If you run a consulting practice, the most important phase in any engagement is understanding the customer. If you miss that element, you would struggle all through the engagement. To understand a customer, you have to approach everything with a learning spirit irrespective of what you think you are. The fact is this: the customer understands and knows his business more than you.
Yet, he is hiring you to deepen his perspectives. But never think he is hiring you because you are “smarter”. If you go with the smarter mentality, you will fail. Sure – you have accomplished many things for someone to hire your practice, but always remember that a product usage is whatever a customer uses it for.
Yes, some buy goats to eat, some buy to throw into waters for their gods while some prepare the same goats, abstain from tasting any portion and leave all for god-trees. If you sell goats, your antenna must be to manage all those different customers because the goats which you sell mean different things at utility levels to your customers. It is by listening and learning from the customers that you can understand what works.
If you serve many Igbo non-highly educated businessmen [few weeks in secondary schools if they even entered], do not waste time with strategy because they would stop you within minutes. Focus on realizable Naira amount and work backward to strategy and funding needs. Your frameworks and strategies are wastes of time. But if you show the money – the next question would be “How do we make this happen in this company?” Once they drop that direction, you can move into strategy. Always remember that most do not have structures like typical corporate entities with layers where the top management is the heart of strategy. Here, the factory man is possibly living in the founder’s house and he can ask him any question anytime. So, working on strategy must include tactical and operational components because if you expect the client to go and develop them, you will fail. He has no structure to break the big picture “strategy”. Understanding this lack of structures must be obvious as you do your costing.
Simply, running a practice is a service: you have to listen to deliver impacts. Then after you have listened, as a subject matter expert, you would bring your broader views, and accumulated capabilities to do three things:
- Help the client improve on what he is doing at the moment. Because technology is the enabler, it makes sense to have components of it when the productivity gain becomes critical. The technology must not just run the firm; it must also transform it.
- Provide deeper insights beyond what the client is doing. This is what we call Frontier Mapping in my practice. Here, with our knowledge of the client business and our understanding of the local market (read this piece I wrote in Harvard Business Review on why that is important), we can create a new future in that business.
- Deliver a managed roadmap which helps the client to win today even as he prepares for tomorrow. We would never ask you to abandon what is working today for something that promises to be bigger tomorrow. We will rather find a way to bring both in sync so that your transition does not affect the mission – fixing frictions in the market. The key is making sure that today’s promises fund the expected unborn future. Yes, invest in the offline world even as you prepare for the digital one because today’s business in Nigeria is still largely offline-anchored.
In our practice, we deploy proprietary management concept and execution strategies encapsulated under CIPA (Content, Illustration, Practice and Application) to deliver new markets and territories for clients.
Finally, communicate with awareness and that means do not score own-goals. Nothing destroys your reputation when your customer sees you as being unaware: providing suggestions which everyone in the sector had tested and failed! Unless you have something new, possibly with technology which can help improve marginal cost or productivity, do not send your clients to dead-end. But awareness comes with observation which means your antenna must be sharp. It is when you combine both that you can leave memorable moments in Boards and Executive Management to approve those contracts. If you cannot provide new insights in your presentations (at least), it may be time for you to update your resume because you would struggle to build that trust necessary for a business to put its future in your hands!