Be An Active Listener While Consulting with Noelle Mykolenko: Podcast #39

CSP 039 | Active Listener

When you put yourself in your client’s shoes, you’ll understand that the resistance to change comes from their fear of the unknown. They have attached themselves to practices that have been serving them well in the past but isn’t working for them in the present. She explains that this situation is very common that it has become the norm rather than the exception. As a consultant during these situations, you need to become an active listener and understand your clients on an emphatic level. Noelle Mykolenko’s best practice in consulting is being an active listener to her client’s culture and vision, taking notes, and letting the client talk through their emotions that are tied up with their business.

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Be An Active Listener While Consulting with Noelle Mykolenko

I’m very excited to have Noelle Mykolenko joining us. Noelle, welcome.

Thank you, Michael.

For those who don’t know you or aren’t familiar with your work, explain briefly what you do.

I am an independent consultant and I also work with an organization called the Trusted Advisor Associates. My area of focus and consulting, which dovetails nicely with what I do with Trusted Advisor Associates, is both personal growth and organizational growth, primarily focused on top line expansion, not so much on cost cutting or optimization below the top line. I’m very energized around the relationships that we have with our clients and building those relationships to grow both the relationships and the business we do, primarily through increasing the trust that we have between consultant and client.

How did you get into consulting? Let’s go back to the early days. What was your path to consulting?

I won’t call it a non-traditional path to consulting, but I did come into consulting almost accidentally. After I graduated college with an undergraduate degree in business, I was working in supporting a government agency. I was working with the information management department, specifically around their strategic planning. One day, my client looked at me and said, “You have a lot of potential. You should consider going back to school to get a Master’s in Business Administration.” I went and got my MBA from University of Virginia, and that’s where I discovered consulting as a career track. I hadn’t even realized that it was there. The opportunity to engage in multiple different problem-solving situations sequentially appealed to me. It was a great opportunity to learn about different facets of the business in a very meaningful way and to put to work all of the aspects of my Master’s in Business Administration.

When I left my MBA program, I went to work for one of the large commercial consulting firms. After a few years, I realized that what drew me to consulting was working with the people more than anything else. This was around 2000 to 2003. I switched out of commercial consulting and focused in the federal business, supporting the federal government, and moved to a large IT outsourcer, Computer Sciences Corporation, and worked more in the strategic consulting, organizational development and process improvement area. Through that work as a consultant, I got into management and to sales management. My last role after twelve years at CSC was Director of Client Development. That was my absolute favorite role.

What I realized through that role and through the sales leadership and marketing roles that I had had up to that point was that all of the internal planning and strategy around growing our client accounts was nothing more than an academic exercise if we weren’t paying attention to what our clients had to tell us. When I left CSC, I did a full circle, came back to my roots, and started consulting around growing the business through specifically engaging clients through client account development and client relationship development. That’s where I ended up back with Trusted Advisor Associates who work with organizations, companies, nonprofits and government organizations day in and day out, who are focused on improving their client relationships through building better trust.

You went into one of the larger consulting firms. I believe it was Booz Allen Hamilton. What did you take away from that experience? Were there any specific key learnings or ideas that stick with you or when you transitioned out and eventually establish your own consulting firm you feel played an important role? We work with a lot of consultants who have been a part of some form of established consulting company, often in one of the large ones, but I’m always interested to know what you took from that experience. What stood out? What were the best practices that were most valuable for you during that time?

My time with Booz Allen Hamilton was incredibly rewarding and enriching. The two key influences that I took away from Booz Allen Hamilton were one, the rigor with which we approached the work, that it was great to go in and have a hypothesis about what the problem is and how we might solve it. The hypotheses came generally from our experience with other clients or other situations that somewhat matched what our current client was going through, but then taking that hypothesis and very rigorously investigating through data and facts and information gathering to make sure that we weren’t misapplying something that we had learned and solved in a different situation to our client’s specific situation. The rigor, the investigation, the factual nature of the business being applied to the specific situation in which our client found themselves, that was the number one value that I got from Booz Allen; ;earning how to do that.

The second one was the value of the people and the diversity of the people that we had both within the consultancy but also the value of the clients. It’s easy for consultants to fall into the trap of a little bit of arrogance, feeling that because we’re the ones who are being called on to help solve a problem, that we have some special capability beyond what the clients have. My experience, and that the diversity of people that I worked with at Booz Allen and the many talents that were brought to the game both from us and from our clients, showed me that we all have a lot to contribute. It’s absolutely vital not to overlook the contributions of anyone on the team.

