Why consultants fail

November 11, 2014

why-consultants-failAs a young public relations professional I had the luck to begin my career with a century-old company. It was a regional telephone company with a long history of customer and media relations. My boss was a former Associated Press editor and I was trained right in writing, too. But the single most important thing I carried with me the rest of my career was a deep commitment to professionalism and customer service.

In our department, callbacks to media were required within an hour of the call. This was the early 1980s, pre-cell phone, and we carried pagers. Someone was on call 24/7 in case of telephone outages–the public needed to be informed immediately. Our response time was measured and we were evaluated on it, too. Communication was that important in what, at the time, was a regulated industry.

In the 21st century, communication is STILL important.  But I don’t see much of it among young entrepreneurs. Or some older ones.

Decades later as a consultant in crisis communication and reputation management, that early training came in handy. I worked with many CEOS; some were heads of major corporations. CEOs do not want to wait. Not for anything. Nor do reporters. Media inquiries during high-profile crises must be handled instantly.

Responsiveness was expected. Communication was expected. And I can’t disagree: it’s only courteous. And good business.

In general, that sense of professionalism and service translated to every part of the work I did during my entire career.  Fast and incisive response–putting myself in the shoes of my client–was my hallmark because I knew my clients required that kind of professionalism.  Also because I knew that was the way to keep clients for the long term. And in fact, I did. My base of business was stable for a dozen years, with most of my clients not just sticking but expanding the work they did with me. Which saved me from the constant quest for new clients.

Consultants who do well are empathetic and responsive. Professional.

But I don’t see much professionalism today.  Where did it go?

Why consultants fail

customer-relationship-managementI don’t have to tell you how many service providers fail to show up or call in the specified window of time–the time period they asked us to wait at home. We’ve all had that experience. Why is it so  hard to let us know they can’t make it?

Over the past few years I’ve worked on projects with several different younger consultants: “entrepreneurs.”   I see disturbing commonalities: They don’t respond in a timely fashion to questions. Sometimes they  miss the questions entirely, even questions presented in writing. Worse, they seem unable to anticipate client questions and they fail to communicate straightforwardly with the client about what to expect. They don’t respond to phone calls or emails promptly.  They get around to it when they feel like it.

Because they have skill sets that are in demand and because they often work with clients who have no experience, themselves, with professionalism, these consultants simply do their thing with barely a thought of their customer. And that’s where they fall short. They are unable to put themselves in the shoes of their customer.  There is no…empathy.  It is, in the end, all about themselves.

Even when they have mouths to feed. Even when they could be making way more money by providing way more customer service.

Many of these business owners simply don’t know any better. While I got on-the-job-training young, many of them haven’t had that opportunity. If you start working for yourself before you understand customer service, customer relations and before you develop effective communication skills, chances are you aren’t going to have a clue.  And while you may eke out a living, I’m here to tell you that you’re doing in the hard way. You’d have more and happier clients, a more stable client base and you’d make more money if you developed a few important business skills.

So here’s my advice to young–and older– consultants.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. This is the single most important thing you can do. Your customer may feel like she’s clueless, and she’s paying your bill. So think about what she might be worried about. And offer solutions before she articulates the problem.

Read emails and take notes on phone calls. Don’t make your ADD your client’s problem. Take the time to understand completely what your client wants or thinks she needs and then respond to all of her questions, not just a few.

Timing is everything and so is time. Show up when expected.  Respond in a timely fashion, as in “as soon as possible.”  If your client has to email or call you to get a response to a question she’s asked a day or two –or  more–ago, you are not doing your job.

Follow through and follow up. That’s right. Do what you said you’d do and then check in with your client about it. This is such a no-brainer I’m shocked when I don’t see it.

Understand what your core business is: how are you making a living, feeding your kids, paying your bills?  What is the one business that keeps your dog in kibble and your kids in Skechers?   If you are distracted by one, two or even more side activities, then you have not made your core business a priority. And trust me, your clients know that. If they had an alternative? They’d go for it in an instant. Because they want to know that their business is your focus.  That’s why they engaged you.

Understand that the game is referrals. Someone might have their reasons to not terminate their work with you–but if you aren’t providing an excellent experience, they’ll never refer you to their friends and colleagues. Referrals are the easiest way to get new business. If you aren’t positioning yourself to get them, you’re making a big mistake.

Understand that just hanging out a shingle doesn’t make a successful business person. Just like the act of writing doesn’t make one a writer.  As with any venture, a real professional learns his or her craft and then aims to excel. Your craft involves more than just your technical knowledge–it’s also how you treat your customer.

When I look at the lost art of customer service, I see that excelling is the exception, not the rule.  It’s why consultants fail–or struggle. They could be doing so much better if they learned a few basic customer relations and customer service skills.

If you’re already in business for yourself, it may be too late to go back and get experience. But all is not lost. As someone who’s taught business classes in college, I encourage new entrepreneurs–and even those who have been doing this a while but without any formal experience–to do some reading about excellence in business. About customer service. About follow up and follow through.

