Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Are Consulting Engineers Losing Their Consulting Role?

I've been around the consulting engineering business for almost 50 years, so I've seen my
share of changes. Some have been readily apparent to all, like the advent of computer-aided design or the burgeoning talent shortage of late. Others have come more subtly, often occurring so slowly that we hardly notice. But the impact of these "stealth" changes often is greater than we might imagine.

That's how I would characterize a trend I've been noticing for many years—the slow decline of the consulting function that originally earned us our professional designation. If I'm right, it's a troubling shift. I've talked with many of my generation who share my concern. Those industry veterans who don't, I suspect, are too busy actively consulting their clients to notice the transition taking place among their colleagues.

What is most disconcerting to me is the large proportion of younger engineers who are not adequately developing their consulting chops because they see so little of it modeled for them. What's the evidence of this change and the impact it's having on our profession? Let me suggest the following:

  • Over my time in this business, clients have become more knowledgeable and sophisticated, thus less dependent on our expert insights (since many of them are experts in their own right).
  • Requests for proposals and work orders have become more prescriptive, often leaving little room for us to apply our own creative problem solving and design solutions.
  • One reason for this is that clients are relying on us less during the developmental stages of projects, instead doing their own research, problem definition, and evaluation of options. Hinge Marketing estimates that 70% of the buying journey is now conducted online, often before clients are engaging seller-doers.
  • Concurrently, many engineers seem reluctant (or too busy) to engage clients during these critical early stages when projects are taking shape—even with their own existing clients!
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  • As our clients have become increasingly focused on the business outcomes arising from our technical solutions, much of our profession hasn't made the connection. Consider how seldom our project strategies are driven by the client's ultimate desired results.
  • Even when clients make the importance of business outcomes crystal clear, many in our ranks struggle to frame their project activities and decision making in that context. Our predominant analytical mindset is frequently a barrier to thinking more strategically about what our projects need to accomplish and how to get there.

If you've read my previous posts in this space, you'll no doubt recognize some familiar themes in my diagnosis of the problem. By and large, clients hire consultants of all stripes to help them achieve business outcomes. For a variety of reasons, I fear our profession is slowly moving further from that goal.

It's well documented that delivering outcomes is the ultimate purpose of designing solutions, from the customer's perspective. That connection is at the core of serving as a consultant. The more our younger engineers see their job as simply performing technical scopes of work and designing technical solutions, the less clients will be coming to us for trusted advice.

Recovering the Role of Consultant

So what steps can you take to reclaim (or preserve) your role as a consultant? It's a complicated undertaking, but the following steps can help you make significant gains:

Venture outside your lane. I find it disheartening how often I encounter project managers (and even some principals!) who are reluctant to talk with their clients about issues outside the scope of their current projects. This seems to be rooted in part with the common concern that any inquiry about other aspects of the client's business might be interpreted as fishing for the next sales opportunity. We want to avoid any appearance of being salesy.

But what does genuine interest in helping the client succeed look like? Simply executing the contracted scope of work? I don't think so. That would be like the doctor who only treats the stomach upset that motivated your visit, while neglecting to take your vitals or to examine the worrisome-looking lesion on your forehead. If you stop advising clients because it's not in the express scope of work, don't be surprised if they stop asking your advice.

Develop a consulting mindset. Expert consulting isn't merely a matter of sharing what you know, but sharing how you think. Engineers are taught how to formulate the right answer, but don't always see the value of sharing the thought process behind it. Yet the evidence is clear that consultants are valued for their thinking, not just their answers.

What does the consulting mindset entail? It starts with a deep curiosity that leads to a habit of continuous learning. You're always interested in finding new and better ways to do things. You're willing to challenge conventional wisdom. You work hard to compile a solid empirical basis for your opinions, yet are open to rethinking your position when new evidence arises.

To complement your strong analytical skills, you recognize the need to regularly "zoom out" to view the bigger picture, to appropriately frame the problems you're trying to solve in a broader context than the limits of your expertise. You are driven to understand the why behind the projects you work on, to determine not simply what needs to be done but what ultimately needs to be accomplished. Consultants are necessarily results oriented—their success defined not by how well they perform, but by the outcomes they help achieve.

Don't be afraid to share your opinion. Some engineers mistake client focus as giving clients what they want. That's the order-taker mindset. Consultants are more concerned with giving clients what they need. Obviously, this involves some persuasion. But you don't get there without being willing to push back at times and argue for a better way. It's hard for clients to learn to trust your point of view if you shrink back from it whenever the client is thinking otherwise.

Sometimes this means offering unsolicited advice or taking a stand before you have all the facts together. I know many engineers are hesitant to do that. But waiting to be asked or to gather more information can result in a missed opportunity to get a potentially great idea on the table while the timing is right. Good consultants are always ready to share their opinions when they can be helpful, even if they need to develop them further. They're an opinion, not a final answer.

Get serious about your communication skills. The importance of strong communication skills is vastly undervalued in our profession. Yet your success as a consultant depends on your ability to listen for understanding, clearly communicate your ideas, and persuade others to take action. As our business increasingly moves into the digital realm, which is both a boon and a bane to communication, these skills take on even greater significance.

The first step to better communication is to organize your thoughts in advance. Jot down some notes, prepare an agenda, develop an outline. Define your purpose and then identify the key points you need to communicate effectively to accomplish it. Focus on how your message will be received, not just how you will deliver it. When writing, ditch the overwrought technicalese that plagues our profession, and write in a conversational tone. Boost your persuasive abilities by connecting at an emotional level, not merely appealing to the intellect.

Of course, good communication isn't all about sending messages. Listening is a vital consulting skill. The starting point to helping clients is always understanding their needs and aspirations. Learn to ask great questions to uncover these critical insights, then listen intently—not just for information, but also for identification with what the client is thinking and feeling. Your advice will find a more receptive audience when you first take the time to listen.

Know your clients' business. The best consulting engineers don't just offer advice on technical topics; they are able to connect their technical solutions to the client's desired business outcomes. That ability, of course, requires that you understand the client's business. You should be able to articulate specifically how your solutions help the client be successful.

Knowledge of your clients' business inherently attracts more interest in your advice. Let's say you have expertise in stormwater management. No surprise that a land developer would hire you to develop a stormwater management plan as required by regulation. But that client would be much more likely to seek your advice on stormwater management strategies if you were knowledgeable about their business and how stormwater issues can impact their return on investment. Client knowledge adds value to your expertise.

Engage clients early in the project development process. This might seem like sales advice, but the focus here is on your role as consultant. Some of the best opportunities to establish your consulting role is before you've been contracted to do the work. As noted earlier, clients are increasingly going online for insights in the early project definition stages, rather than talking to real-life engineers. Part of that trend is simply a matter of convenience, but I also suspect that fewer engineers than in the past are actively seeking out those preliminary discussions with clients.

Bucking this trend begins with your existing clients, going back to my first tip. You should be aware of problems your clients face that you can help them with, and get involved early in shaping those solutions. This is when you can offer some of your most valuable advice—before the client has discovered an answer to their need. Yes, you might not be getting paid for it yet. But you've greatly enhanced your chances of getting hired to complete the work, and reinforced your value as a trusted advisor.

Agree or disagree with my premise? I love to hear your take on it, and any other ideas you might have for recovering our consulting role.

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