The first one resonates because there are a lot of people who go into a situation with a client and try and shove their hypothesis down the throat of the client and try and believe that they know what the issue is, but don’t spend enough time gathering data or looking at best practices or having the kinds of conversations or doing the research that is needed to support that to ensure that you’re going to get the best result and outcome for the client.

Even if the hypothesis is right from the beginning, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the client is going to be ready or able to hear what the solution might be because they might not believe that we fully investigated their situation.

CSP 039 | Active Listener

What do you do when that happens? I can see the image of a client very set in their ways. I’ve worked with clients like this many times before, maybe it’s a family business or they have their procedures. They have their processes, they have their ways of thinking about things, and then they also recognize that there’s an issue, so they bring in a consultant in to help them to solve that issue, but they’re very resistant to change. They look at your initial findings or your initial suggestions and recommendations and even though it might seem to you that deep down they know that what you’re saying is right, they won’t allow you to move forward quickly because there’s hesitation, there’s resistance. What do you do in that situation? What have you found is the best practice or some good steps to move a client from a position of resistance to one of acceptance in a way that serves their ultimate desires and goals?

That situation is so common and I would posit that it’s probably more the norm than the exception. If I were to put myself into my client’s shoes, I would feel the exact same way. Even if I’m the one who made the decision to bring in an outside consultant, there would still be a part of me that says, “This person doesn’t know everything I know. They don’t understand everything I understand.” In my experience, that situation arises typically from one of two things. First, it’s fear on the part of the client, fear of the unknown or an attachment to something that has served them well in the past and so they just can’t see a different way of doing it. Secondly, it arises when the client simply doesn’t feel that the consultant has heard them and understood what their perspective is. In either situation or either cause of that situation, the answer is still deep curious listening to the client, to what they’re trying to achieve, to what they’ve tried in the past, to why it’s important for them to be successful, why it’s important for them to be focusing on whatever the change initiative is at hand, and deeper than just, “We have to get our numbers up. We have to grow the top line. Or we need to cut our costs.”

It’s understanding what’s important about how they’re going to go about doing that and making sure that it aligns to the client’s culture, to the client’s values, and to what they see as the future of their business. When I say listening, it’s more than just taking notes and letting the other person talk. I mean actively engaging and validating back to them that I’m hearing what it is that they’re saying, both on a rational level around the data, but also on a non?rational level around the emotion that’s tied up in their business, their fears about the situation and what might happen, and their hopes and dreams for what opportunities may present themselves. If I can demonstrate through actively listening very empathetically that I understand where they’re trying to go, I find that resistance starts to fade away. It almost dissolves because then they have the confidence that I’m on their side and I understand what they’re trying to achieve. I’m willing to partner with them to achieve it for their benefit, not just so I can put a tick mark on my books and say, “There was another successful consulting engagement.”

In your experience, is this just as true both when you’re working with a client you’ve already won their business, so you’re active in the engagement as it is for when you’re speaking with a perspective client and you’re in that sales conversation?

It is just as important. I have this little internal shorthand that I use and I call it keeping the love alive. Just like in any other relationship, that old saying goes that familiarity breeds contempt. I’ll speak for myself. It’s easy for me to take for granted the relationships that I’ve established with my clients. There are times when I have a longstanding client, sometimes it’s easier for me to say, “I know we have this meeting. I have a new potential client. Can I shift your meeting?” Because there’s trust there. There’s already an existing relationship and it gives me a certain amount of elasticity with the relationship. It’s important to keep top of mind that we need to feed and nurture those ongoing relationships with clients just as much as we need to feed and nurture the new relationships with potential clients or with brand new clients.

Your focus is to help people in sales and consultative roles achieve their goals through improved client focus. What are some of the biggest and most important key ways of leveraging and supporting the focus on the client to win greater business or to achieve better outcomes? What stands out for you?

Maintaining that listening and the ability to listen and to be empathetic with the client no matter what the situation. Being a trusted advisor, the way we define it at Trusted Advisor Associates, is being a safe haven for tough issues. That means a safe haven for any tough issue, not just a tough issue for which I may have a solution. It’s about bringing that relationship to the next level and being open to having the personal relationship on top of the professional relationship.

How do you do that? Listening is obviously an important one and being very present, but beyond that, what are some very practical steps that our audience could take that would help them to start moving in that direction of becoming a trusted advisor with their own clients?