Here are two book recommendations for any consultant, advisor, entrepreneur who wants to understand how to get clients, keep them and get them to refer others:

Customer Satisfaction is Worthless; Customer Loyalty is Priceless by Jeffrey Gitomer

The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford


19 comments on “Why consultants fail
  1. Wow, this is excellent! Well done with the advice and your professionalism. Customer Service is sorely lacking in many companies and the younger generations do not know what they are missing, so they don’t demand it. But, when I find a company which excels in this area…they have me! Good job, Carol!

  2. Sound advice coming from someone like you with the professional knowledge and skills to let today’s consultants know how to properly handle their jobs. Well done, Carol.

  3. Ruth Curran says:

    I too was trained well and carried so much of what I learned with me throughout my career – a large chunk of which, like yours, was a referral based consulting firm. I think what worked best for me and my clients is that I knew, without exception, that I really didn’t have the answers – I just have the ability to ask the questions, really listen to the answers, and help guide my clients to dig deeper.

    I think that, in some cases, young organizational psychology specialists have lost two things – the ability to drop assumptions about how the conversation will go and let the questions/answers guide it and the sense of urgency that used to fill the room.

    Even though much of my focus has changed, I still have one client – neither of us can let go because we have come so far together…. And he keeps trying to refer people.

  4. I worked in public relations for several years and treating inquiries with a sense of urgency was always our standard. It amazes me these days how many professionals have an “I’ll get to it when I can” sort of attitude. Even service providers who own their own companies. It’s sad when you’re pleasantly surprised by someone doing their job the right way.

  5. This is a big problem everywhere these days. There is nothing I hate more than to contact someone repeatedly for an answer that could have been given immediately. I may use the company again but like you said I would never refer a friend or colleague to them. Be proud of the reputation you’ve earned as a professional!

  6. Diane says:

    Spot on, Carol! Every consultant, young and old, needs to read this! Sharing . . .

  7. My daughter works in entertainment PR and is on call all the time. A commitment to excellence is so important in any business, as you say. The customer is always the priority.

  8. Ellen Dolgen says:

    Customer service is a thing of the past! What happened??? I grew up in the hotel business — the customer was always MOST important. Every single person who touched the hotel guest knew that and was trained to make them feel like they were our #1 priority so that they would feel appreciated. It really isn’t that hard – if you actually do CARE about people.

  9. Lana says:

    When my husband and I started our business, we decided to make customer service a top priority. No one in the industry thought we could survive selling and installing door hardware, but our commitment to our customers and subsequent referral business has made us successful. Great post and very informative.

  10. From what I can see, customer service is going the route of the dinosaurs. You can bet that when I find a company that provides it, I’m loyal.

  11. This is all great advice. Nothing is more important than customer service, and I’ve stopped supporting companies who have poor service. No reason to give them my money if they can’t be bothered to show they appreciate my business.

  12. There is zero excuse for not delivering a great customer experience. Some of these so called businesses would be well served to go back to basics. As you stated, lack of empathy is a recipe for disaster. My daughter works for a restaurant that falls under the “chain” description and she has learned that their mission is to deliver an unparalleled customer experience. The tools she has gathered, and can use well, will serve her for her lifetime. Whether she is answering the phone, handling an unhappy patron, or working the dining room, register or drive thru, the expectation is that she put herself in the other persons shoes and make them feel as if they are the most important guest. Your advice is excellent.

  13. Customer service has definitely gone down hill since the eighties. I remember when we needed something repaired, the repair person was there the same day if not first thing the following morning. Nowadays when you call about a problem, it may take up to a week before the repair person can make it to your home. Unless, of course, it is classified as an “emergency” and they come after hours—charging you double for the work.

  14. This is perfect! My oldest daughter works in HR and laments the lack of such skills in people her own age. It’s abysmal. As I’ve always said to my daughters (and anyone who will listen): Communication is key… in ALL things, personal or professional.

  15. Kathy says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Carol. I think places that review companies and permit customers to share their experiences with the companies are often the best(or worst) PR for a business. I always look at reviews (not 2 or 3 but several) whether I am buying on Amazon or searching for a local contractor and I particularly am impressed with companies that get a poor review but at least reach out to work with the unhappy party and just as impressed with those who are grateful and return that comment to someone who posted a great review.

    It takes such a small amount of time to keep a customer but you can lose one in a blink of an eye with a callous attitude and poor customer service.

    Great article! Enjoyed it.

  16. Jackie says:

    I work in an industry where the tiniest thing will send the customer over the edge. And everything is “immediate”. My personal pet peeve is lateness, on the part of the customer (don’t call for a party of 15 at 8 pm on a Saturday night and then show up at 9 pm without calling, but still have the expectation that your table will be waiting for you — it won’t be!), and on the part of my coworkers — you are almost always someone’s relief. Be considerate of their time.

    Lateness adversely affects everyone. It’s maddening!

  17. Matt D. says:

    I thought I was about to read something like: consultants don’t understand the business. That’s why they fail. And maybe also the reason why they’re not responsive in a timely manner. But, this is another face of what it takes to be professional. Good post!

  18. Excellent advice! I wish more businesses followed this wisdom.

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