Business Woman resting  on desk - Professional?In addition to staying up on the latest industry trends and being customer focused, a consultant needs to maintain a certain level of credibility.  Maintaining an image of professionalism is critical when dealing with peers and clients in the consulting world.

    Listen to today’s discussion here:

    1 – Why is professionalism important to someone working in the professional services industry?

    • As you stated in the introduction, the main issue is credibility.
    • Working in the professional services industry means that you provide services to professionals.  You can have deep knowledge in technical or business related skills, but if you don’t know how to communicate and act with clients in the business arena, you’ll have a lot of problems establishing credibility with them.
    • It’s also a big part of customer service. When you act professionally, you’re showing your clients that they are your priority and that you’re there to serve them.
    • Let me give you an example.  During a period of my career when I was not in consulting, I worked at a company that had many consultants.  I scheduled a meeting where I had invited a consultant – a project manager – to provide input from his project.  He showed up 25 minutes late, gave a half apology and then asked us to bring him up to speed on what we had talked about.
    • So about a half-hour into our 1-hour meeting, we were doing a reset.
    • This consultant lost all credibility with me as well as with the other attendees.  He had a lot of project and business knowledge, but all we could focus on was his inconsiderate behavior in that one meeting.
    • I think that’s bad enough behavior when it’s one of the client’s peers, but when a consultant does it to their customer, it’s really unacceptable.

    2 – What is the biggest problem you’ve seen with new consultants?

    • Many new consultants right out of college have developed a pattern of casual communication and behavior that is perfectly acceptable among friends.
    • But the way consultants talk, email and text once they get in a professional setting requires a change in their approach.
    • When a college graduate starts their first professional job, many haven’t had experience serving customers – I waited tables at a country club, so I was experienced in dealing with customers and executives.
    • Also, many have parents who either didn’t work in professional settings and weren’t equipped to set an example, or they didn’t share their knowledge with their kids about proper professional behavior.
    • Colleges don’t teach that aspect either.  I’ve never heard of a “professionalism 101” class in any college programs.
    • So I think the biggest problem is the culture shock that young consultants face in the professional world transitioning from college life.

    3 – When experienced people enter Consulting, is there a different set of issues?

    • Sometimes there is.  They’ve been out of college and seen life in the business world for a while.  And they also usually have a higher maturity level depending on how long they’ve been out of college.
    • But depending on the environment they came from, they may have built up some great experience in their business area, but may never have dealt with customers or know the appropriate behaviors around customers.
    • So much of consulting is about building relationships with clients.  It’s just not as simple as knowing your industry and spewing that knowledge to clients to be successful.
    • My wife is a school teacher and we’ve often discussed how knowing a topic well doesn’t mean you can teach it well.
    • The same applies for consulting.  Just because you know a lot about some facet of business, doesn’t mean that you can get people to listen to you and follow your advice.
    • And on the topic of hiring experienced people to a consulting firm, that applies to independent consultants hiring on at a firm.
    • Independent consultants are often just that – independent.  When they hire in to a firm, they don’t realize that larger firms often do things in teams.
    • I’ve seen independents come in and act almost as renegades, making decisions without communicating with the rest of the team and disregarding protocol.
    • When the client sees this, it reflects badly on both the consultant and the whole firm.
    • Clients want to work with firms where there is no obvious friction within, so you have to all be singing from the same page of the hymnal.

    4 – Do you see a double standard between clients and consultants?

    • Yes, and that’s how I think it should be to some degree.
    • There’s a lot to be said for fitting in at the client and you don’t want to come off as aloof.
    • But you want to balance fitting in with being a step ahead in service and professional behavior
    • There are certain behaviors a client can get away with that a consultant should never do.  For instance:
      • Arriving late to a meeting
      • Missing meetings altogether
      • Making personal calls at your desk
      • Getting angry – the client can get angry at you, but you need to hold any anger with them.
      • I’ve seen consultants get frustrated seeing the client employees doing some of the things I listed, but the consultant can’t get away with.  I’ve tried to explain that we’re held to another standard.
      • If we performed the same as the client’s employees, why should they pay the premium hourly rate that they’re paying?  Sure they’re paying for the specialized knowledge or skill that you may have, but your professional behavior should be at least a notch above that of a client’s employees.