The biggest step they can take is to be willing to take small personal risks and service of the relationship. We tend to think that most of what we bring to the table is our smarts, our capabilities, “I can do a good strategic plan. I can put together a pipeline review that’s going to work.” In fact, those are the attributes that we bring that are almost table stakes. To grow beyond the transactional “My client needs a solution and I can provide the solution” into a long-term relationship, it requires us taking small personal risks and going beyond answering the question of the day.

What are those small personal risks?

CSP 039 | Active Listener

The small personal risks can be any number of things. It’s around being curious and being willing to go out on a limb in your client’s business area. Have a point of view, share a point of view about something that is not directly related to the work that you’re doing. Being willing, if you see something in the business while you’re doing a consulting engagement to say, “This isn’t in the area that you asked me to look at, but I can’t help noticing that you might have another opportunity over here.” The biggest personal risk, and it is part of the paradoxical nature of building trust, would be if you come across something that you recognize the client needs help and it’s not something that you can help them, to be able to say to the client, “Here’s an opportunity. I don’t think I’m the right person to help you with this, but I’d be more than happy to help you find someone who might be.” Referring to a competitor feels like the most risky thing we can do because we don’t want to lose that client relationship. It almost always comes back tenfold in loyalty from the client.

It’s about finding opportunities within a client engagement or a relationship where most people might say, “I’m going to try and keep as much business as I can for myself. I’m working with this client. I’ve identified another area that I can help them in and maybe I’ll give them a proposal for that area or I’ll wait until we’re done this initial project and then I’ll try and talk to them about that, but I’m going to keep that to myself even though maybe it’s not the best thing that I could do. Maybe I could assemble a team. I could try and get through it,” but instead of doing that, if it’s not within your core skill set, the client’s best interest and in your best interest would be to let them know, “I found this opportunity is not something that I can help you with, but I can put you in touch or suggest someone or the characteristics of someone who could help you with this.”

A lot of people will have some level of hesitation or fear with that because it’s moving a transaction or potential revenue away, which I find that a lot of independent consultants or consulting firm owners are trying to grow revenue, they’re not trying to move away from those opportunities, yet it sounds like what you’ve seen firsthand is that it will help you to grow your business. It’s just the difference between playing a short-term game and the long-term game.

It’s all that focus on the long-term. If we were to treat every transaction with a client as though it were fifteen out of 32, suddenly the need that we have to capture that one transaction gets put into better perspective. It may make sense then to say, “I’m going to take a pass on this transaction because that I have a long and healthy relationship with this client and that’s where I want to stay focused.”

I’m a very big believer in the long-term. Everything that we do here at Consulting Success is guided by the long-term yet at the same time, I remember those early days of starting my first consulting business where if I was only to think about long-term, I wouldn’t be putting food on the table. I needed to ensure that there’s also revenue coming in to support myself. At that time, it was just myself. I wasn’t married and didn’t have a family, but for people who are in the situation where they are in an earlier stage in their business and they don’t yet have enough revenue and sales that can support that longer-term thinking and mindset, what would you say to them? What should they be doing to ensure that they can get to that place where they have enough short-term revenue coming in that allows them to start to think longer term?

I don’t think it changes my answer. I’ll make this very personal for me. If I take on a project for which I don’t believe I’m the best consultant to do it, the risk of me doing a mediocre job and then losing the client’s future work because I took on something that wasn’t in my bailiwick is bigger than I’m willing to take personally. When I’d been in a situation like that, when I was called for a potential project, I spoke with the client, he explained what the situation was, what they were looking for, and I said flat out, “I don’t think I’m the best person to do this for you. I’m more than happy to recommend somebody else. Here’s how I look at the situation.” What ended up happening, instead of moving that project to another consultant, he modified what it was that he was trying to do. He said, “It’s an interesting approach and when you described it that way, I can see us addressing the situation differently.” He re-scoped the project that he had in mind in order to bring me in. That didn’t happen because I happened to be such a great consultant. It’s not that I am that much better than anybody else out there. I firmly believe it’s because he trusted me when I said I’m not the right person for that type of work and his response was, “Then let’s find work that you can do.”

These days, probably more than before, just because there’s so many more people offering their services and promoting their products and so forth, trust is limited in the sense that people don’t feel the same level of trust that they did before, even to the point of when you were growing up, you would never lock your door. Now, you lock your door, you turn on the alarm, you shut some bars, and you have the guard dog. It’s a different environment and society that a lot of us live in these days. Why would you look for someone else when you found someone that you feel you can trust? What mistake do you see consultants making often that, if corrected, would help them to be more successful?

