What Good Consultants Know: 13 Basic Competencies Beyond Your Discipline

Many people offering services in the design community – regardless of discipline — may be excellent technical professionals but often fail to demonstrate two competencies simultaneously:

  1. Technical expertise: Proficiency in your discipline — architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, graphic design, planning, etc. — that transcends “adequate” is a given: you won’t be successful without it. But success as a technical expert is not enough to be remarkable or memorable. It may not even be enough to get the project implemented!
  2. Excellent consulting skills: You’ll also need to be a great consultant… able to transfer technical knowledge to clients in a compelling and actionable way to compliment your technical expertise.


Consulting skills can be learned and must be practiced. This is a big subject, worthy of more discussion. For now, here are 13 basic must-dos that I think all consultants – regardless of field – need to remember:

  1. Leave yourself out of the equation: Spending time talking about you or your firm makes clients think they are not your priority. They need and deserve your full attention. By definition, this is not a reciprocal relationship.
  2. Listen like you are fascinated: Don’t stop asking questions. Write everything down. Feed it back to your client in many different ways. Ask for clarification and examples.
  3. Synthesize and summarize on the fly: Periodically play back what you just heard. Find the essence of what your client is saying. Discard irrelevant material and organize the elements of your message into a coherent group of thoughts to focus discussion.
  4. Build Consensus: If you want your client to take action on your recommendations, find a way to embed your ideas in your client’s organization. It can’t be just between you and the CEO. Either convince stakeholders yourself or coach the CEO to spread the thinking to key leaders.
  5. Keep the contact constant: Take the initiative to contact your clients; don’t let periods of time elapse without contact. Don’t wait for them to call you. Let them know that they are on your mind.
  6. Structure each interaction: Clients want you to provide a context for your interaction with them. Lay out the process and guide them through it beforehand and while you are in the middle of executing it.
  7. Routinely provide extra service: Providing assistance outside the scope of your engagement doesn’t need to be costly. Perform some research to answer a problem your client mentions. Construct a relevant reading list. Connect your client with a resource they need. Be alert to small things that will be helpful.
  8. Bill carefully and don’t talk about it: Clearly indicate exactly what you have done in exchange for the invoice you are sending. Once you establish your compensation contractually, avoid discussion about it. If you need to track down a payment, do it with the accounting people, not the executive you work with.
  9. Keep your other clients confidential: Make constructive comparisons with other firms, but don’t name your other clients when using them to make a point. In fact, don’t name them at all.
  10. Create experiences: Your client will look forward to your encounters if they are upbeat, well-organized, well-led, shorter than they had anticipated, and content-rich. A good experience stimulates creativity and motivates clients to do their part with enthusiasm.
  11. Police the meetings: Assume the role of moderator from the beginning. Create agendas. Keep track of time. Follow-up with to-do lists. Ensure the relevant people are heard from, especially the silent ones. Do all of this in a cordial, non-intrusive manner that keeps the meeting well-oiled.
  12. Communicate economically: Say what you want to say in few words. Organize your points into groups: (“I have three thoughts about that”). Unless you are making a presentation, don’t ever talk more than your clients do. Stop talking at the end of the sentence that makes your point. Use silence to stimulate a response.
  13. Provide the solution in pieces: Dumping a fully-realized solution to your client’s problem in their lap is risky: it can be overwhelming and it is your solution, not theirs. By breaking the project into pieces and engaging them in the solution, they’ll take ownership and be an advocate during implementation.

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