    5 – What is the hardest problem you see in enforcing professional standards?

    • One of the toughest problems is that there are no hard and fast rules.  Every firm has their own standards and every client is a little bit different.
    • Things have also gotten much more casual over the past several years.  When I started in consulting, we all wore suits.  Women were supposed to wear dresses or skirts.  There was a big debate when women began to wear slacks.
    • Now, it’s acceptable to wear jeans, not only in a firm’s offices, but at some client sites.  So the more casual we get as a society, the more difficult it is to define what is acceptable and what is deemed unprofessional.
    • So depending on who you talk to, some people may argue that some advice is old-school, but I think there are some forms of professionalism never go out of style

    6 – Is there a lot of variation between consulting firms for professional standards?

    • It often depends on the size of the firm but also on the clients they serve.
    • When I worked at a Big 4 firm the rule of thumb with the dress code was to dress at or just a little above the client’s standard.  If they were business casual, we would aim for dressy business casual.
    • But even then, if the client allowed jeans, we had strict rules against denim.  We were still required to wear non-denim casual slacks.
    • About two years ago I was working at a company where we had hired the Boston Consulting Group.  We were business casual through the week and were allowed to wear jeans on Friday.  When I saw the BCG consultants wear jeans and un-tucked shirts, I couldn’t help thinking about how times have changed.
    • But I don’t want to focus entirely on professional attire.  Although attire is a factor in your professional appearance, it’s much more about your behavior and the service you provide to the client.

    7 – What are some of the biggest challenges in changing behaviors when you run into issues of professional behavior?

    • Sometimes it depends on how interested the individuals are in learning these behaviors.  Every once in a while, you get someone who is a little cocky and thinks he knows more than some old-school guy that’s trying to give him advice.
    • That’s pretty rare, but when it does occur, it can be a problem.
    • In those cases, sometimes you need multiple people to sit down with the individual to communicate a consistent message.
    • If the consultant still doesn’t get it, they probably won’t last too long in consulting.
    • But probably the biggest problem is the moving target that we just spoke of and the variations of what are considered ‘professional behavior’.  We’re constantly assessing what is considered unprofessional and what is a relaxed behavior of the changing times.
    • That is ultimately driven by the client, but each firm should establish some set of standards to follow.
    • But you’re often defining what it’s not rather than what it is.

    8 – You talked about how professionalism is important to a consultant’s credibility.  How else could it have an effect on a consultant’s career?

    • Well the credibility I spoke of involves how a client may view you if you act unprofessionally in their presence.
    • But it can also affect you internally.  If management at the firm sees you as unprofessional, you may get passed up for certain opportunities.  That may range from not getting assigned to some of the high-profile projects, to not working on sales proposals.
    • Hopefully, the firm’s management will work with someone that is struggling with professional behavior, but the consultant has to be willing to accept the need to change also.
    • Unfortunately, if someone is unprofessional, many people – whether it’s clients or firm management or just peers – may just avoid those type of people.
    • Feedback is never provided and their career just kind of meanders.
    • Keep in mind, I’m not talking about obnoxious, highly contentious people.  I’m talking about people who just don’t have the soft skills to deal well with people.  These are the type of people who aren’t going to get fired for their unprofessionalism; they just don’t have the skills that make them successful.

    9 – What advice would you have for someone is right out of college and isn’t quite sure what is and is not professional behavior?