CSP 039 | Active Listener

The biggest mistake that I see consultants make is leading fully with the rational and the credibility. They come in and say, “I’m very smart. Here’s all the data. I’ve got the answer to your problem.” When we build trust in relationships, we build trust both through our capabilities and the smarts that we bring to the table, but also through our more emotional connection with people, where our focus is. If we’re focused on their best outcomes versus our best outcomes, and the ability that we have to connect with other people on a personal level, the mistake I see consultants making is that they go in and they think that clients are 100% focused on the smarts and the processes and the solutions that they can bring into a situation.

If you think about how clients make their purchasing decisions, by the time they’re having a conversation with a potential consultant, they already have done some level of vetting around the capabilities of that consultant. They generally have an idea that the consultant is able to solve the problem that they’re bringing them in for. Consultants tend to forget that the clients have already gone through that vetting step, and so when they’re in the situation of engaging for potential engagement or in the middle of delivering an engagement, they still feel like they need to be proving themselves on the basis of their capabilities, their intelligence, and their solutions. If the consultant can get themselves over that hump, stipulate upfront with the client or the potential client, “We all know that we have the ability to do this,” focus in on “Can we work well together? Do I want to work with you? Do you want to work with me? Do I understand where you’re trying to go? Can I demonstrate to you that I understand what’s important to you?” that’s where the sale is made. That’s how we influence them to take our advice. That’s how we get them to adopt our solution and agree to what it is that we’re proposing in front of them.

Your marketing is the place where you’re going to be establishing your credibility and your expertise and that’s the moment that you start to engage with a client and have a conversation, there’s a full switch. Your marketing might talk a lot more about you even though it should be focused on the client, so that it resonates with them and gets their attention and interest. The moment that you engage and have a conversation with the client, you want to switch to listening to them. The focus is not on you and what you can do. The vast majority of the conversation should be about the client. You have foot in with Trusted Advisors. You’re an independent consultant working that angle. What is your approach to work-life balance? How do you manage all this stuff and still stay healthy, motivated, and excited to continue doing what you’re doing?

I love what I do. I take so much energy from everything that I do when I’m working with my clients. I augment myself with support who takes over a lot of the administrative tasks because that’s not an area where I get a lot of energy and those things that I have to do. There are some aspects of running my business that only I can do. I do my own bookkeeping, my own invoicing, I keep my own client relationship contact lists, and I manage all of the communication with my clients myself. I find that it goes back to what I learned early in my consulting days. It’s about the rigor and having a process in place so that I know at any point in time what needs to be done. I’m able to prioritize and reprioritize as necessary, so that the most important tasks are being taken care of.

I have had to learn to let go of some things that I would like to be managing for my business but aren’t necessarily critical to my business. For example, it’s around some of the rigor with which I manage my priorities. I tend to work more on the fly than I’m necessarily comfortable with because I’ve found at one point it was taking me even more time to go back and formally reprioritize things than to just do the things that I needed to be doing. I’m working with a little more ambiguity in my management that I’m entirely comfortable with, but the alternative was I was spending too much of my own personal time, my weekend time, my evening time, going back and doing administrative work that was very low value for me.

Because you have the administrative support handled by someone else or other people, that allows you to have a little bit more ambiguity or a little bit more free-form time in your schedule?

It does because I’ve prioritized those things that I like to do least that are not absolutely client-critical and those are the pieces that I’m able to pass off to administrative support.

Did you do that right away, or is that something that you learned later on that was something that you probably should’ve done and started earlier?

It’s definitely something I learned. The reason I learned it through experience was not because I wanted to have more of my personal time back. It was because I’m lousy at doing some of that administrative stuff. The things that I don’t like to do were too many things that were falling through the cracks, and so I hired somebody to do what I don’t like to do so I could focus on doing the things I do like to do.

CSP 039 | Active Listener

There’s almost always a significant amount of activities and tasks that any consultant is currently doing that they should not be doing that is low-value work and you don’t enjoy but also doesn’t create that much value for your business, but it is necessary. It’s amazing that you find someone or people, a way, a system, a process, or a service that can help you to remove that off your plate and put onto someone else’s, freeing that time up to then allow you to spend more time on high-value tasks, work, and activities not only can make you much more productive and more energized, but also will help the business to grow significantly. Has that been your experience as well?

Absolutely.

Noelle, I want to thank you again for coming on here. What’s the best way for people to learn more about your work and to connect with you?

People can connect with me on LinkedIn. I recommend that they go to the Trusted Advisor Associates website, which is TrustedAdvisor.com. They’ll find a wealth of information about trust relationships, they can find my bio on there and learn a little more about what we do.

Noelle, thank you again.

Thank you very much, Michael.

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