Overcome negative perceptions

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Since we started this column, we have emphasized many of the positive aspects of consulting. After all, successful consultants need positive dispositions. But there is one negative aspect that should be addressed: a widespread negative attitude toward consultants. Such feelings are not necessarily as hostile as those felt toward other unnamed professions, but they are relatively common. Consultants are often perceived by other employees as overly expensive hires who re-engineer companies to no positive effect and threaten to eliminate jobs.

First, this column will focus on individual (or smaller-firm) consultancies. Those high-level firms that focus on management consultants or deploy corporate-wide systems can be effective, but they are not the laser weapon that you are. Make this clear to your client immediately. You are an expert in a particular area, and your job is to solve very specific problems for your client. That will not necessarily put you in the clear because your fees may still seem exorbitant, especially to lower-level managers. There is also the issue of trust: Why should a manager put his job on the line by hiring you? What you need is a phased campaign that transforms you from an unknown quantity into a trusted and respected resource.

We'll discuss fees in detail in the next column, but quite simply, the client must perceive your fee as a good investment. The cost of not hiring you, incurred by delays or ineffective results, must be much higher than the cost of hiring you. Your fee will then be much less of an issue, even if on an hourly basis it is higher than what your hiring manager earns. Upper-level managers are more likely to appreciate the value of getting projects done faster, so always negotiate at the highest possible management level.

To ensure a basis of trust, you must minimize the risk your client undertakes by hiring you. The best method I have found, especially with a new client, is to carve off a well-defined initial piece of work. Tell your client that the rest of the project will depend on how satisfied the client is with that first piece. In the advanced- technology arena, I have found most managers can easily justify an initial fee of $5,000. By keeping this first payment small, you can reduce the amount of paperwork and approval needed, get started faster, and deliver a positive result quickly.

Once you have established initial credibility, getting signed on for the remainder of the project is often easy. Just make sure that the objectives and deadlines are well- defined so an objective assessment of your results is possible. If the objectives are too nebulous, create an intermediate milestone that clarifies them. This can also serve as one of your first deliverables.

The final ingredient is to place the success of your hiring manager above your own. If you make your manager look good and avoid shining the spotlight on yourself, then the manager will keep you on. Your thanks is not glory, but increased employment opportunities. Establish your reputation notch by notch. Before long, you will become the positive data point that will help all consultants look better.

Read our special report: The World of Consulting: Should You Hire One? Should You Be One?

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