It is very difficult to get a job in consulting. It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort and dedication — and ultimately only a few succeed.
It stands to reason that putting some thought into keeping the job you just got would be the prudent thing to do.
Fortunately, it is actually far easier to do well in consulting (in my opinion) than it is to get a job offer in consulting.
That’s because, in the recruiting process, your entire performance is determined by a combined three or four hours of interviews.
When you’re working full time, your performance is determined over a period of typically two years — or 4,000 to 5,000+ hours.
In other words, there is room to make some small mistakes and fix them… and still end up doing well.
It is a nice luxury that those still in the recruiting process do not have.
However, this luxury has its limits.
While small mistakes can be forgiven (mostly because they are easy to fix on a permanent basis), there are three major mistakes that are really unforgivable.
If you make one of these three mistakes, you will basically be fired (it might take a few months to transpire, but basically you are on the way “out” of the firm).
In this post, I will focus on one of the three major mistakes (to discover the other two, see the end of this article).
It’s the mistake of offending a client.
Now, at first glance, this seems quite obvious — it’s a client service business after all.
Despite the fact that everyone knows you’re not supposed to do this, it still happens a fair amount of the time.
So, the key is to understand why this happens and, in particular, isolate the root cause behind why a client feels offended.
First, let’s start with the question of who gets offended.
It is never the senior client that gets offended. Far more often, it is a junior client that gets offended.
Why would this be a big deal?
Because junior clients talk to other junior clients. So, when you offend a junior client, that client tells everybody at the client company that your firm is terrible to deal with.
Notice the emphasis in that last sentence. They don’t say you are hard to work with. They say your firm is hard to work with.
This makes it far more difficult for the current consulting team to get their work done. In turn, it reduces the odds that the partner will be able to sell follow-on work.
This is why it’s such an unforgivable mistake.
Keep in mind, partners don’t think in terms of just having a successful project. They are looking to have a successful multi-decade relationship.
When you offend a client and word spreads that your firm is offensive, you jeopardize what is potentially a multi-decade relationship.
This explains why offending a client is perceived by partners to be such a big deal.
Now, let’s explore how a new consultant offends a client.
There are several common “bad habits” that I urge you to avoid:
1) Treating important clients with respect, and “unimportant” clients rudely
Everyone is nice to the senior client, because well… he or she is the senior client.
Not everyone treats the receptionist or administrative assistant nicely — because well they aren’t that “important.”
This is a big mistake.
If you have roamed the halls of large corporations, you will know that one of the most important clients to have a good relationship with are the administrative assistants — especially the administrative assistants for senior clients.
First of all, they know everybody and can very quickly tell you who in the organization has the data you seek.
Second, everybody knows these administrative assistants. So, when these assistants call to make a request on behalf of their boss, everyone else knows to take these requests very seriously.
If a client is not being very timely in responding to your requests, the assistant can call on behalf of the senior client to help you speed things up.
Third, administrative assistants talk. If there are rumors floating around, they are on top of it. If you are wonderful to work with, they will let others know. If you are terrible to work with, they will let others know that too.
When I meet a new client, I always, always write down the name of the senior client’s assistant. I get that person’s phone number, email, etc…
When I have a meeting, I always swing by to say “hi” and call that person by their name… before they call me by mine.
Trust me on this one… you want the administrative assistant to be your ally… and if that person is not your ally, at a minimum you want to make sure they are not your enemy.
2) The other bad habit is to assume you are somehow “better” than a (junior) client.
Maybe you do mental math, and they simply can’t keep up.
Maybe you are running through a logical issue tree and they are struggling to understand the analysis.
Maybe you have a PhD from Harvard, and they never finished high school.
It is very tempting to conclude that these clients are slow, not talented, and if you had their job you could do it so much better.
It is tempting to draw such a conclusion, but it would also be a big mistake.
The flawed assumption in your thinking is that all that matters in running a successful corporation is insightful analysis. Having run businesses of various types, I can assure you this is so not true.
The better attitude to adopt is to say, “Okay, I seem to know a lot more about analysis than this client, but I am sure there are other things this client is good at that I am not.”
Treat them like an equal.
Related to this point, don’t throw your fancy degrees in their faces. It’s okay to mention it, but don’t dwell on it. The former is establishing credibility, the latter is throwing it in their face.
To this day, when I am introduced as a graduate of Stanford University and a former McKinsey consultant, (in the United States) I will make a joke of this by interrupting the person introducing me and interject, “And please, don’t hold that against me!”
Now, why would I do this?
Well, you see I wrote that bio and deliberately wanted to be introduced as a Stanford graduate and ex-McKinsey. While I wanted this known to establish my credibility, I did not want to overplay the importance of those two items in my bio.
This is the subtle difference between establishing competence vs. appearing arrogant. (By the way, balancing these two ends of the spectrum does vary by country and culture.)
I have always adopted the attitude that I can learn something from just about anybody. And I have found this to be largely true.
3) The final bad habit is to start off a relationship with a junior client by talking too much and listening too little.
You want your listen vs. talk ratio to be 80% listen, 20% talk in an initial meeting with a new junior client.
In addition, that 20% talking time should be allocated as follows: 1/2 asking questions, 1/2 synthesizing what the junior client just said to reinforce to that person you heard them.
It is very hard to be offended by someone who is asking you good questions and listening to your every word.
Now, consider what it feels like when those ratios are reversed — when all you do is talk at a client and never listen to a word they say…
“Whoa, whoa… you come in here telling me what’s wrong with my department. I’ve been in this industry for 30 years, and you’ve been in this industry for what, three days?”
This is what an offended client sounds like.
The other reason you want to listen more than talk early in a relationship with a client is because it seems to help establish trust and likability.
This was one of my secrets at McKinsey.
I would go in initially and just listen a lot. People like being listened to. They would conclude that I wasn’t there to force a particular agenda, I was just there to be helpful.
This would allow them to feel comfortable opening up to me… telling me all the “dirt” going on in the organization.
I got my best insights from clients who never graduated from high school. I took the time to listen to them. When I said I would keep their name confidential if they spilled their guts, they knew I would keep my word (and I did).
By doing this, I learned all the dirty little secrets inside my client’s operations (which is where I got all my more interesting hypotheses from).
… all this just by keeping my mouth shut and listening much more often.
So, to recap, don’t offend your clients!
Keep an eye out for the three bad habits I mentioned above that lead to clients being offended by what you do and say.
Now, at the beginning of this email, I mentioned that offending clients was just one of three major mistakes that new consultants make that get them fired.
If you are curious about the other two, I refer you to slide #58 in the second slide deck included with my program How to Succeed in Management Consulting (HSMC).
Here’s an interesting trivia point.
Today’s topic of offending clients is just one bullet point on one slide in the HSMC program — not only are there more bullets on that slide, there are also 156 other slides I cover in HSMC.
Click below for more details: