25 most Frequently Asked Questions by aspiring Management Consultants

As India positions itself into a knowledge center for Information Technology, Finance, Manufacturing, Pharmaceuticals, Media and Energy, a new breed of professionals are in demand. Diligence, problem solving, strategic thinking and innovation capability in young professionals is being sought after for management consulting jobs.

Strategy or Management Consulting is profession that is attracting a steady demand as more and more global firms are setting up consultancy arms. Guest Writer Saibal Sen compiles a list of 25 most frequently asked questions about consulting from his training sessions.

  1. What are the signs of a good consultant?

    A good consultant is one who is requested by the client for repeat business. To make yourself in demand you need to be creative and diligent. In addition, consultants should develop a work style to that of a Trusted Advisor — a phrase coined by a Harvard Profession David H. Maister. In short if you are hard working, enthusiastic about solving challenges and complement your clients capabilities, you will automatically become a good consultant.

  2. How important is it to possess work experience to secure a job in Strategy Consulting?

    Any type of past experience in creativity and problem solving is essential. The quality of experience is far more than the quantity of experience. If you are a fresher out of B-School, then make sure your internships can demonstrate your ability to solve problems.

  3. Should I be jack of all or try to become domain expert?

    In the true sense a business or a strategy consultant need not be a domain expert. They need to be excellent problem solvers. Do recognize that to become a domain expert is not as difficult as becoming an expert problem solver.

  4. What is the difference between strategy consulting and domain consulting?

    Strategy consultants assist with operational issues in business such as re-structuring, mergers, diversification, performance improvement, and expansion, cost reduction, market or product development. These tend to be domain agnostic. Meaning the underlying issues are un-related to industry verticals such as Telecom or Finance. Domain consulting is about assisting clients with implementing projects, systems or processes related to industry verticals such as Telecom, Manufacturing or Energy.

  5. How do I master the art of information gathering?

    It is true that consultants have to spend a lot of time gathering information and facts. Plan your information gathering strategy before you start. If you dont, you will end up getting misled. Seasoned consultants practice the art of developing an initial hypothesis for data gathering. See more on initial hypothesis in another article I wrote before. Other things to keep in mind are to be a good listener and develop the art of sensing the important issues. Too much information is a distraction. Focus is critical when gathering information.

  6. What is the difference between secondary research and primary research?

    Secondary research is also known as desk research. You can do this by collecting and analyzing pertinent information in published material such as news articles, databases, journals, books, and company filings. Primary research involves conducting surveys and talking to experts, consumers, clients, and other relevant stakeholders. Both forms of research have their merits and de-merits. A combination of both methods is the best solution.

  7. What are some of the career growth options for a consultant?

    Rarely anyone stays on as a consultant forever. Typical growth path is general management roles, venture capital and entrepreneurs. Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM did a spectacular turnaround for IBM. He was a former Mckinsey Consultant. Management Consulting is a fast track into senior roles because you are able to experience so many business issues across industry in a very short time.

  8. What is the difference between a Business Analyst and a Consultant?

    A business analyst sometimes also known as Research Assistant is a junior consultant. They do data collection and analysis work. Consultants will take on the work done by research analyst and take it to the next level such as solution development and implementation. Business Analysts contribute significantly in large systems implementation projects. Research Assistant term is more commonly used in Consulting Industry.

  9. How should I handle a situation when I am unprepared?

    If you are faced with a situation where you are unprepared, a good consultant will request more time for investigation and seek immediate assistance from his peers, seniors or even the client. Its absolutely a bad idea to improvise or bluff your way out because you should never mislead your client.

  10. What are typical pitfalls in consulting?

    Wrong attitude is the number one killer. If your doctor or lawyer is condescending and acts as a know-it-all, you will unlikely go back to him/her. In addition, if your style of working is that of taking short cuts and chasing short-term gains, you will witness failures in your career very quickly.

  11. How different is it to handle an international client versus a domestic client?

    Frankly there should not be any difference. A consultant should handle both situations with equal dedication and seriousness. However, the biggest pitfall is how seriously international clients take deadlines and clarity of deliverables. If you miss deadlines or claim to misunderstand your deliverables, you will get into serious trouble with your trustworthiness quotient. Once this happens, you have damaged your reputation.

  12. How does one win clients confidence?

    Here are seven important attributes of winning client confidence. Be ethical, be eager to solve challenges, offer options dont dictate, bring new perspectives, be a good listener, be a team player, and finally treat all engagements as special.

  13. How to deal with a difficult client or one who is an expert in their field?

    It is true that most clients will possess a high degree of domain knowledge than a consultant who is a starting out professional. Your value is not in domain knowledge but in ability to solve problems and bringing new perspectives. Highlight your firms tools and methods, analytical capabilities, and access to experts (in your firm or the industry). Remember, you represent your firm and your capability as a problem solver.

  14. How do I back out gracefully out of over commitment to a client?

    It can happen sometime. You may suddenly realize that you have signed up for too much. In such situations, be up front. Sit down with the client and offer options. Request more time, re-prioritize the deliverables and cut down the work to only critical ones, ask for more resources or just make a polite refusal. The worst thing to do is to accept the over commitment and fail.

