My MBA Journey

Record of my personal journey completing an MBA

03 – Conducting a consulting project

Business consulting interview

Introduction

This module concentrates on organising and conducting a consulting project, examining both the client’s and consultant’s perspectives to establish structures and processes for a consulting business. We will explore an interview structure for discerning client objectives, examining methodologies, plans, and client interaction management. Furthermore, a template for client agreements will be developed.

It is crucial to note that each client is unique, necessitating adjustments to the template. Managing client expectations and goals is an integral part of this process, akin to project scoping, determining the scope boundaries to prevent scope creep. In addition to the client agreement template, we will create written proposals outlining offered services.

The consultant project will resemble other projects in terms of time constraints, resource allocation, and work breakdown schedule alignment with the negotiated project contract. The Kanban method will be considered for project organisation to ensure timeliness and budget adherence. Moreover, three data collection methods for consultants will be examined to support client project service provision and data analysis.

Lastly, we will establish a reporting structure applicable to both written and oral communications.

Being client focused

In Module Two, we examined the various types of business consultants that clients may require and the reasons for their engagement. We discussed three models: the selling and telling model, in which a consultant is employed for their expertise to deliver knowledge and information; the doctor-patient model, aimed at diagnosing unidentified problems within a client’s business; and the process consulting method, which primarily focuses on organisational operations and usually involves longer-term agreements than the first two models.

It is imperative to acknowledge that the client is the most crucial factor of any business, and one must consistently concentrate on their needs. Additionally, it is essential to understand the client’s expectations regarding service delivery and methodology. A consulting project is a time-bound activity with specific goals or objectives addressing particular problems of clients. These projects are temporary, possessing defined beginnings and ends, scopes, and resource levels.

Each project is unique, though they may share similarities with previous ones, enabling consultants to draw upon experience and expertise from past projects. A project’s objective goal encompasses meeting client satisfaction and adhering to relevant Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Initial contact

Most of the time, initial contact will come from the client. This is simply because the client has a problem and needs an expert to come up with a solution. Stroh (2019, p. 15)[^1] outlines several examples of client varieties with particular problems and how they approach a business consultant.

The initial interview

The primary objective of the inaugural meeting is to determine the compatibility between the business consultant and the individual seeking assistance. Thorough preparation is crucial, involving extensive research about the client or prospective client, as they will reciprocate by investigating your background. The client will assess your experience and knowledge pertaining to their business, and, from the consultant’s perspective, whether the client aligns with your consulting practice’s desired clientele. For instance, if the client represents a gambling venue, ethical considerations may influence your decision to engage with them.

Moreover, it is essential to evaluate the project timeline and ascertain whether you can allocate adequate time for its completion. During the initial interview, it is imperative to avoid prematurely suggesting solutions before thoroughly examining all relevant information. Instead, focus on establishing rapport and determining if a positive relationship can be fostered between both parties. Stroh (2019) [^1]provides suggestions for structuring a meeting with a client. Many of these are common sense and would be standard practice whenever engagine with a prospective client.

Before
  • Make comprehensive notes about the client by gathering as much information as you can. Review them before the meeting occurs.
  • Draft an outline of the major items to be included in the proposal based on what you know
  • Draft an agenda to manage the conversation and control the flow of the meeting.
The meeting
  • Clearly identify the problem and nature of the project. Remember however that the problem presented may need further research to ensure it is the actual problem. Clarify where necessary.
  • Get the client to verbalise “what done looks like” to them. What will a solution achieve?
  • Identify and discuss any deliverables, timeframes and objectives
  • Obtain agreement on what your responsibilities will be and what resources you may need.
  • Reciprocate for the client on their responsibilities and resources.
  • Discuss the reporting requirements, methodology and frequency of updates.
  • Fees and costs can be discussed but only as a generalisation until the project can be fully assessed. There may also be resource requirements such as office space or travel arrangements.
  • Confirm after discussing all the above the points to include in the proposal.
  • Determine from the client if there is anything else to go into the proposal.
The interview process

Interviews generally follow a standard format which is worth building into your agenda. Stroh (2019) [^1] provides several points about the interview. This is where your agenda comes to the fore.

