When outside consultants work together on a client's project, they often circle each other to check out their competition before settling down to get things done. I liken it to my experience at the dog park, where dogs size each other up to see which one is bigger, stronger and has larger chops.
In my experience, there are three personas that consultants adopt when working together: tenacious Terriers, prohibitive Pyrenees and congenial Cocker Spaniels. Let's take a look at the traits that make up each of these categories, then find out what we can do to work well together on a project.
Tenacious Terriers. If you know anything about Terriers, you know they can be aggressive, territorial and stubborn. These consultants always try to assert their superiority, impress you with their knowledge and get in the last word. They have an underlying layer of fear that they're going to be ousted or that they'll be shown up by others.
Prohibitive Pyrenees. Territorial, cliquish and somewhat solitary, these consultants will never accept another consultant’s role in the customer’s project. They'll always find a way to exclude the other consulting firm from vital conversations or to pass the blame if the project goes south. These consultants have a big bark, frequently followed by a bite.
Congenial Cocker Spaniels. These are my favorite consultants to work with. They look out for the client's best interests and know their own limitations. They are honest, motivated, confident and flexible. These personable consultants are the easiest to work with because they know their role in the project, do the job they're tasked to do and let other team members perform their tasks without butting in unnecessarily.
Learning to Play Nice
There’s no doubt you’ll encounter all three of these breeds at some point in your consulting career, and you can’t rely on your instincts alone to help you find common ground for the good of the client. In order to get the best results on any shared project, try these six tips:
1. Take an open-minded approach. Relationships with other consultants aren't always antagonistic, so acknowledge the possibility that you're going to get along just fine with a tenacious Terrier or a prohibitive Pyrenees. Knowing this going in will save you a lot of heartache in the end.
2. Recognize the opportunity. Consultants need clients. Consultants also need a network of referrals or partners to work with on client engagements. Smooth the way by realizing that these relationships are important for future contracts and referrals, and do your best to get along.
3. Turn the consultant into a friend rather than a foe. So much of the posturing consultants do is about maintaining a good relationship with the client. When the other consultant realizes you're not there to discredit them or steal the customer, they generally calm down. Be certain to stress their value in the success of the project to both them and the client so they have confidence in your working relationship.
4. Protect yourself and your reputation, but don't get defensive. One of our long-term clients hired a new controller who appeared to feel threatened because he didn’t have all the answers. Rather than just asking us for the information he needed, he sent harsh, accusatory emails. But we didn't go head to head with him. Instead, we made sure to copy his higher-ups on our response so they knew what we were up against.
5. Use the most powerful phrase in the consulting world: “Let me show you.” Using this phrase, then following through with your actions, allows you to establish your credibility and prove your role at the same time. For example, when my client’s CPA said that the software we recommended didn't have the capabilities the client needed, I did a software demo for the client that put all doubts to rest.
6. Aim to be the congenial cocker spaniel. Your behavior changes depending on your environment, the people you're working with and the stakes. Be aware of your feelings. When you're feeling less confident or threatened in a consulting situation, you can’t be at your best. Instead of feeling uncertain or stressed out, aim to be a confident, motivated problem-solver.
Do your best to analyze and manage the situation, and you'll come out on top.
Marjorie Adams is the president and CEO of AQB, a business process and software consulting firm that improves the efficiency of client accounting departments. The firm specializes in QuickBooks integration and conversion projects. Adams is also a member of Young Entrepreneur Council, an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.
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