The Secrets of Consulting

Consulting is the art of influencing people at their request. It’s always been a mysterious profession, at least to me. This book takes you behind the scenes, explaining why consulting seems so irrational. It also provides practical actions to make yourself more successful as a consultant.

Though an excellent guide for consultants, this book is more about how to be effective with people. Some of the topics covered are: Marketing and pricing your services, dealing effectively with clients, what to do when they resist your ideas, and much more.

The Secrets of Consulting

Laws of consulting

Consulting is not a test for the consultant. It’s a service to the client.

Your task is to influence people, but only at their request. If they didn’t hire you, don’t solve their problem.

Despite what your client may tell you, there’s always a problem. No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.

The most prevalent occupational disease among consultants is offering unsolicited “help.” It’s bad for your bankbook, and it doesn’t work. It usually backfires.

You strive to make people less dependent on you rather than more dependent. The less you intervene, the better you feel about your work.

If your clients want help in solving problems, you can say no. If you say yes but fail, you can live with that. If you succeed, the least satisfying approach is when you solve the problem for them. The more satisfying approach is when you help them solve their problems in such a way that they will be more likely to solve the next problem without help. The most satisfying is to help them learn how to prevent problems in the first place.

You can be satisfied with your accomplishments, even if clients don’t give you credit.

Your ideal form of influence is first to help people see their world more clearly, and then to let them decide what to do next. Your working methods are always open for display and discussion with your clients.

Your primary tool is merely being the person you are, so your most powerful method of helping others is to help yourself.

Being effective when you don’t know what you’re doing.

The problem with specialists is that the toughest problems don’t come in neatly labeled packages. Or they come in packages with the wrong labels. That’s why they are so tough.

Often consultants tackle problems outside of their specialty. Good consultants can handle many of those problems because they are problem-solvers. Their best tricks have nothing to do with their specialties, and consultants in any field can use them. People close to a problem tend to keep repeating what didn’t work the first time. They are so close to their problems that they don’t know how much trouble they’re in.

What follows are some of the general principles for solving problems.

Deal gently with systems that should be able to cure themselves.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

90% of all illness cures itself - with absolutely no intervention from the doctor.

All the doctor must do is avoid harming the patient. A successful doctor must also convince the patient that something is being done to cure the disease.

Let them try whatever they like, but teach them how to protect themselves.

Repeatedly curing a system that can cure itself will eventually create a system that can’t.

Taking medicines for each and every minor health issue, such as cold, renders them ineffective as it prevents the body from developing immunity. Or it might cause a side effect worse than the original disease.

Every prescription has two parts: the medicine and its correct usage.

Once the client starts using your solution, ensure they follow it till the end.

Sometimes, after you take a medicine, the symptoms may remain even though the cause is being brought under control.

If the treatment stops too soon, the disease springs back, this time with a vengeance, i.e. added immunity to the medicine.

If what they’ve been doing hasn’t solved the problem, tell them to do something else.

The only times one brings a consultant is when whatever they are doing is not working. They’ve become stuck on one approach and can’t get unstuck.

Any large, complex system operating in an overly controlled and predictable environment can get stuck.

Timing is everything.

Know-how pays much less than know-when.

The secret of the above secrets lies not in the secrets themselves, but in knowing when to apply each one.

Study History

Things are the way they are because they got that way.

Most people are too impatient to study history. Studying history is a good way for consultants to see what others have missed.

The consultant who studies history can learn to avoid mistakes, capture missed opportunities, keep what worked, and change what had no effect.

Political reason to study the history: The people who were part of the process that produced the problem are still around and will be involved, in one way or another, in the attempts to solve it.

The consultant can learn about the environment, too. Even though the system is to be changed, it will have to survive in the environment experienced by the former system.

Don’t comment on everything.

It’s not always a good idea to see everything, or, if you do see it, to comment on everything.

Study for understanding, not for criticism.

If you loudly castigate the people responsible for producing the present mess, you may then discover that a) There were, at the time, good and sufficient reasons for decisions that seem idiotic today. b) The person most responsible is now your client or your client’s manager.