  • The meet and greet. Introduce yourself and establish rapport with some light and brief conversation.
  • Define the purpose of the meeting and how much time has been allocated. Outline the expected actions to come out of the meeting and assure confidentiality.
  • Using open-ended questions, gather as much general information as you can.
  • Identify and ask specific questions where answers are needed.
  • Ask the client for an evaluation of the problem.
  • Ask the client for any suggestions they have considered for the problem and if there are suggestions, have they been tried and what happened?
  • Dig deeper if necessary on anything that needs clarification.
  • Have you covered all the important questions?
  • Ask the client if there is anything else they would like to add that may have been missed?
  • Thank the client for their time and assistance.

Constructing the interview guide

Stroh (2019) [^1] suggests four important as aspects of preparation for a client meeting:

  • Obtain clarity around the purpose of the project
  • Prepare the questions you intend to ask
  • Find out the time constraints around the project
  • Decide on the interview location (the client’s office is suggested as best)

The questions you ask, when and how you ask them has the potential to differentiate you from your competition. Whether it be consulting or sales of any persuasion, interview awareness is similar and Stroh (2019) [^1] suggests a number of concepts to keep in mind.

  • Be conscious of body language, it is a considerable component of your communication.
  • Ask open-ended questions where possible and listen intently to answers.
  • Ask follow up questions if answers are not clear.
  • Repeat key points back to the other party to ensure you have understood correctly.
  • Ask for examples to better understand any unclear concepts.
  • Do not shy away from the tough questions. They need to be asked.
  • Maintain focus and stick to the agenda wherever possible.
  • At the same time, be prepared to be flexible, but return to agenda as soon as possible.
  • Remain objective, unbiased and apolitical.
  • Do not ask several questions at a time. Take them one at a time.
  • Actively listen to responses and make notes if necessary.
  • Your demeanour should be professional and relaxed.
  • Do not interrupt the other party when they are speaking.

Clarification of the project

Fit with the prospective client is important as previously discussed. It will also be crucial to establish a clear understanding of the project. If you know the client well, it can be a trap to assume you know what the project involves. Treat the client as a new one and go into all the details to ensure you have the understanding you will need. Misunderstandings are quite often the cause of relationship breakdowns.

In preparation for the interview process, flexibility it is important to build in a degree of flexibility, particularly if time is constrained. A good heuristic to use is to prepare for an interview that is 2/3rds of the allotted time.

One part of project clarification is to determine if the client’s expectations are reasonable and that you are prepared to take on the project. This is an area where you will be heavily reliant on your expertise and experience in knowing if the expectations are real and achievable. Remember the SMART system and apply it in this process.

Addressing the specifics

In preparation for the interview, there will also be the need to get into the detail and specifics of the project. Consideration of the following may assist:

  • How to agree on outcomes and what done looks like?
  • Has the client’s had previous experiences? How might these be addressed?
  • How to gain as much detail as possible about the organisation?
  • Clarifying your role? How does the client see your role?
  • What does the client wish to know about you?
  • What the process will be to agree on the project status, decisions and fees?
  • What is the process for decision-making?
  • Should fees be discussed? If so, keep it general pending proposal completion.
  • What, if any, comments on the competition should you make?

All of the above are important concepts, questions and processes for relationship building and gaining the confidence of the client in your abilities to complete the project in a professional manner.

Ultimately, the desired outcome of the interview process is to prepare and submit a detailed proposal to the client containing much of the detail and information gathered at the interview. The proposal is the document where fees are detailed and explained once the level of work in the project has been assessed.

Preparation of the proposal

The proposal is the formal document that can form the basis of a clear understanding between the consultant and the client. The proposal should be persuasive in nature and provide confidence to the client that you, as the consultant, are perfectly capable of completing the assignment.

The proposal is not the final document on which the project will be based, but can form the basis of further negotiations on project detail and scope. Kubr (2002) [^2] asserts that it is important for consultants to learn to write winning proposals. The proposal should demonstrate:

  • the quality of the consultant’s work through the presentation of the proposal
  • that you have a complete understanding of the client’s business and project
  • the value proposition for the client in awarding the project to you
  • how your fees are structured

The written proposal should be an accurate reflection of the interview and discussions held previously.

Sadler (1998, p. 94) [^3] considers that a proposal must have three components:

  • specify the objectives for and the approach to the assignment, based on an agreed understanding of the problem
  • be a persuasive selling document
  • be the basis of a legally binding contract.

According to Stroh (2019) [^1], proposals for a consulting project are usually presented as a written document, but may be accompanied by an oral presentation. The Queensland government has developed a Story Telling Canvas which is available under Creative Commons that can assist in developing your presentation.