  15. How do I avoid over commitment?

    Common causes of over commitment are when you do not plan your work, you are a procrastinator, you cannot say no or you did not realize the size of the task. The first three should be dealt with by making an attitude shift. If you still cannot address them, you should not become a consultant. For last part on size of the task, always break down all jobs into sub tasks to size the effort. Its a common practice by consultants to not immediately offer time and cost commitments. Consultants come up with proper proposals that specify exact deliverables, time, cost and conditions. This practice will help you plan your time.

  16. Some client members may be very against the use of consultants. What should I do in these situations?

    Immediately seek help from your client sponsors (who should be on your side) and or your senior consultants. Dont battle this on your own. Consulting is a very people intensive industry and high-pressure politics is very common. Always keep in mind that its a job and there is nothing personal against you. You represent your company and you are there to solve their business issues.

  17. What do I need to do to get new assignments?

    Consultants are expected to generate new business. Large engagements come through formal Request for Proposals (RFPs), but typical consulting engagements, which range around $100k to $2M always come through informal channels. To secure new assignments, you need to build trust with your client and you will automatically hear about challenges clients are facing. You may have to give some free time up front in small focus workshops and research work to assist clients in formulating a case. This is purely pre-sales effort. Though consultants dont get paid for this work, the chances of winning such deals are 80% as compared to RFPs that rarely achieves a win rate over 20%.

  18. How do I switch context when I am working in multiple projects?

    You will always find yourself in multiple projects as a consultant. Plan up front. Chart your milestones with clear deliverables and keep good documentation and notes. Set up a timetable to work on each case or project based on your deliverable schedule. Stick to commitments and reach out for help if you find yourself falling behind. I would recommend that you do not work on more than 2 large engagements or 4 short ones at given time.

  19. How to maintain work life balance and reduce stress?

    Consulting is not for everyone. You have to be prepared for long hours and intense pressure of deadlines. One has to understand that there will be relief during down times or bench time as its known in consulting industry. This is the time when you are not working on a project. During billable time you have to be prepared to practice to turn off your mind when you go home or back to your hotel room. Keep fit; eat well and practice yoga and meditation. Never deal with problems on your own. Ask for help from your teammates, your manager and also clients. Maintain high standards in ethics and you will have a clear conscience. Do not over commit yourself.

  20. What do I do to build up my confidence?

    Confidence will come to you over time. Work on simple projects first. Get a feel for the dynamics of consulting. Build up the challenge element in your projects at a pace that you feel comfortable and you will be fine. Constantly educate yourself by reading and networking on consulting methods, and case studies.

  21. How do I become a critical resource in a project?

    While you may want to become a critical resource in a project and is a good ego booster, I do not recommend you work actively to become one. There is a subtitle difference between being wanted versus being indispensible. If you practice the attributes of a good consultant you will become wanted.

  22. How can I develop problem-solving skills?

    Challenging the status quo always helps. Always think of how things can be done better and faster at home and work. Another good way to practice this is when you read your daily news. Read the news title and then close your eyes and think of the possible outcomes or causes of the news incident. In effect, here you are thinking of various hypotheses. Each hypothesis should be distinct from the other and try to think of as many as you can. Then open your eyes and read the article. (1) Did you think of that outcome/cause as reported in the news article? (2) Do you agree with the outcome or cause of that incident? The first question will develop your analytical capability and the second question will develop your problem solving capability.

  23. What are the options of joining a course for learning management consulting?

    Still a very emerging area in India and there are only very few options. ZENeSYS offers a six-week distance program with certification and the opportunity to work a live case. CMC is internationally recognized but requires some prior consulting experience. Some degree and diploma courses are starting up in India that is a part of specialization during an MBA curriculum.

  24. How to find a good mentor?

    Once you take up a consulting job. It is a good idea to find a mentor. Good mentors are those who are performing well and are interested in developing others. Attitude of the mentor is important. You should feel uplifted in their presence. Negative thinking mentors should be avoided. Lastly you should find a clever way to compensate your mentor for his/her time and effort. If you are good at PowerPoint, offer to work on their reports. You will be amazed at what you will learn with any odd hands-on collaborative work as opposed to just chatting.

  25. How do I start my own consulting firm?

    Going your own way is one of the attractions in consulting after life. There are several books on how to start your own consulting firm that will tell you about the nitty-grittys. I remember I found Alan Weiss books quite helpful. Here are some pearls of wisdom from my viewpoint. Prove your analytical and relationship building capabilities first and then go into business. Biggest challenge you will face initially is to focus on delivering and developing business at the same time so make sure you have a long haul client before you jump in. Always focus on areas that are still evolving for maximum benefit. For example if you can offer consultancy on Corporate Social Responsibility or Alternative Energy, you will find it easier going than say Telecom Market Development. And lastly, dont waste your money in advertising. It rarely works. Build your business through personal relationships.

Saibal Sen is the founder of ZENESYS, a professional services training organization. ZENESYS has trained hundreds of engineers in consulting skills at leading consulting organizations in India and abroad. ZENESYS also runs distance workshops for consulting certification. Saibal was formerly a management consultant at Arthur D. Little and founder of KUBER consulting in Boston MA. He can be reached at [email protected]