Consulting Skills, Tools, and Tips




Management consultants are successful largely because of their skills, tools, and know-how. How are they able to successful do work across industries, clients and functions? From the last 4 years of blog posts, please find the top 50 posts about consulting skills, tools, and frameworks. Happy Hunting.

Hypothesis-based consulting: guessing the answers to client problems (09/26/12) What we call hypothesis-based consulting, some cynics call educated guessing.  Either way, it is a smart way to break down complex or ambiguous problems, and quickly start driving towards an answer.  Hypotheses start early in the process, go broad at first, but then get narrowed down quickly.  It can be unnerving to some clients, but it works.

Why do consultants use PowerPoint so much? (12/1/12) Good presentations are succinct.  They may have a 60 page appendix, but the summary will be terse and have a point of view.  Using the analogy of a tree, the presentation is the fruit.  There is no reason to show off all the minutiae.  You need to really boil it down to its essence.  .

Consulting PowerPoint Presentations: 4 Steps (12/5/12)  To be clear, it is more than just making fancy graphs, but it is a large part of what we do.  Executives are often very visual people.  They have busy schedules and short attention spans.  Sometimes, you only have 2 hours with a CXO (CEO, CFO, COO, COO, CIO, CMO) at the end of 4 month project – so you need to make sure that your presentation makes an impact.

Better PowerPoint: 6 ways to make your point (4/30/12)  What’s the so what?You will hear this phrase used on projects a fair amount.  It is certainly not the best usage or even politely worded, but it is critical: Your presentations need to have a point . . . 

What is a good excel model? (11/13/12) Recently, I was given an excel model that was like the Titanic: large, slow, overly ornate, and structurally unsound.  Not only was it frustrating to work with and laborious to fix, it was also a bit laughable.  It did not answer even the most basic questions . . .

Why consultants love best practices (6/10/12)  Management consultants use the phrase “best practices” often.  Perhaps too often.  A few pictures that help explain why best practices are so popular with consultants and clients. . .

How consultants interview clients (11/4/12) This week my team interviewed more than 20 people, everyone from VPs down to the analysts and clerks.  The interviews were a gold mine of insights – especially since we were still in the early days of the project and collecting data.  My throat was killing me, but these interviews helped us get our bearings on the client’s business, the personalities, and the politics.  Every consulting project has interviews and here are my top interviewing tips . . .

DMAIC: A great consulting tool for process improvement (4/28/12) Ask any consultant, and I mean ANY consultant (strategy, process, IT) and they will know what DMAIC stands for.  It is an abbreviation  for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control.  It is a tool often used in process improvement projects. . .

Consultant’s tool: what is a maturity model? (7/1/12) What really surprises me is that many clients have trouble explaining what is exactly wrong and what they want done.  They often talk about symptoms – flat revenues, dropping margins, or increased receivables – not the root causes.

A maturity model gauges the client’s maturity in a number of areas and points out the areas of improvement.  It’s actually a simple thing that often looks like a report card or an excel table.  It looks simple, but there is good stuff there. . .

Clients hire consultants to GET TO YES (12/6/12) Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In written by Roger Fisher and William Ury is perhaps the most famous book on negotiations.  It’s been endorsed by people who use these lessons daily – diplomats, lawyers, and business people because this stuff works.  Fortune 500 organizations have a terrible time implementing these simple things and, as a result, often hire management consultant for help . . .

How consultants do industry research (5/12/12) Management consultants need to be quick learners.  Junior analysts are routinely asked to support proposals and projects across different industries.  The good ones are fast, and proficient with Excel and PowerPoint.  The great ones get up-to-speed quickly on the industry dynamics and can add in industry specifics to the pitch. . .

4 reasons why management consultants love data (4/15/12)  Management consultants are always on the prowl for good data.  After all, it is the stuff that client recommendations are made of.  To a cynic, it might seem obvious. The title of this post would be a kin to: “Why chefs love ingredients” or “Why district attorneys like evidence” or “Why gardeners like sunlight.”   Even so, what exactly about the data do consultants love so much?

Saying YES to clients can get consultants in trouble (8/29/12) When the client asks for something – new research, some ad-hoc analysis, an extra workshop – it usually seems like a reasonable request.  After all, they pay the bills and shouldn’t they get the most out of their consultants, right?  Experienced consultants and lawyers will tell you there are many reasons why being overly agreeable can create problems. . .

Pauses: a consultant’s public speaking tip (4/20/12) Good speakers pause.  After they finish one thought, they don’t rush to the next sentence.  They don’t rattle off useless verbal fillers (uh, ah, um, well, so, right, hmm).  Instead, they embrace that millisecond of silence, harness the awkwardness, and force the listener to pay attention.  Many people call it the pregnant pause. . .

What is scope creep? (1/29/13) Generally, this means that the client wants more work done for the same amount of money.   It’s not pretty and it’s no surprise that consultants dread it.  It usually means late nights, grumpy analysts, dissatisfied clients, and potentially lower project margins.  All bad things.

Structuring problems: Consultants use buckets (05/16/13)  Consultants use buckets.  I know it sounds pedestrian and unsophisticated, but it’s harder than it looks.   When you are trying to crack a complex problem, inevitably you will start to group things.  Structuring problems forces you to organize your thoughts, and reflect on what your key messages will be.  It is the first step in turning data into insights.

The best short-answer to give clients? It depends (5/13/2013)  “It depends” is a phrase you hear a lot in both business school and management consulting.   To some, it might seem like a boring half-answer, timid, or worse – mentally lazy.  As weird as it might seem, it is often the best short-answer to give a client.

Presentation tips from TED’s Chris Andersen (6/7/2013) For those who watch TED, we can all agree that those people know how to present. The talks are informative, engaging, and delivered really well. This is doubly impressive when you realize that many of the people are scientists, computer programmers, engineers and other people who don’t make a living speaking publicly. Heck, even the kids are good presenters. How can a 10 year present so well to 1,000+ people?

Culture trumps strategy (6/17/2013) I first heard the phrase “Culture Trumps Strategy” in 2008. Intuitively this makes sense. Culture lasts. Culture is everywhere. Employees don’t need online training to understand it. It’s who we are. It’s what we stand for. It’s why I like my work.

Consulting habit: make other people successful (7/17/2013) Consultants are in the business of making other people successful.  Yes, consultants make a good salary, and yes, they do have some power on projects. Fundamentally though, it is not about them. It is about the clients.  Good consulting habits.

Cracking the case interview (8/11/2013) This format of interviewing is tough, but also a lot of fun.  The interviewer gives you the problem and background, and it is up to the candidate to think through the problem, and selectively ask questions to solicit the information needed to get to a solution. 70% IQ, 30% EQ.

Resumes are bait (11/7/13) I was on the recruiting team at a Big 4 consulting, and we looked through hundreds of resumes every year and 90% of them went into the trash.  We probably spent less than 15 seconds on a cover letter and 30 seconds on a resume.  Basically, the resume review was quick and violent.

The way I see it, the entire purpose of a resume is to get invited for an interview.  Period.  Getting an interview means the fish took a bite at the bait.  Resumes = bait.

IT implementation worst practices: healthcare.gov (11/3/2013) IT implementation is “bread and butter work” for consulting firms.  It often involves dozens of consultants, multiple locations, and sometimes 2-3 years for a full roll out of an enterprise resource plan (ERP) like SAP or Oracle.   These are big hairy projects that cost dozens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.  It’s big money.

Finders, Minders, and Grinders (1/28/14)  Managing a Professional Services Firm by David Maister is a consulting classic.  For those interested in the economics of partnerships and want to know how managing partners think of their business model, you have to read this book.  There are three archetypal roles that roughly line up with these job titles in the respective industries. . .  finders (partners, principals), minders (senior managers, managers), and grinders (senior consultant, consultant, analysts)

Six Sigma: Consultants eat your own dog food (3/15/2014)  Do you have boring, low-value added parts of your business that need to be standardized?   By squeezing out the variability (read “craziness”) out of the process, you will be more efficient.  Reduce the variability in the boring parts of your work to allow more time, freedom, and margin to innovate and deliver real value to your clients. . .

Frameworks: Distill your thoughts until they are 80 proof (1/21/14) Consultants are structured thinkers.  They may not have as intuitive a grasp on the topic as the client – after all, the client has been living in this field their entire life – but consultants excel at piecing together bits and pieces of data until it starts forming an outline of a story.  . . .

Consultant, what’s your leverage model? (3/16/2014) Leverage is how consulting firms make money.  As I discussed in a previous post, professional services firms – lawyers, accountants, marketers, consultants – are built on organizational pyramid structures.  There are fewer partners than analysts, no surprise. The ratio of finders, minders, and grinders (senior, middle, junior resources) affects the types of projects they can handle and also their profitability. . . 

Data analysis in 20 minutes (10/2/2014) Consultants are in the business of taking messy, unorganized data and turning it into information, and hopefully, some insights.  Here is a simple example of excel clean up. . .

Lean means no waste. No TIMWOOD (2/11/2014)  Lean is obsessively focused on doing only what is critical and what is valued by the customer.  The way of thinking inherently believes in opportunity cost. You should only do what matters (to the customer).  Put another way, if the customer wants 100, you should deliver 100.  If you deliver 110, you wasted effort. . . The lean fundamentalist asks, “What is the customer really willing to pay for?”  Anything more than that is really waste.

Consulting secret: stories and storytelling (9/19/2016) This week I went out to dinner with team mates twice. On each night, I heard inspirational stories from my team mates – 1 personal and 1 professional – that really made me think deeply about how I am living my life. One story was about friendship; staying friends and keeping a beautiful tradition for 40 years. Another story was about bravery and leadership; knowing when to leave a company because it is not a fit.



Consulting advice: Help your clients save face (4/4/14) This is a simple concept that is critical for consultants and sales people to understand.  Never put your client in a situation where you are directly and publicly disagreeing with them.  Never box them into a corner where they might be ashamed of the situation.  Never embarrass them.  It’s a very Asian business culture concept of harmony, and it is super-applicable to consultants.  Some of the most deadly phrases . . .

19 excel modeling tips. (12/11/2015)  This week I coached a new consultant in creating an excel model.  Here are some of the words of advice I gave him.  I wish I knew these pointers 20 years ago. . .

Consulting proposals: 12 common mistakes. (12/19/2014) In consulting, writing proposals and statements of work are the lifeblood of the firm.  It is akin to fisherman throwing out nets, or farmers planting seeds.  If you are not putting together proposals and pitching potential clients, you are dead. . .

Competitive Intelligence 20 tips (10/28/2014) When I was working overseas, I was on a competitive intelligence project.  It might sound super-crafty, and Mission-Impossible, but it was not.  It was actually quite boring.  Lots of meetings to share information, and try to piece together the competition’s strategy and tactics.  Very ethical and process-driven initiative.

Data Analysis in 20 minutes (10/2/2014) Consultants are in the business of taking messy, unorganized data and turning it into information, and hopefully, some insights.  Here is a simple example of excel clean up, and the steps to copy, paste, filter, sort, and cleanse data.  For most consultants, the data cleansing would 7-10 minutes (takes some trial and error) and the graphics would be another 10 minutes, if (s)he knew what graph they wanted to make. . .

Consulting formula: Think + write + communicate + revise (8/04/2014) On a large project with so many moving parts, people, stakeholders, and organizational history that I sometimes get lost in the activities, status reports and project management mess.   Stop.  I need to come back to the basics of consulting.  This post is written to myself, for myself.  Gotta get back to basics:

What is RACI? (05/18/2015) This is a tool consultants use on any project which requires clear definition of roles and more communication on a new process.  When you have more than a handful of people involved, it’s very easy to get confused and make incorrect assumptions on who is doing what.  Confusion = frustration = lack of adoption = failure.

The problem with metrics (07/11/2015)  Metrics are everywhere. As a consultant, we are in the business of quickly understanding business problems, proposing solutions, and measuring results. Metrics are a necessary evil of any project. The classic continuous improvement methodology DMAIC depends on M (measuring) and C (controlling the process).  Seemingly, Consulting is all about metrics and key performance indicators (KPI). . .

Difference between income statement and balance sheet (2/22/2015) In a quick survey from my last post, looks like 1/3 of us don’t feel that confident with our accounting literacy.  That’s okay, but let’s not make this an excuse. You gotta know and understand this stuff.  It’s basic. . like knowing the difference between a strike and a foul ball in baseball. All business concepts are built on this foundation. Without a crystal clear sense of this, everything business thing you say has the potential to be shallow, unstructured, or wrong.

What is return on equity (ROE) (08/24/2015) ROE (return on equity) is one of the key formulas that most MBAs (yes, including Marketers) remember learning on their path to financial literacy.  It is often the best FIRST place to start for financial statement analysis.  In simplest terms, it tells investors what kind of % return they are getting on their invested money.  Higher the better. . .

7 Key Questions: Who, What, Why, When, Where, How, How Much (7/24/2015) These are questions kids learn in grade school or when first learning a language.  It covers the basics and helps you understand the situation and context.  My high school friends can attest to my poor memory, but even I can remember these basic words in french: Qui, Quoi, Quand, Où, Pourquoi.

4 Personalities of Writing: Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge (1/11/2015) Ever have writer’s block?  Try using this simple process to breakdown your writing into the right process steps. It’s called madman, architect, carpenter, and judge.

Consulting manager: democracy mode vs. dictator mode (4/25/2015) Increasingly, I have been using this simple, but stark, analogy to talk about team management.  Increasingly, seems like there are two ways to get outcomes.

  • Democracy mode (what do you think?)
  • Dictator mode (do what I say)

Consulting is tribal, pick a tribe (10/20/2015) If you were a partner, you would look for principals, senior managers and managers you can rely on. Do you really want to train, and coach a new set of team leaders?  Hell no. Waste of time. Find good people, work them hard, and reward them. Singular mind of a small business owner. Singular mind of a partner.

Consulting Tip: How to clean excel rows (11/14/2015) Data is often imperfect. As consultants we know that perfect data is a myth. No matter the organization or website, data is gunky, irregular, and often broken. . .

Self-feedback: How do you feel about your work? (12/12/2015) I ask this of my team all the time. My favorite question to ask on team calls – to discuss analyses, client presentations, work product, or most of anything – is an open ended question. “What do you think? “”How do you like it? ” My thesis: If you don’t like your work, I likely won’t, and the client definitely won’t.

Consultant, what are you doing to get retired (1/22/2016) For me, I think consultants and other folks in the well-paid professional services bracket (yes, talking about you lawyers and accountants) need to more aggressively put their money to work. Right now, we are simply trading time for money. We bill out at $250-$500 an hour. If we don’t give the clients the hour, we don’t get the pay. Simple math and unfortunate math. We need passive income, not get-on-a-plane-on-Monday-morning-and-live-at-a-Marriott income.

Consulting tip: How to make a good survey (05/4/2016) Consultants should use surveys more often. They are cost-effective, seemingly impartial, easy to use, and provide data in the “touchy and feel-y” areas where data might be hard to find, collect, or quantify. Bain, PWC, BCG, Deloitte all use surveys; see the links at the bottom of the post. Even on this website, readers reply to surveys to give me a sense of who they are, what they read and what they like here. .



