11 tips for new consultants to hit the ground running

After releasing a few big products last week, we’re back to regularly-scheduled programming. This week, we’ll focus on the consulting lifestyle.

Today’s post is on practical tips to being successful as a new consultant. A former manager once said to me, “do well in your first project, and you can write your own ticket for the next few years.”

To that end, here’s a tactical list for getting off to a fast start on a new project. Follow the 11 steps below and you’ll be a management maven in no time:

1. Set up Google Alerts for your client and its competitors

This is an absolute must. Google Alerts feed you the latest online information (collected primarily from news sites and blogs) related to keywords that you specify.

Set up these alerts for your client and its top 3 competitors.

This will help you stay current on client and industry developments, which will come in handy through the project. Many people are too pre-occupied to do this regularly, and it’s a quick win for new consultants to add value.

Go here to get started. If you don’t know your client’s key competitors, use tools like Yahoo! Finance.

2. Know basic financial data for your client

I can’t tell you the number of times basic questions like “What’s Client X’s total annual revenue?” have come up in internal discussions.

You want to be the one that can provide an accurate answer, as opposed to “Oh, I think it’s something like $10-20 billion…let me check.”

Some key numbers include:

-Market cap -Overall revenue -Gross profit -Margins (profit and operating)

Memorizing them doesn’t take long. It will come in handy.

3. Familiarize yourself with the client CEO and senior management

There are many stories of newbie consultants having a casual conversation with an employee in the company cafeteria, only to realize a week later that it was an Executive VP. Don’t let this happen to you.

You can find most executive profiles on the client website. Read them thoroughly and become familiar with the faces. Not only will it prevent foul-ups like the above, it will also help you understand and manage client relationships.

4. Familiarize yourself with the competitors

This shouldn’t take more than a few hours. Simply have a grasp on the following:

-Who are the top 5-10 competitorsRelative sizes (eg, number of employees, overall revenues) –Key products/services (especially what differentiates each competitor from the client) -General grasp of their strengths and weaknesses

Good ways to get a quick handle on this include:

-Internal firm research reports (if available) -Analyst reports (eg, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, etc) -Yahoo! Finance –Hoover’s

Periodically review this information to make sure you’re fresh. While it’s important to know this info, it’s even more important that you don’t confuse one competitor with another.

Don’t ignore the small, innovative guys. The best way to identify them is to scour Google and Techcrunch for your client’s name and industry-related keywords. Staying current on innovative practices is one way to be a thought leader

5. Store the contact information for all people on your team, especially partners

Available through your firm intranet/database. Program the following into your Blackberry for all involved parties, from interns to senior partners:

-Cellphone number -Office number (if available) -Email address -Secretary email and direct line (if applicable)

Some of you may think this is overdoing it. But on every 2-month project, there will be at least 2 times where a client meeting is about to start, the partner can’t be found, and no one has immediate laptop access. This is when having all those numbers programmed into your phone comes in very handy.

It’s especially likely when you have multiple partners, visiting “experts”, and rotating teams.

6. Thoroughly review previous client-related work

Most consulting firms have internal “knowledge libraries” that store information about past projects and the firm’s latest thinking.

When you’re starting a project, you should mine that library for information related to your client, its competitors, and even functionally similar projects (eg, if this is your first cost-reduction case, you’ll find plenty of introductory material on running a cost-reduction project including examples of analyses, suggest output, etc).

Pay very close attention to the work that’s been done before – this will help your team avoid re-creating the wheel (which can happen surprisingly often).

You should also review the “sales documents” that led to the project, including the project proposal and preliminary research

7. Know a few good places for team events and dinners

As the newbie consultant, the responsibility of planning team events (such as dinners, team-bonding activities, etc) will fall on you.

Take the opportunity to demonstrate your diligence and attention to detail. It helps if you have an idea – particularly in unfamiliar cities – of the fun/popular things to do. Ask your friends and do internet research. The more familiar you are, the better prepared you’ll be.

