Choosing Clients Now That Will Add Value Later

George Norsig

It should be simple. Consultants have the expertise, and clients have the signed check. But not so fast. The enterprise-consultant relationship is much more complicated than the obvious transaction of crisis-solution.

Whether consultants are offering expertise under the broad spectrum of healthcare reform or specific to medical product diagnostics or provider services, the need for what consultants know is in greater demand than ever before. All consultants, from the individual consultant to a specialized boutique firm, or a full-service consulting agency, will have more offers than time. So choosing the right clients, at the right time, for the right reasons is essential in building brand equity for the expertise and growth for the organization.

Over the years, most consultants have learned how to screen out the bad pieces of business. For example, the call that comes requesting a consultant’s exact expertise from a company that pays well and on time, but something says the lead executive could be trouble. Gut instincts are the best vetting for this scenario. But what about all of the client choices that look, feel, and sound like good business? How do consultants know they are actually going to be a good piece of business?

Below are six questions every medical and healthcare professional consultant and consultant organization needs to ask when they are reviewing client opportunities:

Define the Real Problem. Consultants should go beyond the client’s proposed description of the problem. Consultants will be more successful and efficient if they clarify the issue upfront, and the issue may or may not be what the potential client believes it is. There are several ways to accomplish this, all of which involve committing time and resources. Consultants can carry out probing client discussions, do some original staff work (e.g., their own sector/company analytics), have no-holds-barred debates with experienced colleagues, and perhaps go so far as to conduct client-consultant working sessions (using creative visualization techniques) to ensure that the right problem is being worked on. At a minimum, consultants will know how much of the client’s real problem they will be solving and also enhance their competitive negotiating position with the client.

Probe Implement-ability. A consultant should search for real evidence that the client will meaningfully implement the kinds of changes that the consultant imagines will be required, but make no assumptions about this. Nothing to a consulting pro is more frustrating than the feeling that “something has been added and little gained” after an assignment. Consultants should ask clients for examples of other major initiatives that they have undertaken, specific actions, results produced, and why things worked and did not work. Other issues to consider: Are the right managers committed to the project? Are they going to be meaningfully involved? Do the politics feel right?

Cultural and Managerial Compatibility. Consultants should ensure that they can productively work with the clients. Part of this has to do with the clients’ decision-making style and processes (e.g., analytics versus gut feel, individual or group decision making), but an often neglected evaluation criteria has to do with how they treat consultants and themselves. Consultants should be particularly wary when the clients seem to make frequent derogatory comments about others in the organization. It could be a sign that the consultant will be their next target.

Possibility of New Business Beyond the Client. Consultants should consider whether the nature of the assignment (e.g., issues to be covered, the knowledge gained, methodologies to be used/developed, etc.) can become platforms for new consulting business opportunities. This goes well beyond whether the client will serve as a radiating reference. Rather, it deals with real consulting substance. Naturally, proper consideration must be given to the client’s best proprietary interest and should be handled openly.

Development of Core Leadership Teams. A consultant should determine if the client situation is expansive enough in scope such that it will serve as a foundation for the consultant’s firm to create and apply a core leadership team that can push forward on completely new business initiatives. This goes beyond the more common tactic of looking for client situations to develop promising high-potential young professionals in the consulting firm. This will require some advance thinking on the character of the new business enabling a consultant to define the right skill sets and individual assignments of the core team.

Follow on Work. After inquiring about the size of the project, probably the most commonly asked question in a typical consultant’s mind about client choice is what’s new. The answer is that consultants should not assume that all consultant dollars are equal. Some dollars come with options for future growth, as mentioned in the previous two points. So after evaluating the possible follow on work as well as the initial assignment, the question is, “Is this the best use of the consultant’s time?”

George Norsig is co-founder and CEO of NuuKo, an online marketplace for enterprise consultant expertise across multiple industries including medical products and research, healthcare reform, communications, technology, security, and energy. A former senior director with McKinsey & Co. for nearly 30 years, he has delivered company-saving solutions to enterprises facing major strategic decisions about scalability and portfolio restructuring, and effective strategies for innovatively re-tooling companies for global growth. He can be reached at