary and Overview – often articulates background relevant to the proposal, such as current issues and the specific problem statement that the consultant will be addressing for the client. This section may also list key goals of the client for the project.
  2. Scope of Work – can articulate the project structure for the engagement (e.g., see this example Gannt-like chart from my book outlining four illustrative workstreams), the activities within each area (both client consultant activities), key deliverables, key milestones, assumptions, etc.
  3. Roles and Responsibilities – articulates the consulting delivery team players (named individuals) or types of players (e.g., anonymous job-level descriptions), key roles expected to be filled by the client (e.g., project lead, owner, sponsor, core team, stakeholders, steering committee), and other site access and logistical items.
  4. Commercial Terms – contains pricing, performance terms, expenses, timings, policies, etc.
  5. Appendix – might include key case study summaries, CVs for consultants, and other schedules.

Often the proposal is incorporated by reference or as an appendix into a master services agreement which contains umbrella legal terms. Other methods are possible, such as just having a letter agreement (depending on context and conventions of the situation, e.g., certain countries).

Processwise, proposals are usually invited. It is generally a waste of time to create these proposals until the client prospect and consultant have had enough discussions to clarify the problem statement and scope of work at a high-level. Once draft proposals are submitted, the proposals are revised upon further discussions with the client.

I’ve finally released Inside Nudging: Implementing Behavioral Science Initiatives


Inside Nudging is written for management professionals and scientists to feed their thinking and discussions about implementing behavioral science initiatives (which includes behavioral economics and finance) in business settings. Situations include the incubation of innovation centers, behavioral science overlay capabilities, and advancement of existing organizations. Companies need to develop grit – the ability and fortitude to succeed. The book introduces the Behavioral GRIT™ framework and covers key takeaways in leading an organization that implements behavioral science. Behavioral GRIT™ stands for the business functions related to Goals, Research, Innovation, and Testing.

The chapters are complemented by an appendix which covers ideas to introduce behavioral science initiatives. I argue that first a company needs to identify its goals and identify what type of predominant organization model it wants to pursue. There are five predominant organizational models I’ve seen. I also offer that a company should consider a number of implementation elements that may play a role during execution. Example elements include an advisory board and a behavioral science officer.

Note that the purpose of this book is not to teach people about behavioral science; there are many other books out there for those purposes. That said, Inside Nudging introduces some behavioral science concepts to provide context and help develop a common language between management professionals and scientists.

I see the application of behavioral science as still being in the early adoption phase. Many companies will benefit if they take time to develop the right approach. I hope Inside Nudging helps you with your journey.

Steve Shu

Praise for Inside Nudging