The client agreement

As each project varies, it is imperative that every client agreement is tailored to reflect the specific terms of the individual project. Typically, the proposal serves as the foundation for the client agreement, which is subsequently converted into a formal, written document elucidating the terms and conditions in a comprehensible manner, ensuring both parties possess a clear understanding.

A crucial element outlined within the client agreement is the precise scope of the project, functioning as a baseline reference throughout the entire agreement period. As previously emphasised, this is of significant importance in order to mitigate the risk of scope creep – a prevalent concern within any project – and maintain constant vigilance.

Clark (2019) [^4] provides a succinct definition of an agreement as “… usually broken down into two parts: an offer and an acceptance and involves a ‘meeting of the minds’ (a consensus) between two or more parties.”

When examining the concept of an offer, it essentially constitutes a consultant’s commitment to perform specific tasks. The acceptance, on the other hand, refers to the client’s agreement with the proposed offer and the conditions under which it is presented. This process necessitates mutual consent, hence the term “agreement.” Upon written execution by both parties, the agreement attains legal validity as a contract.

It is important to note that contract law may differ across nations. As such, for those operating in an international context, investigating respective countries’ contract laws and determining the applicable jurisdiction is advisable.

Fees

Legal contracts contain two basic elements that apply to consulting agreements: mutual consent and valid consideration (Block 2011, p. 53) [^4]. Clark (2019) [^5] discusses consideration as meaning, under Australian law, payment must be made for the promise received in the contract.

Developing a project plan

In this module, we have examined the proposal, which subsequently leads to the formation of a client agreement and the development of a project plan. It is essential to reiterate that a project is characterised by its uniqueness and time constraints.

Although numerous project management frameworks exist, such as McKinsey’s 7S framework with five stages and Zipursky’s four-stage process model, these primarily concentrate on the process involved rather than the overarching project plan. According to Stroh (2019) [^1], an effective project plan encompasses more than merely the process. It also addresses key aspects of the project.

Stroh (2019, p. 60) [^1] contends that the content of a project plan can vary depending on the nature of the project. The following image however provides a solid list for initiating a project plan.

Figure 1: Steps to create a project plan

Figure 1: Steps to create a project plan
Source: Reproduced from Stroh (2019, p.60).

Project management systems

There are several project management systems in the market. These include Clickup, Monday, Slack and even Google Sheets. The important aspect is that everyone involved in project delivery has access to the software. Potentially, it is possible to also include clients in a limited capacity for reporting purposes.

Most of these software applications will include a Kanban Board for project management. This is a system developed by Toyota originally, but now adopted in many different arenas of project management.

Using data to solve problems

Upon designing the project utilising a Kanban board or project management software, the subsequent stage typically involves data collection. During the research phase of the project, preliminary data may have been accumulated to comprehend its completion requirements. This process could entail engaging with stakeholders or enhancing one’s understanding of the project’s objectives. Consequently, a portion of the requisite data may have already been procured.

Stroh (2019, p. 67) [^1] details five steps in the data collection process:

Figure 2: Five steps of data collection

Figure 2: Five steps of data collection
Source: Reproduced from Stroh (2019, p. 67) [^1].

The collection of data constitutes a crucial aspect of project management, as it underpins the research employed in formulating recommendations and substantiating conclusions pertaining to the project. Utilising tools such as the five whys ensures that the research focuses not merely on symptoms but on identifying the root cause of the problem, thereby enabling well-founded solution proposals.

The iceberg principle

The Iceberg Principle, a widely recognised metaphor in business circles, symbolises the notion that frequently, merely the tip of the iceberg is visible while the actual issue remains submerged. This principle emphasises that the observed problem may only constitute a small portion, with more profound complications concealed below.

Stroh (2019) [^1] also refers to the iceberg principle and the diagram below provides a label for many of the issues that could be lurking beneath the surface and causing the visible problem above.

Figure 3: The organisational iceberg

Figure 3: The organisational iceberg
Source: Reproduced from Stroh (2019, p. 71) [^1]

Patterns

When collecting data, look for patterns in processes, people and the data. Repeating behaviour or results can indicate a deeper issue. Remember the old saying that if you do things the same way you will get the same results. With consulting, the same results may appear at infrequent intervals, but are still forming a pattern. Your role will be to find out where the variance is located.

Data definitions

These terms have been covered previously, but are worthwhile reiterating for the purpose of documenting a project.

  • Primary data: internal information such as memos, emails, policies, procedures, strategic plans and websites.
  • Secondary data: trade journals, reports from consultants, government statistics, research papers.
  • Tertiary data: articles reporting on the information contained in secondary data.