The people who know the history are your best source of information. Rather than shut them up with criticism, try opening them up.

The bigness is not the horse.

The true expert sees multiple aspects of a situation, but the novice sees only bigness, or teeth, or whatever is most conspicuous.

Horse trainers working with a horse notice dozens of important characteristics, weighing each one for its possible importance in training.

To people who don’t train horses, the only thing they notice is the first and most obvious thing: their size.

By learning to speak with more precision about a problem, we can solve problems more effectively.

The incompetent consultant doesn’t define problems, but simply labels them with the first word that comes to mind. And once the stereotyped label is firmly attached, the problem becomes much harder to solve.

Don’t worry about the credit.

You will never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit.

Consultants who try to take all the credit from the clients aren’t invited back. Help the client take all the credit.

When an effective consultant is present, the client solves problems.

Your purpose as a consultant is to help the client to solve a problem, not to demonstrate your superior intelligence.

If you can’t accept failure, you’ll never succeed as a consultant.

People who think they know everything are easiest to fool.

Sooner or later, everybody stumbles. Survival required that we learn to laugh things off and start over.

Trying to help others always winds up initially helping me more than it helps my clients.

Don’t be rational, be reasonable. The business of life is too important to be taken seriously.

Consider the trade-offs

There are many trade-offs in any business, and the consultant must learn them and call them to the client’s attention. Moving in one direction incurs a cost in the other.

Every occupation has its characteristic diseases. A disease affecting many consultants is their inability to resist solving problems. Another serious disease is optimitis, which is the tendency to say “Yes, boss. Right away, boss.” for all requests. It is found in anyone who is asked to produce solutions to problems.

A better answer is: “What are you willing to sacrifice?”

If you want to run faster, you’ll have to restrict yourself to a shorter distance, assuming that all other factors are the same. Alternatively, you can run further if you’re willing to go more slowly.

The problem of present vs. future

The better adapted you are, the less adaptable you tend to be.

To survive, a species has to do well today, but not so well that it doesn’t allow for possible change tomorrow.

The more adapted an organism is to present conditions, the less adaptable it tends to be to unknown future conditions.

How to choose a consultant?

Make an outrageous (seemingly impossible) request and listen to their response. It can be one of three:

  • It can’t be done. Not good.
  • Yes, we can do that. Not good. Either they’re lying, or are incompetent.
  • That’s a real problem. I can help you with it, and this is how much it will cost. Hire them.

Whether the price is too high, it’s a different problem. But this test serves as an effective filter for eliminating wrong prospects. There’s no sense in getting a low price if they can’t do the job or if they’re going to con you.

Whenever you want a service performed, tell them what you want, they will tell you how much it will cost to get it from them, and you decide whether it’s worth it to you.

As a client, use it for selecting a service, software, or consultant. It lets you eliminate most of the losers.

Staying out of trouble

Use triggers. They’re catchy phrases designed to pop into your mind when you’re just about to do something you know you shouldn’t do. Or to forget to do something you know you should do. Find out what you usually miss and design a tool to ensure you don’t miss it again.

The thought that disaster is impossible often leads to an unthinkable disaster.

The owners of the Titanic “knew” that their ship was unsinkable. They weren’t going to waste time steering around icebergs, or waste money having needless lifeboats.

The Rule of Three: If you can’t think of three things that might go wrong with your plans, there’s something wrong with your thinking.

Wanting to be right all the time makes it difficult to notice what’s missing in your own thought processes.

The surest way to waste time is to throw caution to the winds.

Amplifying Your Impact

The Elephant. Depending on what was touched, the elephant was like a tree, a snake, a rope, a house, a blanket, or a spear, with nobody able to grasp the entire picture. Each person sees a part of the whole and identifies the whole with that part.

You can help them understand the bigger picture, but a more effective way is to open clients’ eyes to new ways of seeing things.

Know what to ignore

People who can solve problems do lead better lives. But people who can ignore problems, when they choose to, live the best lives.

Once you eliminate your number one problem, number two gets a promotion. There’s always another problem.

You must give up the illusion that you’ll ever finish solving problems. After that, you’ll be able to relax and let the problems take care of themselves.

