The One Service Every Consultant Should Offer

by: Michael W. McLaughlin

In a recent webcast, a participant asked me if there is one service every consultant should offer. I didn't hesitate with my answer: No matter how different your practice is from that of other consultants, the one service you should offer to clients is a diagnostic assessment.


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In a recent webcast, a participant asked me if there is one service every consultant should offer. I didn't hesitate with my answer: No matter how different your practice is from that of other consultants, the one service you should offer to clients is a diagnostic assessment.
You might refer to your service as a strategic review, gap analysis, business process evaluation, or even an initial consultation. Whatever you choose to call it, your service should be a relatively short, systematic project to evaluate a specific area of client concern and offer objective advice. The emphasis is on short, systematic, and objective.
For example, one consultant offers a two-week assessment of client call center operations. During that time, the consultant analyzes of the call center's customer service performance, employee productivity, financial performance, and management effectiveness.
Beware Unpaid Consulting
Some consultants offer initial assessments or diagnostics for no fee because they think that paves the way for the client to say yes to an eventual project. After all, the reasoning goes, how can a client refuse such a generous offer? Besides, the consultant will easily recoup the marketing investment with future work, right?
Even if I set aside my strenuous objections to unpaid consulting, no-fee assessments are often a complete waste of time. Not only do most clients fail to engage thoroughly in a freebie project, but the perceived value of the outcome is about as high as the fee—zero.
A client once hired me to redo a no-fee assessment project that another firm had completed. The original project report suffered from a lack of depth, but the findings were insightful. Unfortunately, the client sent the report straight to the round file.
In the do-over (paid) project, my team's findings weren't radically different. But the client participated with my team in a meaningful way. That helped win the client's approval for our recommendations. There's some truth to the adage that you get what you pay for. If you ever think a no-fee assessment is a good idea, think again.
The Long and the Short of It
It's hard to imagine many parts of a client operation that wouldn't benefit from an expert evaluation. Consultants provide diagnostic services for project management, financial systems, retail bank operations, manufacturing and distribution systems, and supply chain management—to name just a few.
Short-term improvement programs aren't the only type of assessments you can offer clients. Many consultants also provide strategic assessments to help clients organize their approach to complex initiatives.
In one case, a client planned a long-term project to leap ahead of a competitor's position as the market leader. To help formulate that strategy, the client hired a consultant to conduct an assessment of the client's sales force, focusing on sales performance, process effectiveness, and technology support.
The result of that evaluation was a recommendation to complete seven projects that would facilitate the client's strategic objectives. The client hired the recommending consultant to help with five of those seven initiatives.
Hurry up and Slow down
Great consultants have the ability to size up unfamiliar situations quickly. One of my colleagues jokes that a competent professional spends twenty-five percent of the time understanding the client's problem and the rest of the time getting the client to agree.
Because most diagnostic projects are analytical exercises, skilled consultants should be able to wrap them up quickly. And clients rarely want to spend more than a few weeks diagnosing anything. So stick to assessment projects that will not bog you or the client down for extended periods.
We have to resist, though, any urge to sacrifice customization for speed. I know consultants who work from rigid, standardized checklists to guide every aspect of their assessments. There's nothing wrong with using project tools like checklists and templates. In fact, pre-baked questionnaires, for example, can speed the assessment process.
But clients pay for insight, not methodology. Any tools you use should supplement, not replace, your professional expertise and judgment.
Sure, Let's Do It
Once a client expresses interest, it's likely that client will ask how you plan to do the diagnostic. Be prepared to present an overview of how you usually proceed with such projects.
The outline of your diagnostic service should be straightforward. After all, you are focusing on how clients can improve their organizations in your area of expertise. Spelling out how to assess performance should be second nature.
To create an assessment offering, many consultants begin with a point of view on the characteristics that define a high performing business. For example, one consultant offers clients a check-up on their financial management practices by comparing those practices to twelve key attributes of top performing finance organizations.
In my practice, we use a framework called "The Path to Profit" to assess how well our clients perform against six attributes of profitable services businesses. Creating such a point of view allows you to communicate why you are qualified to conduct an assessment. It also serves as the foundation for your analytical work.
The next step is to summarize the focus areas of the assessment. If you were creating a diagnostic service called "The Retailer of the Future," for instance, you might include an evaluation of store personnel, inventory management, customer service, and employee product knowledge.
For each area of analysis, summarize the questions you would ask, the processes you would observe, and the data you would need to develop defensible conclusions. From there, you should be able to quickly assemble a service overview outlining the objective, value, outcome, and approach for your assessment service.
Most consultants make substantial changes to their diagnostic service for each project. So don't get too hung up on creating the perfect pitch. Your service offering will evolve over time.
The Marketing Power of Assessments
When clients are considering hiring a new consultant, they may want to take small steps before launching a project. Often, they want to learn how the consultant works, thinks, and fits with the organization. Offering a short project to assess the client's issue is a way for the client to invest in the relationship with minimal financial or operational risk.
An assessment or diagnostic service is a powerful marketing tool for consultants to serve clients and win new work. You can easily develop such a service and, if you do it right, your service can offer substantial value to clients. Use your diagnostic abilities to address client problems, open doors, and build your practice.
Michael W. McLaughlin is a principal with MindShare Consulting, LLC, a firm that creates innovative sales and marketing strategies for professional services companies. He’s the author of Winning the Professional Services Sale, and the coauthor of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. His newsletters, Management Consulting News and The Guerrilla Consultant, reach a global audience. Before founding MindShare Consulting, he was a partner with Deloitte Consulting, where he served clients and mentored consultants for more than two decades.

Author Details

Michael W. McLaughlin
MindShare Consulting, LLC