Data collection

A useful list of data collection methods can be found online that elaborates on the following methods:

  • Qualitative and Quantitative methods
  • Mixed methods
  • Surveys
  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Documentation
  • Creative strategies
  • Triangulation (Western Australia Centre for Health Promotion Research 2010) [^6]

Triangulation

Triangulation, a significant research method, has been examined in various subjects. It occurs when multiple research methods are employed concurrently, as depicted in the Venn diagram below. This produces intersections of overlapping data, wherein each methodology supports a central conclusion. In essence, data is triangulated to converge at common points.

Figure 4: Triangulation research method

Figure 4: Triangulation research method
Source: Adapted from Chevalier and Buckles (2013) [^7].

Interviews

Interviews constitute a vital data collection method. Their most salient feature is the two-way communication, enabling the interviewer to probe further if initial responses prove unsatisfactory, thus fostering a comprehensive understanding of the situation. As previously discussed, structured and semi-structured interviews are utilised in this context. Stroh (2019, p. 103) [^1] identifies crucial factors for successful interviews:

  • Prepare the questions and the agenda beforehand.
  • Conduct the interview in a quiet, private setting free from distractions.
  • Face the interviewee, make occasional eye contact, and acknowledge the interviewee’s responses.
  • Ask open-ended questions and probe to clarify and to encourage the interviewee to provide details and examples.
  • Ask one question at a time, in a relaxed and casual manner.
  • Keep the interview focused on the topic. • Let the interviewee do the majority of the talking. In most interviews, the person you are interviewing should talk about 90% of the time.
  • Ask tough questions.
  • Take notes on key ideas or themes.

It can also be a good idea to record the interview for later reflection and reference. This would obviously require the prospective client’s consent. Given the litigious nature of society today, a consent form may be a useful tool.

Report content

Stroh (2019, p. 105) [^1] outlines the key requirements of a quality report:

  1. Provide information that is practical and useful to the client;
  2. Be easy for the client and other managers to read and understand;
  3. Be concise;
  4. Support conclusions, recommendations, and plans of action with solid data.

Macquire and Delahunt (2017) [^8] contend that thematic analysis involves the identification of patterns or themes within the data. Braun and Clarke (cited in Maguire & Delahunt 2017) [^8] suggests that researchers should learn the thematic method in the first instance before others.

According to Macquire and Delahunt (2017, p. 8) [^8] “themes should be coherent and they should be distinct from each other”. They further suggest asking the following questions:

• Do the themes make sense?
• Does the data support the themes?
• Am I trying to fit too much into a theme?
• If themes overlap, are they really separate themes?
• Are there themes within themes (subthemes)?
• Are there other themes within the data?

Report to client

Stroh (2019) [^1] has the heading in Chapter 7 indicating the purpose of the report and its feedback is to “move the client to action”.

The report’s feedback encompasses recommendations addressing the issue underpinning the project. Often, project conclusion entails presenting the client with a clear, detailed, and comprehensible report, facilitating seamless recommendation implementation without confusion. In numerous instances, two reports are generated: a written document and an oral presentation through an interview.

Focusing on the written report, it should encompass research content, data collection, and findings. Subsequently, recommendations should identify required actions or suggestions for the client in order of priority. The introduction may commence with the initial project brief, outlining the client’s objectives and problem resolution. Following this, data gathered and interview notes should be incorporated to ensure a structured and professional report flow.

Certain clients may necessitate specific formats or software utilisation; however, the fundamental principles remain consistent. Stroh (2019, p. 105) [^1] proposes four criteria for an effective report:

  • Provide information that is practical and useful to the client.
  • Be easy for the client and other managers to read and understand.
  • Be concise.
  • Support conclusions, recommendations, and plans of action with solid data.

Consulting reports predominantly adhere to a standard format, albeit with some variation contingent on client expectations regarding content. The report should be structured thematically, ensuring a logical progression between subjects rather than haphazard transitions. Stroh (2019) [^1] highlights the conventional key headings, which may serve as a template for structuring a consultant’s report, as outlined below.