Dealing with Change

Most change arises from stability in some way.

A small system that tries to change a large system through long and continued contact is more likely to be changed itself.

A consultant must not spend too much time with one client. If you can’t avoid this, at least break up the time by working with other clients, even for free.

The best way to lose something is to try too hard to keep it.

Change requires a powerful and unrelenting force. What is more powerful than the desire not to change?

Lowering the risks of change

Let your clients try whatever they like, but teach them how to protect themselves.

Accept the new system will fail in several ways. Once you accept that failure is inevitable, as yourself: “Why can’t you afford even some failures?”

Spend some time considering how the new system will fail. You will not catch everything, but you’ll always catch a few big ones that would otherwise get away.

Have backup. However, sometimes backups fail, too.

Choose the time and place to put the change into effect so the failure won’t be a big deal. Try on a smaller scale, or on the weekend, do a practice run, etc.

The Struggle to Preserve

It may look like a crisis, but it’s only the end of an illusion.

Most real change is a slow process like aging. But when we build illusions to hide the change, we soon find ourselves spending all our energy maintaining the illusions.

That keeps us from dealing with change while it’s still small. It’s the crash of illusions that makes us believe change happens as crises.”

When you create an illusion to prevent or soften change, the change becomes more likely - and harder to take.

Face the truth at the earliest possible moment. If you care about “protecting” people, don’t ever “protect” them from the truth. The truth may hurt, but illusions hurt worse.

What to do when they resist

You can make a buffalo go anywhere, just so long as they want to go there. You can keep a buffalo out of anywhere, just so long as they don’t want to go there.

“Resistance” is the consultant’s label. To the client, it is “safety.” People do things because they think they will gain more than they will lose. They resist when they perceive a negative balance.

Appreciate the resistance. Nobody’s perfect. Get the opposition out in the open. Name the resistance neutrally. Blaming someone will only put the solution further out of reach. Wait for a response and deal with questions. Locate the nature of resistance. Don’t rush right in to try to set things right. Work together to discover the source. It brings sub-conscious factors into the light. Find and test the alternative approaches. Prevent resistance by reducing uncertainty.

Finally, get out of the way. Avoid resisting the resistance. It’s hard to resist when nobody’s pushing.

Marketing your services

Most consultants rarely give a thought to marketing their services - until they lose their first client.

How do consultants get started? Most get into the business by accident.

Most of them start with at least one major client already signed up. A better way to start a small business is to survey the market, then plan how to create a demand or meet existing market needs.

A consultant can exist in one of two states: Idle or Busy.

The best way to get clients is to have clients. The amount of business you already have partially determines the amount of business you get.

The time to look for consulting business is when you have too much consulting business.

There’s no better marketing tool than a sincere refusal to consider additional work.

Because consultants spend a lot of time in an Idle state, prospective clients see most consultants as overly eager to get work. If they happen to encounter you when you’re actually Busy, they decide you must be something special. They want you as their consultant, and even if they can’t have you right now, they’ll call you first when they have another assignment.

Spend at least one day a week getting exposure

There’re three kinds of exposure:

  1. You pay for it - advertising (not that useful)
  2. You get it for free - professional groups, meetings, random encounters, etc. (alright)
  3. You get paid for it - speaking, writing, and training (best way to market yourself)

If you cultivate your speaking skills, many groups will pay you to address them. If you polish your writing skills, there are hundreds of magazines hungering for articles. Just be sure they include your address. If you develop your training skills, you can conduct seminars in which people will pay to be introduced to your abilities.

Never let a single client have more than a fourth of your business.

The most common of all consulting traps: letting one client get such a large share of their business that they could not survive the loss of that client.

Any time you’re afraid to say no to your client, you lose your effectiveness as a consultant. You also lose the client’s respect, which increases the chance that you’ll eventually lose the business.

The best marketing tool is a satisfied client.

A previous client is twenty times better as a future prospect than somebody entirely new if you’ve done your job properly. But when you try to sell yourself to somebody new, a specific reference triples your chances of landing the contract. Always ask satisfied clients for permission to use them as references.

