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Between 2005 and 2011, IMC published Daily Tips every weekday on consulting ethics, marketing, service delivery and practice management. You may search more than 800 tips on this website using keywords in "Search all posts" or clicking on a tag in the Top Tags list to return all tips with that specific tag. Comment on individual tips (members and registered guests) or use the Contact Us form above to contact Mark Haas CMC, FIMC, Daily Tips author/editor. Daily Tips are being compiled into several volumes and will be available through IMC USA and Mark Haas.

 

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#721: Use Cognitive Biases to Your Advantage

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Monday, December 19, 2011
Updated: Monday, December 19, 2011
I would expect that all advisors want their recommendations to be judged fairly by the client and not be unduly influenced by either extraneous information or bad logic. How do we make sure that the information we present gets a "fair hearing"?

None of us is immune to cognitive bias, regardless of how much we'd like to believe we could impartially decide on the facts alone. Even where we take an oath of impartiality, there is an expectation that some biases are still present and the best we can do is to recognize them, disclose where possible, and compensate or recuse ourselves as appropriate. As a consultant, you have to sometimes work hard to avoid such biases.

When it comes expecting clients to judge your work impartially, it is up to you to understand the different kinds of biases and deliberately structure our presentations to use techniques to level the playing field. Note that deliberately introducing bias in client decision making to favor your position starts you down the path to unethical behavior.

We can't go over all the dozens of biases here but here are a few of the most important for consultants to be aware of:
  • Recency Bias - giving greater importance to the most recent event (e.g., the person who presents last before a decision is to be made has a slight advantage).
  • Anchoring - the tendency to overweigh in importance a dominant statement presented or experience already known (e.g., describing the problem in terms that discount alternative explanations or focusing on only one aspect of a complex problem before offering a solution that resolves only that aspect of the problem).
  • Normalcy Bias - discounting outcomes that rarely or have never occurred before (e.g., discounting a looming disaster even though the precursors to that disaster that have already occurred also are rare).
  • Confirmation Bias - The tendency to favor an approach or piece of information that is familiar or consistent with one's world view or history (e.g., a proposal to do "more of the current approach" has higher intuitive appeal than one based on a novel approach).
  • Halo effect - the tendency to attribute greater value to suggestions from a well-known entity rather than the merits of the item (e.g., giving greater credibility due to position or perceived market brand)
  • Loss Aversion - the tendency to place greater emphasis on avoiding the loss of something than the potential gain of the same amount of that thing (e.g., using fear to promote saving something in danger of being lost rather than using desire to promote the potential acquisition of something).
Tip: As you can see, each of these biases can be at work in how you approach your own work as a consultant but also are present in your clients when they are deciding on the merits of your recommendations. For a pretty good review of these biases and some practices to manage them, consider (among many other sources) Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions. Many of the best decision making work was done in the early 1990s and the best resources are from that era, one of those instances where newer is not necessarily better.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  assumptions  attribution  decision making  interpretation  learning  methodology  presentations  professional development 

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#683: Don't Assume the Client Recognizes the Value of Your Work

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, October 26, 2011
As part of the disengagement process, my firm goes through a formal exit interview, a review of contract terms and deliverables, and asks for referrals and/or testimonials. However, in some engagements for which we did a great job and exceeded all expectaitons, the client was reluctant to provide testimonials. What gives?

There are two issues likely at work here. First, checking on the status of your performance should not wait until the end of an engagement. Set up a fairly clear and deep set of performance expectations at the beginning of the engagement. Then confirm that you have met those expectations periodically throughout the engagement. The client may be forming a negative opinion of your work without you knowing it, one that is hard to reverse at the end even if you delivered all requirements. Don't let any bad opinions take root.

Second, don't assume that a client recognizes the full value your advice, services and work products. What you may see as an elegant, sustainable and powerful solution to a serious long-standing problem may appear to the client as just another piece of consultant work. If the problem you are solving is not specifically owned by your client sponsor, the perceived value may be low. Beyond noting that the work product was completed on time and budget, clarify and have the client affirm that the deliverable solved a significant problem or captured a significant opportunity. Don't let your work inadvertantly be undervalued.

Tip: Your job as a consultant is to improve the client's condition. Don't leave it to chance that they fully realize that you created real value. If you don't manage their expectations and conclusions, you run the risk of them thinking that you just "delivered work."

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  client relations  client service  customer understanding  disengagement  engagement management  interpretation  referrals 

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#638: It's What You Know That Just Ain't So

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Updated: Thursday, August 25, 2011
I like the comment attributed to Will Rogers about "It's not what you don't know that's the problem, it's what you know that just ain't so." Even though we are human, getting trapped in such assumptions is particularly dangerous for consultants. How can we avoid making these mistakes?

It may be the consultants are prone to being misled because of the nature of their work. We are expected to take incomplete and often confusing information and make sense of it, then use that information to chart a course for our clients. We often know of similar circumstances but, unless we have been working with a particular client for a while, are often new to the organization.

