6 Phrases to Be a Better Consultant

Published on by Dan KlcoPicture of Me Dan Klco

Recently, I've made a change from working in consulting for the entirety of my career to taking on a product engineering role. I'm excited about the change, but now that I'm no longer going to be consulting day to day, I want to contribute my experience back to the community.

Every business guru and motivational speaker has their particular catchphrase and quotes. I can't claim these as my own, but I've found these six sayings very helpful in my career.

Everybody Sells

This was one of the favorite sayings of the VP of Sales at my first job and at the time I hated it. After all, hadn't I spent all this time getting a technical degree so I wouldn't have to hock services? 

Only after awhile, I realized that this was only part of the true meaning behind the quote: everybody sells: you're either selling yourself or someone else.

As an expert consultant, it can be tempting to think that sales is really only the job of salespeople, but really every interaction we have with a customer is either selling them on the quality and value of our work or selling them that they need to go somewhere else.

Many companies have mottos about "people being their most valuable asset", but in the case of consulting companies this is actually true.

Regardless of how many top-secret methodologies, patent pending processes or industry differentiators a consulting company claims to have, projects hinge on the execution of their employees and teams. No matter the connections your account team has or the skill of the sales team, the next deal hinges on your ability to deliver and represent your employer.

Beyond delivering work with excellence and selling our value, consultants are uniquely placed to help sales people expand accounts. While we should keep a separation of duties to preserve our professional integrity, as consultants part of our job is to identify gaps in provide solutions. By ensuring our sales or account teams are aware of these gaps, we can ensure our colleagues the opportunity to expand the account.

So What?

Especially in technology, it's easy, tempting and fun to get on bandwagons. It's also difficult, when you spend hours for days on end getting your head around something to comprehend others who don't have your perspective.

Thus it's no surprise when talking to people with very different perspectives we can tend to skip the important step of explaining why what we're talking about is important. 

The first step is to put yourself in the shoes of your stakeholder. What do they care about? For most business leaders this will be increasing sales or cutting costs, but there could also be considerations for risk mitigation or community engagement. 

Once you know what your stakeholder's objective is, explain your position and ask "so what?" If the answer doesn't align with your stakeholders objective try again and ask "so what" until it does.

For example, let's imagine you are pretending to be a stakeholder in the marketing team who is looking to drive more leads and thus influence sales.

Consultant: We are proposing to replace your current Analytics solution with a new solution.
Mock-Stakeholder: So what?
Consultant: With the new Analytics solution you will be able to deliver real-time personalization.
Mock-Stakeholder: So what?
Consultant: Our research has shown a 33% increase in customer conversions when presenting offers with real-time personalization, which your new Analytics solution will achieve and your current solution can't possibly do.

I was wrong

Especially when you're being paid to be an expert, it can be painful to admit mistake or fault. However the cost of not owning up to one's mistakes and faults is always greater.

By not owning up to mistakes and admitting you were wrong you harm your reputation, put yourself in an increasingly unwinnable situation of having to double down on wrong ideas and if in a position of influence create a culture of hiding rather than admitting mistakes.


As a junior consultant or individual contributor the harm from hiding fault is severe enough. Gaining a reputation of someone who will say anything to not be wrong will quickly win you a reputation as a unreliable self-seeker.

As a team leader or architect the impact is worse. Pretending you're never wrong ruins the team dynamic if the team feels like they cannot be wrong (or worse cannot be right) and robs more junior consultants the opportunity to get in my opinion the best compliment they can get in front of a client:

I was wrong [Jr. Consultant] pointed out we could do X and I think we should do that instead.

Of course, you can't always be wrong or you probably should be consulting on something else, but by admitting when you are wrong, and ideally offering an alternative or solution, you can preserve and enhance the reputation you've worked hard to build.

I don't know

No reasonable person expects you to know everything... unless they're paying you to... which they very well may be.

But even if you are the top expert in your field, there can always be that one question that comes out of left field or catches you off guard, so how do you respond?

You known nothing Jon Snow

Along the lines of "I was wrong" don't try to obscure or bluster. If you are not sure, acknowledge the question and ask for a moment to think.

This both gives you time and gives team members a chance to chime in. These few seconds are crucial, I can't count the number of times I've witnessed someone blunder through a response when someone else in the room clearly knew the right answer and had to rhetorically clean up the mess afterwards.

If nothing is forthcoming, you can offer a theory if you have one and then promise to check, research, test or whatever is required and get back with the asker.

Followup is key. Treat this as a deliverable, set a time-frame for your response and keep to it. I recommend putting the response in writing as it shows you are treating importantly and can be used later if someone else doesn't know or the asker can't remember the response.

Yes, and

When I was in high school, I was a pretty effective impromptu speaker, regularly placing in district competitions. I struggled however when leveraging the same skills in a team performance. I think perhaps it comes from my deep seated need to be right, I found it hard to mesh into another story.

For a team to be effective, you need to build on each other, which is infinitely harder if you are always trying to be the smartest kid in the room.

As George R. R. Martin astutely pointed out:

“Nothing someone says before the word 'but' really counts.”

When working with a team it's easy and tempting to be a "but"

  • You did a good job with this, but you could have done X instead
  • That's interesting, but instead we should...

Each time you are negating the existing idea work or contribution and substituting your own.

Instead by "and-ing", we can build on others contributions while enhancing with our ideas.

  • You did a great job on this and with a few tweaks we can make it perfect
  • That's interesting and remember we need to consider X

The goal of and-ing is not to reward bad work or mediocrity, but far too often we fail to recognize others work because it's not how we would have done it.

By taking an and-ing mind set and working to build up the team rather than being the smartest person in the room, you help not just the team but yourself. No consultant, like no man is an island and your success is far more from the success of the team as any individual contribution.

The customer is always right

This bane of customer service had been misused by overly demanding customers since it was coined. The key difference is the article. THE customer not A customer.

A customer can and often is wrong. After all, unless you sell exclusive luxury goods or exclusive services, no single customer should make up a sizable percentage of your business. An individual customers can be mercurial and capricious but en mass, customer behavior should drive your business rather than the reverse.

I'm reminded of a gas station near my grandma's cottage.

Every summer, a large music festival would set up near the small town the gas station was in, bringing thousands flocking to the this sleepy corner of Northern Michigan. Naturally, the gas station owners responded to this massive influx of customers and potential revenue by bitterly complaining and making festival goers unwelcome.

You are probably not running a gas station in the woods in Northern Michigan, however the point is: what customers as a whole are buying is what you should be selling and what customers ask for en mass is the right answer, even if you disagree.

This could of course be taken to the illogical extreme and it's essential to find fulfillment and be able to sleep at night, but if customers aren't buying what you are selling, you need to change.

What phrases or mantras have helped you in your career? Leave a comment!


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