Give away your best ideas. It’s the best way to get satisfied clients. Don’t try to protect your old ideas from anyone stealing them. The return on resources invested in new ideas is much greater than a similar investment in protecting your old ideas.

Spend at least one-fourth of your time doing nothing.

Doing nothing is doing something.

If you’re fully booked, you won’t be in a position to take advantage of a sudden opportunity for new business. It also leaves a little slack in your schedule to respond to emergencies.

You are your only product. Without slack time to replenish yourself, you’ll soon either burn out or run out of fresh ideas. Either way, you won’t sell.

How to set a price for yourself

People know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Pricing has many functions, only one of which is the exchange of money. If you just focus on the money aspects, you’ll probably set the wrong price.

The more they pay you, the more they love you. The less they pay you, the less they respect you.

You’re sending your clients a mixed message if you bill yourself as the world’s foremost authority and charge minimum wage. They make all the efforts to bring in outside consultants. They need the ego-boosting reassurance that they’re getting the best possible consultant.

Make sure they pay you enough, so they’ll do what you say.

Offer your services for free, if necessary.

If they don’t like your work, don’t take their money.

If you’re desperate for business, the best strategy may be to offer your services for free. Be nice and up-front about the fact that you’re just starting out and you have a lot to learn so that you aren’t trying to hide anything. Some clients will appreciate this openness and give you a chance.

Another possible deal is to offer your services based on a fee that will be paid only if your client is completely satisfied with your work.

Fees for special effects

Use the exchange of money to create the conditions you need to be successful at consulting.

If clients want to book for a specific date, ask for a non-refundable fee to compensate for possible loss of business if they change their minds.

To ensure the clients prepare for you, set an advance-payment clause which usually motivates people to prepare. Once a fee has been paid, people feel that the job has actually started.

If you aren’t sure you can get the job done, set your fees in stages. This gives both of you a way to cancel out as the project develops without considering cancellation a failure.


Price is not a thing; it’s a negotiated relationship.

The principle of least regret: Set the price so you won’t regret it either way.

Lay out several prices in a range and then imagine yourself in two situations:

  1. you’re turned down and are sitting at home, or
  2. you’ve been selected and are doing the job

As you imagine, notice your feelings. They will guide you to how you’ll feel in actual situations. Set the price based on where you feel best on all sides.

All prices are ultimately based on feelings, both yours and theirs.

How to be trusted

Trust takes years to win, moments to lose.

Consultants looking for work should think less about price and learn more about trust.

Nobody except you care about the reason why you let another person down. Others will form your image from your actions, not words.

People won’t tell you when they stopped trusting you.

People are never liars—in their own eyes. I certainly don’t think of myself as lying, so if someone accuses me of lying, I stop trusting that person. I think my clients react the same way.

The trick of earning trust is to avoid all tricks.

Always believe that my clients are telling me the truth—as they see it and as they think it would help me to hear it. I trust the clients’ integrity, but I don’t have to trust their ability.

Always trust your client—and cut the cards.

Never be dishonest, even if the client requests it.

If you turn down such a request, the client may remember you as uncooperative. But if you give in to a request for dishonesty, you’ll always be remembered as a cheat. There’s no better way to lose trust than to show you can only be trusted when nothing important is at stake.

“Never promise anything you’re not sure you can deliver.” But nobody can be sure of the future, so an even better rule is: Never promise anything.

Get it in writing, but depend on trust. To a consultant, trust without a contract is infinitely better than a contract without trust.

Getting people to follow your advice

We all want to get support for our ideas, leading us to oversell. Too many resources poured into a young idea produces lots of action but few results. Ideas, like plants, thrive on a certain amount of struggle.

Despite your best efforts, some plants will die. If you plan a garden around the idea that every plant must be a prize-winner, you’ll always be disappointed.

It’s the preparation before you plant an idea that makes more of the difference.

The plants that hold the firmest are the ones that develop their own roots. Excessive watering produces weakness, not strength. Too much water weakens a plant because it doesn’t need to put its roots down deep into the earth.

Written on June 18, 2023