The nature of our work compels us to "jump to conclusions," even though we usually consider that a good thing. Why do we jump to the "wrong" conclusions, even after a good analysis? You are referring to a number of well documented biases that affect us in decision making. The most potent is confirmation bias, where a piece of information we have seems to comfortably fit into the "model" we have constructed. This serves to strengthen our conviction that we are on the right solution path (and our assumption that we are indeed smart consultants).

A number of other biases, recency bias (overweighting the last piece of information we received), anchoring (overweighting initial information), and vividness bias (overweighting the most stimulating information) can all lead to assuming we are right when we could be really wrong. The antidote to this is to constantly challenge your working model of how you see a client's situation and to become a student of over confidence.

Tip: Snopes.com lists a number of rumors that many people "know" to be true that just aren't. These persist because they are interesting, amusing or curious - and are either hard to verify or just not worth the effort. Find some of these rumors or urban legends (there are websites with plenty of these as well) you might believe and consider why you believe them. This might refresh your inner skeptic and help you avoid jumping to the wrong conclusion in your next engagement.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  advice  analysis  assumptions  consulting process  diagnosis  interpretation  learning  market research  professional development 

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#614: How Well You Write Depends on How Well You Read

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Thursday, July 21, 2011
Updated: Thursday, July 21, 2011
The communication skills of our consultants differ widely and I think it is largely due to the types of interests, activities and reading each has outside of the office. Would it help (and is it appropriate) to encourage staff to spend more professional development and outside reading time on topics other than consulting?

Diversity matters, not just in gender, ethnicity and age, but also in language, mental models and communication styles. How your staff enriches and educates themselves has an effect on their communication abilities and value as consultants.

Every professional gravitates toward reading and listening to subject matter in their own discipline. Lawyers read about the law, plumbers focus on mechanics and fluids, and pilots immerse themselves in safety and aeronautics. Consultants, left to our own devices, naturally lean toward reading, watching and talking about business, management, employees, customers, processes, etc. Because this dominates what we take in, it dominates how and what we write and speak about. We are what we eat. Garbage in, garbage out. And so forth.

If we only had to communicate with each other, this might be OK. However, the purpose of our intervention with clients is to improve the nature and amount of how they interact within and without their organizations. This requires us to engage many different people, cultures, experiences, styles, perspectives and vocabularies. Directly or indirectly, many people will be influenced by what we say and write. If we can speak to clearly to others, we increase our value as consultants.

When you think about the books you will read over the next year (assuming you maintain a reading list), consider how much of that time you will devote to fiction, biographies, history, science, politics, law, humor, speeches, science fiction, mythology, journal and other types (yes, you can include training, speaking, analysis, marketing finance and other consulting-related topics). Style, vocabulary, literary constructs and metaphors vary widely among these genres and together give you a powerful set of tools with which to write and speak to your client and stakeholder audiences.

Tip: It is widely recognized that hobbies provide an intellectual counterpoint to our main profession and give us a richer perspective and ability to communicate. If you don't have one, I recommend you find a range of reading sources that will force you to think in new ways, develop new ideas and grow your language and vocabulary skills. Your ability to understand your clients and communicate will continue to grow.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  communication  customer understanding  diversity  interpretation  knowledge assets  learning  presentations  professional development  speaking  writing 

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#610: Simplifying Your Writing to Better Communicate

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Friday, July 15, 2011
Updated: Friday, July 15, 2011
It is sometimes a little tricky deciding how complex to make my client briefings and analysis reports. Clients generally want precise and explicit language but reports that may be made public or for various audiences are best simpler. Are there any rules or advice about what level of reading difficulty is best?

First, take Albert Einstein's advice to "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." It is hard to go wrong writing as simply as possible, as if you were trying to explain your findings and recommendations to a 10th grader. Some consultants will bristle at this suggestion, claiming that their sophisticated analysis must mirror the complexity of the client's situation or market or strategy and all their communication demands complex language. This defies both logic and experience. Any consultant leaning on complex language probably lacks sufficient understanding of the basic principles and processes about which he or she is speaking.

Second, drifting into consultant-speak is a sure way to lose touch with your audience. You may have a vigorous discussion with your technical counterpart or the CEO using technical language, but it is the customers, staff, and other stakeholders who must eventually accept and act on your recommendations, If you want your findings and recommendations to live past the first reading of you report, put them in plain English.

You can use any of several automated tools to train you to streamline your words. These tools analyze your text for length and complexity of sentences and number of syllables per word. One document readability tool I like lets you enter text and gives Flesh Kincaid and other readability indices. This tool is really useful by telling you which sentences most violate simple language rules. Readability is stated as a grade level (i.e., number of years of education needed to understand the text). For example, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is at grade 13.4 (one year of college) while Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" is at grade 2.9.

Tip: Analyze your website, client reports, engagement letters, press releases and client communication. You will likely be shocked at how many of these communications are at college level. Use these analyses to simplify your writing. I suspect you will lose nothing of the meaning by streamlining the language.

P.S. This tip has a readability score of 11.2. A rewrite could simplify and clarify sentences without reduucing quality.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  communication  consulting terminology  information management  interpretation  presentations  publishing  recommendations  speaking  website 

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