Face time for consultants

    As virtual teams and remote work settings become more prevalent, consultants are faced with the prospect of working for clients from a distance.  In light of these modern work scenarios, there are special considerations that consultants must make to ensure customer satisfaction and proper relationship development.Business people talking

    First of all, what is face time and why is it an issue for consultants?

    • The concept of face time in consulting is essentially the amount of time that you’re able to spend in front of the client.  This usually applies to consultants assigned to day-to-day presence at the client site.
    • But it’s also a consideration for, let’s say partner level people who only make a weekly appearance for a status meeting.  If they’re unable to get time in front of the client, they miss that face time with them.
    • It’s important for consultants at all levels to make sure that they’re getting the appropriate face time to allow them to serve the client’s needs properly.
    • You want to make sure that you’re giving the client enough attention, but you also want to make sure you’re getting enough attention from them.
    • As we all know from working for anyone, it’s not just a matter of doing a good job for them; you want them to know that you’re doing a good job for them.  This is important in a consulting environment because you want to make sure the client is satisfied and you want to know as soon as possible when they’re not.
    • Being right there in front of them helps you achieve both of those objectives.

    What considerations does the consultant need to make regarding face time?

    • One of the factors is time spent with client executives.  As I mentioned, partner level consultants want to be able to meet with the client executives, schmooze them a little by taking them out to lunch, and just have quality time to get feedback from them on the project and other issues they may be experiencing.
    • It’s the partner’s chance to let the client know that their issues are being heard in case the project is going south – or when the executive perceives that it’s going south.
    • But it also lets the partner learn about other opportunities the client is having that could result in an opportunity for the firm to serve the client in some other capacity.
    • With lower-level consultants, the same factors apply.  If the client executive senses problems, they’re much more likely to talk to the consultant or the project manager if they see their smiling face every day.
    • And if there’s a project team involved, the remote consultant misses out on time with the other project team members.  He doesn’t get the daily interaction – the water cooler conversations – which are so important for learning about those things that just happen to come up by chance.
    • Finally, by not being at a project site on a day-to-day basis, the consultant misses out on time with his or her own manager.  This is the “out of site – out of mind” scenario.  The manager may not have the awareness of the value the consultant is providing and may be less likely to give that consultant other opportunities because other consultants may be more visible.

    I would imagine that most clients would want their highly paid consultants in plain sight.

    • I’ve found that, given the choice, the client prefers to have the consultants on site in most situations.  If they’re paying hundreds of dollars per hour in some cases, they want to be able to see them working and have immediate access if they need them.
    • When they need a question answered, they don’t want to throw an email or voicemail over the wall and wait for an answer.  Walking up to their desk is much more efficient.
    • But sometimes that’s just not possible.  The client may not have the space to host a large consulting team.  In that case, they may request the consulting firm to house the team in their own offices and set up private network access to allow the team access to their systems and get their work done that way.
    • Still other times, the team is scattered all over the place.  You may have offshore offices that are working on the opposite side of the clock from the local team.
    • I’ve also seen clients where their own employees all work from home.  They see no need to have the consultants on site when their own employees aren’t even there.  In this situation, you have a completely distributed team that does everything virtually.  You might have everyone come in to the corporate headquarters for a monthly or quarterly meeting, but I’ve heard of teams that have worked together for years without meeting each other.
    • So while some clients are bought in to having their consultants work off-site, others may just accept it because of economic and logistical realities.

    How common is it for consultants to work away from the client site?

    • It’s becoming more and more common.  We’ve been hearing over the past five years of companies downsizing via layoffs.  Many companies are downsizing much of their office space as well.  They’re moving to smaller offices and have a lot less office space to house their workers and consultants.
    • Combine that with the fact that there’s a trend toward using consultants more to get things done, instead of hiring new full-time people.  And they just don’t have room for them.
    • As technology makes it easier for teams to communicate and to securely access the client’s systems, client companies are finding that they can get things done without having everybody taking up cubicles and conference rooms in their office buildings.
    • Finally, even though the nation’s collective unemployment rate remains high, there are certain skills that are in high demand and low supply.  If a company can find someone with skills they’re in need of that either live too far to commute or are unable to work outside the house, clients have become much more agreeable to allowing those individuals – even if they’re consultants – to work from home.

    What are the advantages to working remotely?