  • The cover page, which contains title, the date of the report and the author’s name
  • The executive summary—one page in length at a maximum, but 250 words can be adequate. It is always written last to encapsulate the content of the report
  • The introduction which outlines the background or context of the report including why it was undertaken
  • The purpose of the study so readers are clear on why it was done
  • The method or approach that you used to diagnose and comprehend the problem (e.g., Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive (MECE)) explaining in as much detail as necessary
  • The results—of your investigation and analysis
  • The findings—inlcuding your interpretation of the results as they relate to the report and the business
  • The implications—for the business and/or for the industry
  • The recommendations— your recommendations for action. These can be structured in a number of ways, but perhaps it is worth considering listing the easy immediate actions in order of priority and then the more involved actions, again in order of priority. Ensure that an immediate action is not dependent on completion of a more involved one.

It is crucial that the report be structured in a comprehensible manner for the client, thereby facilitating their decision-making process. Each recommendation presented may have varying implications, costs, and risks, as posited by Sadler (1998) [^3]. Furthermore, the financial benefits associated with each recommendation must be examined.

Stroh (2019) [^1] highlights that challenging situations may arise during data collection for the report, necessitating careful consideration of whether to include such information. The prevailing heuristic suggests that difficulties should be mentioned only if they directly pertain to a problem that has significantly impacted the report and the investigated issue. As consultants are engaged for their fresh perspectives, impeding this viewpoint may lead to complications and undermine credibility. However, completely avoiding sensitive issues can also seriously compromise credibility; difficult conversations are necessary.

Stroh (2019) [^1] further contends that any confidential or controversial situations encountered should ideally have been discussed with the client during consultation meetings or the project’s course.

Oral presentation

An oral presentation, accompanied by written evidence to substantiate the report’s content, can be a highly effective method of reinforcing such a report (Kubr 2005) [^2]. Indeed, the consultant’s oral report may be considered equally, if not more, significant than the written document. Oral presentations necessitate a specific mode of delivery and should be executed confidently when addressing clients.

Stroh (2019, p. 127) [^1] enumerates seven steps for conducting effective presentations; however, the crux lies in the conveyed information and the manner in which it is communicated to the audience.

  1. Review the findings.
  2. Ask the client or group whether the feedback report is clear.
  3. Ask whether any data are missing.
  4. Ask the client or group members to describe any trends they see emerging from the data.
  5. Discuss the logic and reasoning behind your recommendations for the next steps.
  6. Ask what actions the client or group members envision occurring in response to the data.
  7. Promote the value of, and assist the client in, taking action.

The above video offers valuable guidance on public speaking and presentation delivery, providing beneficial tips and exercises to prepare the voice for effective communication that will capture the audience’s attention.

Conclusion – conducting a consulting project

This module has covered a considerable amount of the consulting process from the initial interview right through to the final report and oral presentation. In between is discussion around developing client agreements and developing project plans where a significant area was the avoidance of scope creep by ensuring the scope is clearly defined. There has been significant reference to Stroh (2019) [^1] reinforcing the valuable content available in this reference book.

References

[^1]: Stroh, LK 2019, The Basic Principles of Effective Consulting, Second, Taylor & Francis Group, Milton, UNITED KINGDOM, viewed 30 August 2023,  http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aibus/detail.action?docID=5675688.
[^2]: Kubr, Milan. Management Consulting: A Guide to the Profession. Washington, SWITZERLAND: International Labour Office, 2002. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aibus/detail.action?docID=529940.
[^3]: Sadler, Philip, ed. Management Consultancy: A Handbook for Best Practice. 2nd ed. London: Kogan Page, 1998.
[^4]: Block, P 2011, Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, Center for Creative Leadership, Hoboken, UNITED STATES, viewed 30 August 2023,  http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aibus/detail.action?docID=661497.
[^5]: Clark, J 2019, Australian Contract Law – Agreement, Australian Contract Law, viewed 5 September 2023,  https://www.australiancontractlaw.info/law/agreement.
[^6]: Western Australia Centre for Health Promotion Research 2010, Data collection methods, My Peer Toolkit, viewed 5 September 2023,  http://mypeer.org.au/monitoring-evaluation/data-collection-methods/.
[^7]: Chevalier, JM & Buckles, DJ 2013, File:Venn diagram of Participatory Action Research.jpg, Wikipedia, viewed 5 September 2023,  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Venn_diagram_of_Participatory_Action_Research.jpg&oldid=554936382.
[^8]: Maguire, M & Delahunt, B 2017, ‘Doing a thematic analysis: A practical, step-by-step guide for learning and teaching scholars.’, All Ireland Journal of Higher Education October 31, Vol. 9, No. 3, viewed 5 September 2023,  https://ojs.aishe.org/index.php/aishe-j/article/view/335.

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Ric Raftis

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