How to offer your expertise to solve your client’s problem
It is not complicated. You simply need to know what you are talking about, thoroughly. I mean that there should be no doubt in the minds of your listeners that you are the guru in your subject area. If you are, you do not need to read this column. You do not need to do anything special. Just let your ideas and knowledge flow and amaze your audience. Right? Wrong.
I have met many people who are indisputably experts in their field but, for some reason, they fail to project this image to their clients. The client is left thinking, “His resume is impressive, but he does not seem to grasp our problem. Maybe we should look for another expert.”
It is this very thinking that the consultant should prevent from materializing in the client’s mind. I have been a college professor and a consultant before becoming an engineer in a large engineering firm. I have been on both sides of the table. I believe I know where the gurus fall short and fail to impress the clients. Presented with a problem, the gurus immediately start talking about their experience, describing in detail the problem they helped solve back in 1990s. In most cases the problem is not even remotely connected to the clients’ problem.
As in everything else, there is a certain technique to building a successful expert-client relationship. Here are some tips.
Preparation: Like painting, the more preparation you do before meeting your client, the better the outcome will be. Try to have a detailed conversation with the person who makes the first contact. Most clients love to talk, particularly when they have a problem. There is no need to tell the client about your expertise or experience. Just send your latest resume. He or she has either heard about you or already knows you; otherwise he would not be calling you.
Encourage the client to talk. Ask the question most doctors ask: “When were you first aware of the problem?” Research the client on Google. Carry with you brochures and descriptive literature of the equipment which is reported to be the source of the problem. I once won a good consulting contract because I had with me the operations and maintenance (O&M) manual of outdated electronic equipment that had failed repeatedly and that the client was looking to replace. Carry also with you a copy of the relevant industry standard because this reassures the client that the solutions you would offer would follow the guidelines of industry standards.
Arrive approximately 15 minutes before the meeting. Decline the coffee if offered. Suit and tie is probably not necessary, but a jacket and tie would create the right impression.
Communication: To use an old cliché, communication is the key. In this case, it is the communication with the people around the table in your first meeting. Although it would be a plus-point, you do not need to speak in refined King’s English. Speak in a matter-of-fact tone. Make a brief reference to your past experience, if any, with the firm. It is important to convey the impression that you are “all ears” to their description of the issue.
Just listening is what you must do most of the time during your first meeting. Do not offer your opinion before hearing from everyone around the table. Do not offer a solution before finding out what they have already done about the problem. Every company has smart engineers. It is always safe to assume that they have tried to solve the problem themselves before calling you in.
Whom to focus on? Around the table in the client’s office you will find people of different ages. First, there is the president or a senior vice president who is simply lending his or her presence to emphasize the urgency of the problem while thinking all the time of the next quarterly revenues and profits. There are the middle managers who are directly concerned and who are looking for a solution in the next few days.
Then there typically is a much younger person who really understands the problem and has the ability to understand the solution you may later offer. This person is probably fresh out of engineering school. It is easy to spot this person. His or her age and the fact that the file in front of him or her is the thickest gives this person away. It is this person you need to focus on because it is very likely that everyone in the room will later turn to him or her and ask, “What do you think?”
Follow-up: After the first meeting, be sure to send a letter to the vice president or decision-maker, thanking him or her for the opportunity to assist the company. State that you are reviewing the problem and that you will respond very soon. Include a list of material that you would like copies of.
Work diligently on your final report and be aware that your report will be copied and circulated widely within the client’s company. It may even be sent to another consultant for review. A good report will cement your relationship with the client and lead to future work. Focus on visuals: Make full use of colored graphs, pie-charts, and photographs in the report. Include one or two alternative solutions together with your recommended solution, complete with costs, benefits, and risks. Offer to help in the selection of the new equipment if you are recommending any. Be sure to include the tests that the client must perform before energizing the equipment. Offer to review the test results.
Often, problems in industry arise due to human errors or omissions. If this is the case, do not lay blame on any particular individual or group. Instead, propose automation to preclude human errors. Downplay the consequences of human errors and state that human errors are inevitable and not uncommon in industry.
Syed Peeran is a senior engineer with CDM Smith. He is a senior technical specialist, and his experience includes low- and medium-voltage distribution systems, system analysis, harmonic analysis, large motors, and VFDs. He is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.