    • For the client company, there can be a significant cost savings.  If any of the consultants are in another city, the travel expenses can be very high.  Flying them in to your city, putting them up in a hotel and paying for their meals can add up quickly, especially if they do this on a weekly basis over a long period of time.  Add to that the lost productivity every week due to the travel time and it’s significant.
    • There is also the issue of avoiding the overhead space.  We talked about how companies have downsized their real estate.  Even if space exists within their offices, a project may be cross-charged internally against their budget for conference rooms, offices and cubicles that they use for their consultants.  With budgets tight already, that’s an area where a project sponsor can avoid unnecessary costs.
    • Another advantage is that a company can draw from a larger talent pool.  Rather than focusing on individuals who live, or are willing to live within commuting distance to their offices, they can contract with a better candidate that lives across the country or even in another country.
    • Finally, there’s the retention issue – companies have found that they increase their ability to retain employees who aren’t able or willing to make a long commute to the company’s offices.
    • These are all reasons that companies are letting their own employees work remotely.  But they’re the same reasons that companies are willing to allow – and sometimes require – consultants to work from a remote location.
    • There are also advantages for the workers.  I know a lot of stay-at-home moms and dads that opt for work from home situations in order to take care of their kids.
    • And with gas prices near all-time highs, being able to work from home is almost like getting a raise.
    • One other advantage that works for both consulting firms and clients is that working remotely allows a consultant to spread their time across multiple clients.  They can work a few hours a day on each client.  For consultants, they can maximize their client service.  And clients can save on the billable hours they’re paying for if they only need a consultant on a part-time basis.  It sort of allows multiple clients to do a sort of time sharing agreement with their consultants.

    What are the downsides to working remotely?

    • I think there is always a communication benefit to being located in the same place.  Some of my most productive conversations have occurred during impromptu meetings in the hallway, or when I stopped by someone’s office to ask a question.
    • When someone – or the whole staff – is located elsewhere, you don’t get the opportunity for the chance meetings.  We definitely have more ways to communicate than we have ever had.  Not only can we talk on the phone and email, which are powerful tools. But we can instant message people with a quick question, we can text and we can use tools like Skype to have quick conversations, either using video or just voice.
    • But I don’t think any of these technologies beats face-to-face communication.
    • Because of that, consulting firms find it harder to identify add-on work when their team is not physically sitting at the client site.
    • Now some clients may say that’s great, we won’t be paying more consulting fees.
    • But it’s not about just adding sales revenue to the hopper.  It’s about developing a productive relationship with the client so that you can work with them to solve problems.  They end up paying you for those services, but the assumption is that they get a greater benefit and willingly pay for those services.

    What can a consultant do to bridge the gap of being remote?

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    • There are a lot of web-based collaboration tools available today that help to bring people virtually closer.
    • For document and file sharing, there are tools like Google Docs, Box.com and SharePoint which allow everyone to store project documents in a common repository, share them, and keep track of versions, changes, who made the changes, and so forth.
    • These tools can of course be used when everyone is located in the same place, but they help even more with a distributed team when multiple people are authoring a document together.
    • Additionally, there are tools like Basecamp and Zimbra, which act as collaborative project management tools, where you can share documents, create a project plan with assigned tasks that everyone has visibility to. You can also send each other messages, using it as a communication tool.
    • I also mentioned Skype earlier and there are a lot of tools like it.  I think this is a great communication tool.  It has features for making calls and instant messaging through your PC or smart phone.  And of course, you can also hold video conferences where you can actually see your subject.  This is so much more effective from a relationship development aspect.
    • We still have people that have this phobia or discomfort where they don’t like their video image displayed, yet they have no problem dealing face-to-face with someone.
    • But I think as the technology becomes more mainstream and bandwidth issues fall to the wayside, we will see a big increase in the use of this technology to stay connected and sort of emulate the face-to-face communication via video.
    • But despite all of these wonderful technological advances, I still stick with my opinion and think the hybrid approach to being there some of the time is still the optimum approach.
    • Nothing beats sitting down with your client, maybe taking him or her out for lunch and just having a casual conversation.  In this environment, you’re less likely to focus entirely on business and be done with the meeting.  You get to know them better, develop that relationship and really begin building the trust that’s necessary to maintain a long-term relationship.
    • I recommend that consultants meet face-to-face with their client at least once per quarter, and preferably more often to have those types of meetings.
    • That’s critical for high-level consultants that are responsible for developing and maintaining relationships with their clients.  But I think it’s just as important for the lower-level consultant, the worker-bees, to meet with their client peers and establish a rapport.
    • It also gives them a chance to get to know the client’s business a little better by seeing the client in their natural surroundings.  On the remote teams I’ve served on, when we did client site-visits like that, it made a world of difference in our understanding of how they do their jobs and how we could better serve them.

    Any final thoughts on consulting face time?

    • Being away from the client is a trend that has been around for a long time.  And with the current economy driving companies to cut costs, and technology making it easier and cheaper to collaborate from all over the world, working away from the client will become a more common business reality.
    • Consultants need to be aware of this trend and develop strategies to (a) use the technology wisely to collaborate better with their clients and (b) maximize their face time with clients because that’s still the best way to develop strong long-term relationships.
    • Building relationships is about developing trust between a consultant and the client.  It’s hard to develop that trust from a distance.
    • That’s why I’m a proponent of the hybrid approach where the bulk of the work may be done remotely but you still have periods where the team gets together to build a stronger and more cohesive team.

    Next topic: The consulting industry defined.


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    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101 provides you with 101 useful tips to optimize your professional performance and jump-start your consulting career with success.

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