On Consultants as Educators

Learn why Third Reef sees client education as a primary outcome for any engagement.

As a client, you bring your problem to a consultant to solve problems that your internal team can't solve in an effective manner for your business. You need specialized, external expertise, or you need skills faster than your team can acquire them. Purchasing technical, details oriented services is always difficult, but a good consultant helps you understand what you're buying, and aims to leave you better informed about the services you've obtained. Clients should end an engagement feeling able to describe not just what was done, but why it was done and the tradeoffs that informed decision-making. To facilitate that, we believe strongly in the role of consultants as client educators.

To truly deliver on that premise, clients and consultants must work together to ensure knowledge transfer. Clients need to acknowledge that bringing in a consultant is, by definition, because that person brings expertise they don't have and trusting that expertise is critical to success. Consultants, conversely, must earn and maintain that trust by clearly communicate the breadth of options involved in a decision, the factors that should be used to evaluate each option, and why those factors weigh in favor of a particular recommendation. When both parties are able to build a shared understanding of the problem space, the client leaves the engagement better able to self-service and less reliant on the consultant. That sounds great in practice, but the road to project failure is paved with good intentions. Let's explore with an example:

Calling Out Hidden Complexity

“We just need a contact form. The same as any other website. You can probably just reuse the one from the old site.”

Most technology consultants have heard some variation of this at some point. The thinking is logical and efficient - other sites are providing this functionality successfully, so what's to prohibit borrowing some inspiration and spending less time on it? However, it's a moment when the consultant in the room is obliged to speak up, highlighting the behind-the-scenes work that goes into those other sites delivering the functionality successfully.

First, it's important to point out that increasing the number of visitors filling out a contact form is often a critically important goal for a site. How do we drive traffic to the contact form? Where does it live in the information architecture of the site? What does analytics tell us about the current traffic patterns arriving at the contact form? What percentage of users are completing the form?

Next, the client should realize that although there are common threads shared by most contact forms, good ones will have differences. Are your visitors impatient and unwilling to give you more than a name, email and brief message? Is there anything unique about getting in touch with you, such as routing the message to a particular department? How is that best achieved? Are your visitors engaged enough to supply additional information in a format that will help you get back in touch with a more informed perspective, such as background about their reason for reaching out? Do your visitors know enough to fill out these fields correctly, or is it better to simply discuss over the phone? Is there any pre-qualification that can be done through the form? Do we have analytics setup to track how far partial completions are getting?

And then there's the form itself, and the logic of seemingly straightforward fields. Are the labels appropriate for your business? Which fields are required and which are optional? What validation techniques are used to ensure the data you're receiving is high quality?

Connecting the Dots

While these questions may seem pedantic to some, they're representative of the thought required to present user friendly functionality to a wide audience. If your business can grow by increased form submissions and questions like the above can lead to a tangible increase in user follow-through, their importance is clear. By asking these questions and helping you to understand their importance, a consultant helps you to understand that similar thinking applies to other forms and goals on your site.

Of course, client education is only successful to the degree that a client wants to be educated. If time is tight or interest is low, you may get lucky in having a consultant that asks these questions in the background, but you'll miss out on a substantial amount of the value a consultant should bring to your organizationif you fail to participate in your own right. If you're open to having your assumptions challenged, open to learning things that seem outside your wheelhouse, and willing to trust a good consultant, you're already on the path to maximizing your ROI on an engagement.

If you like what you're reading,