One of the many things I've learned as a consultant is that the real problem is often not the one the client first presents. However, since they are paying the bill, isn't it appropriate to start with the problem they give you?
Our obligation as consultants is to improve the client's position, which means we have to solve the problems as they exist. We are to lead the client on a path with the right questions, not follow them down the wrong path because they ask the wrong ones. It does not necessarily mean we will start on the path the client specifies or even the one we assume is correct before we begin the engagement. Many times, a client will scope your engagement by telling you the problem he or she sees, but this may just be a symptom, or may not be the root cause of the challenge or opportunity they face. It may not even be the most critical or the first in a series of issues that need to be addressed.
Above all, our obligation is to make sure the question is legitimate before you try to investigate it. It is easy, especially if you don't have experience as a consultant or executive, to be tricked by something that sounds like a legitimate problem. For example, the client says her salespeople are not on the road enough of the time. This is neither a problem statement nor perhaps not even a symptom. Your investigation begins with why sales staff utilization is even an issue (i.e., the best situation is to generate target sales with 0% utilization) and then decide whether it is staffing, revenue, management, cost, etc. that are the real issues.Tip:
Develop a standard process or sequence of criteria you use to validate and scope engagements. This is one area many consultants decide to just "wing it" and ask penetrating questions until they close in on the real problem scope. Create an investigation process and use it, refining it on every engagement. When your client expects you to answer a question, you will then have vetted and validated it and will be sure you are answering the right questions.© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA