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What Did You Expect? Part 3 in a Series

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by Graeme Simsion

I have a regular gig presenting a one-day seminar on consulting skills for an IT / business consultancy.  The participants are largely experienced professionals, often with a track record of successful consulting.  They’re a tough audience, who may well be looking with a critical eye at the instructor: “this guy’s going to tell us how to be a consultant – let’s see if he can walk the talk”.

This is what I do.  I ask the participants to reflect on a statement I have heard a few times: “if I get one idea that I can really use out of a seminar, I think I’ve done well”.  Most of them can relate to that.  In fact “one idea out of a full-semester college course” is sometimes cited as an even less challenging benchmark.  I then ask: “how many such ideas would you need from today to make this the best professional development class you’ve ever attended?”  I ask them to write the number down, and then make it clear that my goal for the day will be to give each of them at least that many ideas.  In exchange, if they achieve their goal, I expect them to honor their part of the deal, and agree that the class was the best they have attended.

There is no trick here.  I am open about my aims, and give them an opportunity to revise their number after explaining them.  For the record, the highest goal anyone has set so far is ten, and at the end of most classes, everyone has achieved their goal.  So I have an ongoing relationship with a client whose staff routinely report that my class is the best they’ve ever attended.  A nice result!

Let’s look at this approach a bit more closely.

First, it is essential that the goal I propose is accepted by the participants.  If someone were to say, for example, “I came here to learn a specific technique” or “I came to be entertained”, then we would have a problem, unless I could weave that requirement into the course.  But experience has taught me that the “key messages” goal is very likely to be acceptable.

Second, this is a high goal, but one that experience has taught me I have a good chance of hitting.  Even if I fall short, I can expect the course to be rated highly.

Third, I recognize that the attendees are not the only people that I need to satisfy.  In their book Strategic Selling (Grand Central Publishing, 1988) Miller, Heiman and Tuleja list four different buyer roles (though one individual may wear more than one hat, and some hats may be shared by several individuals).  In addition to the user buyer, they identify the coach(who brought you in), the economic buyer (paying for the work) and the technical buyer (concerned with compliance against contract, standards, etc), and point out the need to satisfy all of the different buyers.  Here, for example, the economic buyers are the consultancy’s management team, who want me to cover the consulting issues of most importance to them.  Before I started the seminar program, I asked them for a list of problems and behaviors that they wanted to address, and adapted the course accordingly.  Occasionally they send an “observer” to verify that these topics are indeed covered.

Fourth, it is easy for me to focus.  I love telling stories, but if a story is not likely to contribute to anyone’s key messages, can I justify devoting time to?  Conversely, if an attendee offers to share, hypothetically, a technique for dealing with the boss on a bad day, and the attendees look interested, then he or she can have the floor.  I’ll take those key messages any way I can.

Fifth, having established, mutually, how the seminar will be evaluated, I have room to make mistakes in other areas.  In fact I point it out explicitly: if you’re bored at times, don’t like me, don’t like the coffee – whatever – but still get your messages, I’m expecting you to be satisfied.  (If you need to add an extra message or two to compensate for these, so be it!).  Of course, I will try to be entertaining, and will do my best with the coffee, but I have some room for error on these secondary matters.

This fifth point is critical.  Imagine that I did not perform my “expectations setting” exercise, but asked attendees to evaluate the seminar at the end.  I can predict that any negatives would count against me earning a “ten”, let alone “best seminar ever”.  And this is in fact the key message of this issues’ column: if you don’t establish expectations at the outset, the client will make them up at the end of the assignment – and you will almost always fall short.

Of course, unless you’re a full-time seminar presenter (and perhaps not even then), the specific technique I’m suggesting here won’t work for you.  You’ll have to establish expectations appropriate to each assignment, but the principles are the same.  And, in case the example didn’t show it clearly enough, let me state it baldly: getting expectations right is about the most important thing you can do to make your consulting a success.

Next in the series: Doing all right so far


Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion managed a successful business and systems consultancy for twenty years.  During that time, he built a personal reputation as a thought leader in the data strategy field.

He now draws on that experience to deliver industry and academic education in consulting skills, and to coach individuals and consulting teams. He has published widely, including two books on data modeling.

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