Seven skills of successful consulting

02/02/2012 § 8 Comments

Work yesterday was more a consulting day than a research day. It reminded me that I’ve been meaning to start a new series. Let me start with an introductory post. I plan to run an occasional series talking about the different skills of being a consultant. Make of it what you will — hopefully you find something useful in it.

I first started economics consulting 15 years ago (yikes!). Since I’m still doing it, I figure I must be doing something right. In that time, I’ve worked in two countries for three shops with quite a few people. Some of those people have been really excellent and taught me a lot. Some have struggled, and are now doing other things. When I talk about how to do the job, I’m drawing on my own experience and the stories and lessons from lots of others.

Enough introduction, let’s get to the main part.

Successful consulting relies on seven sets of skills. If you are really lucky, you can do them all. The rest of us mere mortals have strengths and weaknesses, so there are some skills that come more easily and others that are more difficult. The good news is that you don’t have to be great at everything. But, having a list like this means you know what you’re compensating for.

Also, a lot of this can be learned, if you care to. I hope to provide some examples or even inspiration that might help with that.

The seven skills of successful consulting are:

  1. People skills
  2. Social skills
  3. Sales skills
  4. Clients skills
  5. Communication skills
  6. Technical skills
  7. Organisational skills

That’s the basics; I’ll build on this as we go.

There are lots of jokes about economics consultants. There’s the 2+2 joke, and the watch joke. They play on the…um…flexibility of consultants. There’s some truth behind them, of course. There’s also a reason for it. Consultants live and die on repeat business. There’s a name for a person who tells you a truth you don’t want to hear: Cassandra. It turned out so well for her. So, really, consultants need to traffic in both truth and acceptance. That often means figuring out where the line is or what you can get away with and adjusting your behaviour.

Just to round this off, let me share a lesson from a former colleague. She said she never said ‘no’ to a suggestion, proposal, or enquiry about a piece of work. She didn’t necessarily say ‘yes’, but she never said ‘no’. ‘Yes’ keeps the conversation going.

This turns out to be the first rule of improv. Hey, it works for Tina Fey. Who am I to argue?

[1] Why seven? Okay, there’s an element of alliteration as a mnemonic device. There’s also some truth to it.


§ 8 Responses to Seven skills of successful consulting

  • I just wish there were greater reputational punishments for consultants who only produced the numbers the client wanted. Instead, my bashing them around for being dodgy and just giving clients whatever inflated figure they like only seems to drive more business their way… there’s a market for dodgy.

    • Bill says:

      I’ve puzzled over a reply. Let me try this:

      First, where’s the problem? You point out that there’s a market. Willing buyer, willing seller, specific product — everybody’s happy. You want to punish the seller for, well, for what? For knowingly producing inaccurate findings? I think you’re worried about the impacts on people who are not party to the transaction, on the public being duped by the slick charts and fifty-cent words. If that’s the case, does it require a non-market solution?

      Secondly, your bashing them about (and thank you for that) is part of an information process. We aren’t at a Walrasian equilibrium, but on the way towards one. People are involved in a process of revealing information about their dodginess, the price of which is yet to be established. This goes to a larger point about consulting. Sometime, somehow, a consultant has to choose their brand (please excuse the marketing speak). Am I more like a lawyer, constructing arguments in the service of my client? Am I more like a physical scientist, trying to exactly describe the world? Am I a referee, making line calls? As a consultant develops this identity, they also learn what people are willing to pay for it.

      Thirdly, dodginess implies either stupidity, laziness, or deceitfulness. Those same qualities come through in some academic research, too. Consultants don’t have a lock on them. Why should they have to pay for them any more than anyone else?

      Lastly, it is hard to draw a bright line between ‘dodginess’ and ‘difference of opinion’. Two economists can honestly disagree because they have different assumptions or preferences. They can also disagree because one or both are being stupid, lazy, or deceitful. It is hard to think of a way to monitor this and punish appropriately. Instead, we have developed the review, debate, and ridicule approach.

  • The only thing I care about in the process is that it adversely affects policy because voters have little incentive to sort out which prescriptions coming from economists make sense and which are bollocks.

    Private firms are subject to truth in advertising constraints: they can be sued if they make false claims about their products. If Marmite started claiming it gave you superpowers, they’d get sued. But what are economic consulting reports on Cost of X (or Benefits of Y) to society if not advertising for particular policy prescriptions?

    • Bill says:

      But in the example, Marmite makes the false claim to the person paying for the product. With bad consultants, the buyer and seller are clear on the product.
      And, given what you’ve said before about the marginal voter not changing the outcome of an election, is worrying about the electoral process really the way to analyse the problem?
      I’m not saying bad consulting isn’t a problem; I’m just not sure how to think about why it is.

  • […] is asked to produce a dodgy report, and delivers what the client wants, where’s the harm? Bill Kaye-Blake asked that last week. Monday’s New Zealand Herald […]

  • […] is asked to produce a dodgy report, and delivers what the client wants, where’s the harm? Bill Kaye-Blake asked that last week. Monday’s New Zealand Herald […]

  • […] is asked to produce a dodgy report, and delivers what the client wants, where’s the harm? Bill Kaye-Blake asked that last week. Monday’s New Zealand Herald […]

What’s this?

You are currently reading Seven skills of successful consulting at Groping towards Bethlehem.


%d bloggers like this: