BA Consultants: How to Evaluate Potential Clients
Leaving a company job to become an independent business consultant or contractor opens up a world of possibilities, career options and potential increase in earnings. The road to success can also be fraught with pitfalls. A few bad clients will leave you feeling frustrated and overworked — and even unpaid.
This guide can both help you avoid nightmare clients and impress those you want. Soon, you should be able to turn down bad opportunities so you can make money working with great companies on exciting projects. Keep reading to learn how you can gauge a company and culture before you start working with them.
Research The Company and Project Scope
You shouldn’t wait for your first meeting to learn about the company and what is expected. The internet is full of information, and you can learn a lot about a brand in just a few minutes.
“The first thing I do before a client call is to read every pertinent bit of news I can lay my eyes on,” inbound marketing consultant and web designer Ashley Hill writes. “I look for the most pressing problems this particular industry is dealing with...No more second guessing. No more amateur questions like: So, could you tell me more about your business?"
Don’t waste precious minutes asking your client to explain something you could have researched online beforehand.
Try to Learn About the Team You Will Be Working With
Not only will this research help you understand more about what you’re getting into when working with this client, it will also prepare you to develop a successful consultant-client relationship.
There are five elements you should learn about before your client have your first meeting, Sharon Gillenwater, cofounder of Boardroom Insiders, writes. These include:
The biographical history and personal interests of the people you are meeting with.
The overall company strategy and focus for the next few months to few years.
Key challenges that are affecting the company and the industry.
Instead of focusing on product features and your own approach, focus on the client’s needs and connect with them, instead of talking at them. As Gillenwater says: “Imagine how refreshing it would be to your customer when you show a deep understanding of their interests, their focus, and their challenges—and deliver some thoughtful recommendations that address those issues.”
This can also help you tailor your pitch to the needs of your client. For example, one of the most important aspects of a project to learn about is the technology used, business solution designer and consultant Brad Egeland writes. If the vast majority of your client team is using legacy technology and older tools, then you may need to plan for technological investment, training and post-project technical support.
Additionally, a project can reach completion faster or slower depending on the technology used and the knowledge of the people using it.
Know When You Have Done Enough Research
That being said, you don’t want time spent researching your client to detract from your work.
“You will need to put a bit of background work into this, but don’t think you have to know everything about a potential client – this is about being well-informed and interested, not being a stalker,” Karen Hoogenbosch at YFS Magazine writes.
As you grow your experience, you are likely to develop a consulting template for your research to fill in gaps before you meet with a client. This way you won’t get sucked into a research vortex trying to memorize every detail.
Determine How the Company Works With Contractors
The rise of contract labor and consulting organizations over the past few years has been impressive, but it has also made the field feel like the Wild West. Some companies have strict policies for dealing with outside work, while other make up the rules as they go. Knowing what you’re getting into can help you determine if you want to work with this client.
Make Sure Both Parties Set Clear Barriers
As you develop your consulting business, set barriers for what you are willing to do and where you won’t cross the line.
“One of the biggest struggles [consultants] face is forgetting that they are in a professional partnership with their clients,” digital marketer and strategist Brenda Della Casa writes. “You are doing work for them, not working for them. The distinction is an important one.”
This means that consultants should not have to deal with office politics, and shouldn’t feel pressured to “be a team player,” taking on tasks they otherwise wouldn’t.
If you get caught up in helping clients beyond your scope, or moving from consultant to employee without realizing it, your clients could get out of hand and you could lose your profitability.
Growth and leadership consultant Kevin Taylor calls these misaligned clients: they distract you from achieving your vision. These may be clients that you picked up as favors to friends, legacy clients or clients that you took on to make a quick buck. Either way, these are the clients you need to filter out now and learn to recognize and avoid in the future.
A great example of this specific to the business analyst world is the confusion between analysts and analytics professionals.
“A business analyst is someone who coordinates between the Product Development (PD) team and the client,” corporate analytics consultant Piyanka Jain explains. “On the other hand, the analytics professional...deals with deriving insights from data and driving recommendations using those insights. Data is written all over this job role!”
As a BA contractor, you can’t let clients turn you into an analytics specialist for the company with odd jobs and tasks outside of your expertise.
Define Expectations and Deliverables
Working with clients who don’t know what they want should also be avoided, Lauren Levine at The Muse cautions.
Maybe they heard about business analytics at a conference and think it will solve all their problems. Maybe they want a roadmap for improvement, but don’t want to do the work to reach their goals. Either way, these clients should set off warning bells in your mind.
“What does she want done in the next week? What about the next year? These should be tangible aspirations on which you can focus,” she writes.
Don’t agree to work with any company unless the expectations, timeline and deliverables are clear.
Look for Any Red Flags
To identify more red flags, full-stack web developer Hartley Brody created a guide with 12 signs that someone you are considering consulting for could become a nightmare client.
You don’t have to sign a contract with a client before you learn whether or not they’re capable of following up, following directions and paying attention to detail. These small features can show signs of future nightmare work scenarios.
Get to Know the Company’s Culture
Along with learning about the company and project, analyzing the company culture can help BAs learn what they’re getting into.
For example, content marketing consultant Jessica Thiefels has a list of questions that, when answered, give outsiders an idea of what it would be like working with the team as they improve their business processes. You may need to ask these questions mentally when you meet with a company, and consider the criteria as you start your relationship.
“Do they respect one another’s ideas and opinions?
“Do they relate on an interpersonal level?
“Do they function cohesively as a team?
“Does the setting promote a free exchange of dialogue and unique perspectives?”
If employees don’t work well together, don’t care about dissenting opinions and don’t communicate with each other, what makes you think they will change their behavior when working with you?
Learn How a Company Defines Success and Failure
Gauging how a company approaches projects can give you an idea of how much stress you will be under working for this client.
“Understanding the company’s definition of success can reveal key insights into its culture,” Gary Beckstrand, Vice President at employee recognition and engagement company O.C. Tanner Institute, writes. “If success is mainly results-driven but a competitive environment isn’t your cup of tea, you may need to reassess your decision to join the team.”
Beckstrand provides a few other examples of a toxic cultures to watch out for. Companies that expect unreasonable hours, follow a “success-at-all-costs” mentality, and managers who expect you to assimilate rather than innovate can all cause headaches for contractors and consultants.
Watch How Teams Interact
Your research continues even when you attend your first meeting at a company. You can learn a lot just by looking around and watching employees.
Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot, advises job candidates to arrive early for interviews and appointments to get a feel for the company culture. The advice applies to consultants thinking of taking on a client.
The lobby or waiting area in a company allows you to sit quietly and see how a company operates. You can learn how people dress, interact with each other, and work throughout the day. While a five-minute lobby sit-in isn’t comprehensive, it can provide clues as to what’s going on.
“Treat your lobby visit like an anthropological visit: You’re getting a front row seat to employees in their native habitat, so take note,” she writes.
Similarly, organizational designer Mollie West Duffy encourages contractors and potential employees to ask their contacts at the company about lunchtime. You may not want to ask your direct report this, but if you know someone else who works there, they can serve as your source of information.
Do employees go out for lunch often or eat together in the break room?
Do people tend to eat alone, at their desks, or work through lunch?
How people interact with the company and their coworkers during their free time at work says a lot about what it’s like working at the organization.
Ask The Right Questions During Your First Meeting
If the company passes your work criteria and you end up meeting with them, come prepared with valuable questions. These are queries that you couldn’t answer before the meeting and will give you more insight into the people you may be working with.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive list of questions you can ask to learn more about a company, Jami Oetting at HubSpot created a guide with more than 90 to ask a new client. While many focus on marketing issues, the section on understanding business strategy is something a consultant can use.
Branding and marketing consultant Austin L. Church uses 16 open-ended questions when he meets with clients. This allows him to sell by listening and focusing on people, rather than by talking the entire time and overwhelming clients during the meeting.
“If I listen well and take the time to identify root needs (rather than simply pin a quote to surface-level requests), I receive less pushback during the project,” he writes. “Clients who have more clarity going into the engagement also have more confidence in the proposed path. This confidence results in quicker decisions on their end and less explaining and personality management on mine.”