Sadly, 20 Email tips (07/17/2016) Surprisingly, many people use email poorly. They write long-winded email essays that are ambiguous, and often copy too many people. These sloppy people create more confusion, frustration and rework. In this case, more communication is actually worse. Email tip: Take 15 seconds to think before you send out emails.  What am I trying to say, am I sending it to the correct audience, what are my expectations, can I say it more succinctly, and finally – is this email even needed. . .

Case interview advice from Bain (9/10/2016) Watch this 25 min video here which compares the answers of 3 different candidates on the same series of questions.  Pro/cons of each answer is discussed by the interviewer. Wish I had watched this video 10+ years ago when I was first interviewing.

Bain: Founder’s Mentality (09/22/2016) Founder’s Mentality is a simple and elegant framework from Bain that describes how companies lose their way as they grow. The path from start-up to global juggernaut is not a straight line and Bain research shows that only 1 in 9 companies show sustainable growth for 10+ years. They call it the growth paradox – growth creates complexity and complexity kills growth. As consultants – I am sure you have seen this and can violently agree to it.

Consulting tip: Minto’s Pyramid Principle (10/04/2016) Minto’s pyramid principle is one of the most important concepts in executive communication and logical structuring of arguments. This is really big at all thebig 4 and big 3. It is the scaffolding of management consulting thinking. This is the only way to present your ideas clearly to clients. Most consultants will know what the pyramid principle is . . .


 

Slideology 2: Use diagrams to tell stories (11/21/2016) If you agree with Duarte’s argument that page-after-page of bullet points and text are a bad idea (as I do), then you need thoughtful diagrams to show relationships between things and move the story along. . .

Consulting Tip: How to Roll Off a Project (11/29/2016) When I worked for Big 4 consulting, one of the hardest things was rolling off a project you did not like. Too often, what you become good at – is exactly – what bores you. It’s a bit tricky because no one likes a short-timer. There are multiple ways to orchestrate this, but also many ways to mess this up. . .

Consulting Tool: Finviz #1: How to Screen Stocks (12/2/2016) Finviz.com is a great way to filter stocks and generally get smart on specific industries. While there are multiple tools on the website, will focus on something call the screener. As you can see here and below, there are 60+ filters (industry, country, P/E, operating margin, dividend %, beta, EPS growth rate) you can apply to narrow down the universe of publicly-traded companies you want to look at. Basically, it is the type of professional tools that fund managers would pay $_ _ _ , _ _ _ for in the 1990s, available free. . .

How to start a new job (1/7/2017) A lot of people I know are changing jobs in the new year. For good or bad, I have also worked at 5 Fortunate 500 companies over the last 25 years, so I know what it is like to have a new job. Some transitions were smoother than others, but here are some of the tips that I have gleaned. . .

Consulting tip: How to make decks for other people (2/6/2017) 

Over my career, I estimate that I made 700+ presentations.  Some were executive summary or update presentations of 5-10 pages. Some were financial and operational reviews. Some were full-scale consulting engagement read-outs (e.g., 40+ pages).  They were all top-shelf and required enormous time / effort / love . . .

McKinsey: Testing your strategy (2/27/2017) McKinsey, in a 2011 article entitled The 10 Tests of Strategy, makes the very valid point that executives and leaders too often treat strategy as a ” procedural exercise or set of frameworks”, rather than a way of thinking through problems. Amen. . .

6 thoughts on “Consulting Skills, Tools, and Tips

    1. consultantsmind Post author

      Andrew, thanks for compliment. Yes, looked at your work, and we have similar interests and a passion for sharing some of the skills, tools and tricks of the consulting trade with non-consultants. Keep writing and look forward to finding intersection points between our work. Have a powerful week.

      Reply
  1. Anshuman

    Hi, I enjoy reading your stuff. Have you written on consulting dialogue/conversation with client?

    Reply

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