I recently took advantage of an opportunity to participate in a two-week bartending class. The course was a chance to learn a new skill I could use at parties and a way to meet some different people. While I expected to learn a few tricks and a few new drinks, I did not expect to learn three valuable lessons about the business of consulting. By the end of the course, however, the similarities between the two were apparent. Both are ‘people’ businesses that rely on a team of individual purveyors (bartender or consultant) to act with intellect, methodology, and care for the best interests of each customer.
Lesson One: Technique Matters
During our evening sessions behind the bar, we learned to follow the instructions for making a beverage, along with the particular tools and techniques we would need to be successful in a variety of settings. Many people hop behind the bar, read a recipe, and start making drinks. The art of bartending demands an understanding of the resources at your disposal, when to use each, and the impact and application of each. What I learned during 40 hours of training revealed that I have a good foundation and a lot to learn.
Consulting is no different. Many consulting firms hire talented young people or seasoned professionals experienced in particular fields, and then throw them in front of a client, hoping that their intellect and unique perspective are sufficient to the task. While valuable, these inherent qualities are only part of what it takes to succeed. Consulting firms have a responsibility to provide a foundation and appropriate tools to make sure they are putting new people ‘behind the bar’ prepared to succeed.
Particular requirements vary, but firms must confirm that their consultants have a functional understanding of consulting techniques. Are they equipped with analytical frameworks they can apply to solve distinct problems? Do they understand how to collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data? Can they present recommendations to different audiences using an assortment of media channels?
The skills each consultant needs will depend on his or her field, but all consultants should have a working knowledge of methodology. That empirical piece can’t be perfected in the classroom. Much of that will happen in real environments and client engagements. I learned a lot about what goes into making a drink during my class, but until I try to apply that knowledge on a busy night when patrons are three-deep at the bar, I won’t have fluency with my medium.
By giving new consultants the opportunity to learn first and then apply techniques in actual client engagements, firms empower their people to gain a deeper level of insight from mistakes and to develop practices that can benefit their clients.
Lesson Two: Know your Customer
‘Regulars’ keep bars in business. Good bartenders get to know their repeat customers. They remember things like what they like to drink and how they like to interact. They get to know their clients personally while still maintaining a professional distance. Great bartenders know these things – but they also know what their regulars might enjoy if offered.
The business of consulting is very similar. Engagements rarely begin with a client who knows exactly what he wants. It takes time, active listening, and honest advice to build a relationship capable of addressing the client’s concerns relative to his position and his organization. The consultant needs to understand and respect the client’s level of comfort with change and their readiness to incur the challenges and costs of the undertaking.
Like bartending, consulting is all about trust built over a series of interactions. It’s a relationship business that demands time, personal attention, and an ability to meet the client’s needs better than any alternative.
Lesson Three: Know When to Say “When”
In one of our final classes, we discussed the direct physiological dangers of too much alcohol over a long period of time and those associated with short-term overindulgence. The instructor reminded the class that it is a bartender’s responsibility to recognize the signs of overindulgence and to take steps to mitigate the situation.
Refusing to serve an inebriated customer means cutting off short-term revenue. But done with care, the act communicates that you want what is best for them, and you’re there to keep them safe. And in these situations, the act may actually increase the chance that they’ll return.
While consulting doesn’t pose physical risks, it’s important that consultants remain attentive to how needful a client has become. Companies can develop a dependence that can weaken their ability to operate efficiently. And many consultants spend so much one-on-one time in the client space that the line between advisor and employee blurs. In those scenarios, the firm risks ‘going native,’ trading its critical position of objectivity for what is essentially a staff augmentation role. Early in the engagement, consultants must build a sense of how the contract will end, and set objectives and timelines accordingly. Just like regulars keep coming back to the bar where they feel most comfortable, companies are likely to return to consultants who provide the support they need.
Bartending and consulting are ‘people’ businesses, so the similarities between the two aren’t surprising. Most notably, those that enjoy lasting relationships do so by employing technical skill and using the best interests of the customer – and the bar or firm – to guide their decisions.
It’s time to ensure your consultants are prepared to employ knowledge, useful techniques, and attentiveness to the needs of each client.
As Organizational Development Director, Hans leads the development of associates to ensure that skills and services match the ongoing needs of clients. Hans has an MA in International Relations and International Economics from John Hopkins University, and a BA in History from Williams College. He was a Robert Bosch Foundation fellow and received a meritorious honor award from the Department of State.
Toffler Associates is a future-focused strategic advisory firm. Our Future Proof® business consulting approach helps global leaders understand how future shifts impact current decisions so they can take advantage of opportunity, manage risk, and create future value.
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