    • One thing you can do is read books on the subject.  There are books on professionalism and business etiquette that you can find.  That was one of the areas that I tried to focus on in Consulting 101.  Much of the basics are just professionalism and business etiquette.
    • Also, once you’re hired, find someone to adopt as a mentor.  This should be someone – maybe multiple someones – who you can run questions and ideas by.  If they work closely with you, they can also give you advice and feedback based on their observations of you in your everyday work life.
    • Finally, probably the most important one is to observe others.  Not just one person, but how people in general work.  Learn the standard culture and see how the leadership of the organization works.  This applies for people within your own firm and at client sites.
    • Observe how they act in meetings and in smaller groups.  Even how they write emails.  All of their interactions are hints as to how the organization acts.
    • But keep in mind that if you have your own standard, don’t lower it because you see the firm’s management doing it.
    • For instance, when I write an email, I have a professional standard that I always address the person I’m writing to.  I don’t just start writing, even if it’s just a one-sentence response to the question.
    • If that’s not the standard behavior at the client I’m at, I’m not going to change my approach.
    • One other difference with consulting is that you aren’t in the same environment every day.  Every client may be different.  A start-up is very likely going to have a much different definition of professional behavior than an established organization.
    • I recently did a project for a start-up client that had a game room with foosball and Playstation.  An old school company is not going to allow that.  I also probably wouldn’t recommend a consultant spend too much time in client’s game room though.

     10 – Professionalism is more than just how you behave and dress in front of the client.  In what other ways does one need to be aware from a professional approach?

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    • As I mentioned, how one communicates is a big indicator, both written and verbal.
    • You also need to be cautious of letting your guard down in a casual setting such as lunch or meeting for drinks after work.  I’ve seen situations where consultants meet some clients for drinks after work.  The client employees start talking about people at work and it turns to a rather gossipy conversation.
    • Consultants sometimes have the urge to join in and gossip about other client employees or maybe they’ll air dirty laundry from their own firm.
    • None of that will reflect positively on you and it could actually come back to bite you if you tell them something that they shouldn’t know.
    • When the conversation turns to anything negative like that, I’ve found it best to let them talk and try to veer the conversation to a more positive topic.
    • Discussing politics or religion are just as bad as gossip, if not worse.  I’ve always recommended to new consultants to avoid these topics.  Even when someone says something that shows you’re in agreement, it’s always better to stay neutral on politics and religion a work.
    • Finally, I wanted to talk a little about social media.  I’ve seen consultants connect with clients via LinkedIn and I think that’s usually a good idea. That’s a professional social media site and as long as you use it like that, that’s fine.
    • When consultants and clients start linking up on Facebook and following on Twitter, it begins crossing a line.
    • Again, It all depends on how you use these tools.
    • I use LinkedIn and Twitter for professional use and post only business-related items.
    • I have a Facebook account where I post personal information and family pictures.  But I’m only connected with close friends.  I have a small number of business associates that are Facebook friends – mostly old co-workers who became close friends over the years.
    • I think it’s important to keep your personal and professional lives fairly separate.  There’s nothing wrong with talking about your son’s baseball game or small talk like that, but you want to avoid it getting too personal.

     11 – Any closing thoughts to summarize Professionalism in the consulting and professional services industry?

    • Professionalism is a big part of your personal brand, and it’s an extension of your firm’s brand.
    • So on one hand, it’s something you should always be conscious of, but you also want to try to be yourself.  It’s a lot easier if your natural self isn’t prone to unprofessionalism.
    • You really just want to make sure you don’t push the envelope too much where it makes your client and co-workers uncomfortable.
    • I had a situation a while back that kind of exemplified this.  At my most recent client, I work out of their IT offices where jeans are allowed.  Their corporate offices, which are about 20 minutes away, requires business casual attire.
    • I got to work one day and realized that I had a meeting later in the day at the corporate offices.  I know that there are a few people who show up at corporate in jeans and no one really says anything.
    • But I didn’t want to push the envelope on that.  I left a little early for the meeting, stopped at a department store and bought some khakis to wear to the corporate offices.
    • I could have probably gotten away with jeans, but didn’t want to test it.


    Next week: Consulting and the role of confidence



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    Music: Kevin MacLeod –

    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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