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What Does It Mean To Be A (Good) Consultant?

By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: February 16, 2015

For the last fifteen years, I’ve referred to myself as a Consultant. What exactly is a “Consultant”? What makes for a good consultant?

I define a consultant by seven core tenets. These are from my own work and my observations of other consultants at work. To me, it is these tenets that make the difference between a good consultant and an okay one. It is these tenets that make the difference for how well clients are served and the results delivered. It is these tenets I strive to live by within each project and that I try to continually improve upon with each new client I help.

The Seven Things That Make For A Good Consultant

  1. Know The Big Picture. How does what I’m doing affect the greater whole? How can what I’m working on help serve the larger goals of an organization? Compared to other aspects of the bigger picture, how important is my piece? A good consultant knows how the different pieces connect and will focus on the pieces that matter the most that will affect the larger goals of an organization.
  2. Bring Clarity. Above all else, I would say that my job is to bring clarity. My world is all about analyzing complex technical situations using extensive amounts of data to inform marketing campaigns.  Technical details aren’t black and white, requiring considerable time discussing the gray area. As for the data used to help explore these technical details? Well, so much of that data is disorganized and messy, which means analyzing the data can be confusing. It is my job to help clients understand their technical situation and use the data to decide what matters. My job, and the job of a good consultant, is to bring forth clarity out of this chaos, to give clients simple, but not simplistic, answers and plans.
  3. Education & Inform. Closely related to bringing forth clarity is educating and informing my client. My job is not complete until I’ve helped a client gain a deeper understanding of the decision they are making. Often, for me, that means explaining technical nuances and the implications of a potential change to the client. I view it as a consultant’s job to help educate and inform clients of the things they need to think about when making a decision. If I do my job right, the client can make smarter decisions going forward, even after my time with the client has come to an end.
  4. Advise vs. Advocate. My job is to help bring forth clarity to inform and educate my clients to help them make decisions. However, my job is not to make decisions on their behalf. Undoubtedly, as I work with a client, I develop my own opinions about how things ought to be. It is tempting, at times, to push the client to agree with my opinion. Thing is, it isn’t my place to advocate. My job, and how I add value, is by advising my clients of their options and to offer expert guidance during their decision-making process.
  5. Speak The Hard Truth. In advising my clients, there are always situations that arise where I am placed in a position of delivering unpleasant news. When I was younger and just beginning to work as a consultant, I tried to whitewash these unpleasant topics. Having grown older, and having seen other consultants at work, I realize there is tremendous value in speaking the hard truth (even if it is never a fun conversation and even if the hard truth means I lose the client). Despite how hard the conversation may be, helping the client see the truth helps the client make a change that will ultimately benefit their business.
  6. Speak To The Real Problem. A good consultant knows how to find the “real” problem. For example, a client may come to me saying that they need to redesign their website because they’ve identified their website’s visual look is their core problem. As I dig into their situation, though, I may find (as I often do) that their problem has nothing to do with the design and everything to do with something else (like the technical structure, the information architecture, the customers targeted, the content of the website, the price of their product, etc.). If I help the client with the redesign, I’m not addressing the real problem. It is my responsibility, and the responsibility of any good consultant, to identify the real problem and help the client address that problem.
  7. Remain Calm. Finally, I work with a lot of clients to help them through big changes. I also work with a lot of clients who are dealing with a crisis that is affecting their entire business. In many cases, tensions are running high. There is a lot of frustration, anxiety, and, often, anger. Those emotions put on blinders, causing everybody involved to lose the clarity required to see the real problem and how it affects the big picture. My job is to remain calm, strive for clarity in the midst of a stressful/chaotic situation, and advise my clients honestly and directly on the best options they have to resolve the real problems they are facing.

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