While a poorly planned team dinner at the city steakhouse won’t kill your performance review, people will notice. It’s not your fault that the food wasn’t amazing, but it is your fault that the taxis arrived late, you didn’t invite the partners, and forgot to make the reservation.

8. Build a knowledge hub of client/project-related documents

Sometimes this will already be started by your manager/teammates. If not, take the lead and create a shared hub for project-related documents. Things to put in it:

-Annual reports and 10-Ks -Analyst reports for client and competitors -Documents and presentations from previous client-related work -Primers on the industry and function

This will be an invaluable resource. Organize it well. Continually update as the project progresses with new reports, presentations, and so forth.

9. Pack extra supplies

The Scout Motto is “Be Prepared”. If the previous 8 tips haven’t taught you the value of contingency planning, this one should put you over the top.

Be reasonable – no one’s asking you to bring 4 laptops. But have backups of small, necessary equipment that less prepared teammates may forget.

Examples include: power cords, ethernet cables, USB drives, mice

It’s not fun stepping into your new team room on a Monday morning, and realizing that you have no power cord. Rookie mistake.

10. Proofread all client-ready documents

Do this even if you’re not asked. The day/night before a client meeting, review the final version of the documents carefully.

You’re looking for small mistakes like mispellings, syntax errors, and misaligned charts. Do a quick sanity check on the analyses.

Partners and clients can become unreasonably focused on typos and other nits. You want the discussion to be about the synthesis, not the syntax.

11. Build a strong working relationship with the team assistant

At the beginning of each engagement, introduce yourself to the team assistant. This person is absolutely critical to a high-performing team.

Not only do they coordinate the frenetic schedules of all parties involved, they often help on things like proofreading and basic research.

As the new consultant on the team, you may interface with them frequently. Earning their respect is important to getting things done promptly. After all, team assistants have busy calendars too. You want your requests to have top-priority.

  • Right on the money. Probably not a firing offence to miss any one of these, but get them all right and you will be a superstar.

  • JF

    This would be better titled “hit the ground running at a new client site.” I would add another post “hit the ground running at the consulting office,” which could include understanding the roles of the various staff and systems, getting staffed, getting to know people ‘in the mix’, etc.

  • Kevin

    JF, you’re right, most of these tips are focused on the first engagement. I feel like 95% of your energy should be focused on doing well in your first project – everything else falls into place assuming you perform well. I’ll plan to post about additional, non-project related tactics.

  • McK BA

    Great post!

    I’m starting in a few months after graduation, and I believe this will definitely give me a head start instead of being clueless for the first months.

    Thanks a lot, and keep more of these type coming!

  • Kevin, that’s a great checklist – worth to print out and have in one’s notebook, ready to pull out when a new project is about to start (for beginners and seasoned consultants alike, IMHO).

  • Future McK BA

    How important would you say excel skills are prior to starting? Will there be extensive training on this? Mine are pretty minimal and I’m wondering if I should spend the summer buffing them up now.

  • Kevin

    Don’t worry too much about it. Basic Excel skills are helpful, but what’s far more important is the high-level stuff (like how to construct models, how to properly arrange and analyze data, etc). That you’ll learn on the job, and if you don’t know how, ask for help early and often.

  • Laura Paris

    Hey this is Great post! I started a few months after graduation, and I think this is absolutely me a leader instead of clueless in the first month. Thanks, and keep more of these coming!

  • Aditya

    keep me updated on such stuffs !! it is of great use !

  • Tami

    great info! Give us an updated article on this or similar subject please

  • MC Team

    Tami, Thanks!! We wrote a book on it. Check out 3-Month Mastery on Amazon via Kindle or Kindle Apps.

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  • Anthony Porter

    Just a a couple of pennies here…. Don’t cheap up on your materials that you have to give to your clients too. You show up ready to give paperwork in a cheap $0.69 folder, expect they will see your integrity of professionalism drop like a duck during hunting season.