Every consulting assignment is a learning and development opportunity. One good way to pass on that learning to future clients is to turn your experience into consulting tools. Consulting tools are methods, processes, templates, or software that you can use repeatedly, but with sensibility, to the client’s specific needs.
Clients expect a consultant to be professional and efficient. Efficiency comes from knowing what to do and doing it in a productive manner. Consulting tools are a great way to be efficient, to communicate understandably, and to focus on the right issues.
Developing a customer relationship strategy
Recently, my client wanted to develop a strategy for nurturing customer relationships. They are an established professional services company with several hundreds of employees and several business units. They had reviewed their business goals for the coming three years. Now they wanted to create a cross-company strategy for customer relationships. They formed a team of ten managers from different units for the project. During the project I organized five workshops and gave some preparatory tasks for the attendees.
Tools that I used
Here are the tools that I used during the project:
Business environment analysis
At first I collected the managers’ personal views on business challenges in reaching their five key goals. After that I organized a workshop where we discussed the challenges and combined them into a one-page presentation.
Customer Needs Map
This was a new tool that I created specifically for the project. We needed a way to categorize their customers’ needs and see how the company’s offering would serve those needs.
The tool is a variation of the 2 by 2 matrix that many consultants use. It consists of two axes. The horizontal axis describes the criteria that a customer uses in their decision-making. For example, when investing in a property certain customers could emphasize investment cost, others the life cycle cost. The vertical axis corresponds to the service level that the customer needs. A customer can buy a very targeted service or a wide spectrum of services.
Once we had defined the customer side of the map we could position the company’s services and products on the map. The needs of the customer, combined with services, defined rudimentary customer relationship categories.
I’ve used the portfolio method for projects, products, IT systems, and customer relationships. The idea of portfolio management is to derive decision-making criteria from the company’s strategy and evaluate all the “assets” in the portfolio against those criteria. In addition, risk, cost, and reward are added as the generic, hard criteria.
First, we identified seven criteria that would measure the “strategic fit” of the customer relationship: customer needs, customer relationship profitability, potential for cross selling, and so on. I made a spreadsheet template with the criteria plus certain financial indicators.
The team then filled the spreadsheet with their actual customer data and evaluated each relationship according to the criteria. By analyzing the results we could define four customer relationship categories. We added “internal customer relationship” as a category because the business units worked together in some projects.
Personas are typically used in B2C service design. I’ve also found them useful in B2B service development. This time I asked my client’s management team to describe their customers or customer roles on a one-page template. The page consists of a photo of the person (real or stock photo) and information that describes the values, behavior, and needs of the person. This method makes customers “real persons”, not just “segments”.
Customer Relationship Plan
The process resulted in a new customer relationship process model and plan. For the plan I used a tool that I had developed earlier. I modified it to fit my client’s needs. It is a one-page presentation that the client’s customer manager can make for each key customer or customer group.
The page has seven topics: Basic Information, Relationship Value, Key People, Customer Relationship Strategy, Offering, Collaboration, and Relationship Program. Each topic is a box with several fields. The contents of the fields are defined by the company’s business or customer relationship strategy. The page uses some visual indicators, so you can have an overview of the client with one look.
The value of developing and using tools
The example shows how the use of simple tools made the consulting process systematic. They allowed the workshops to focus on certain issues and deliver concrete results, not just loose words without a context. The customer relationship process and plans became tools that all the client’s business units continue to use today.
I could use some of my existing methods and tools with this client. I also developed one new tool, the customer relationship plan. Combined with customer relationship analysis, I even made this particular tool into a product with instructions and templates, and sold it online.
Some tools have allowed me to turn them into a new service. My colleagues and I developed IT Value Barometer, a system for evaluating the business value of information technology use in a corporation. We systematized the process of the evaluation, created printed and digital assessment material, and online software for self-evaluation and reporting. We received substantial revenue from IT Value Barometer over several years.
A consulting tool is basically a systematized process that is supported by easy-to-use material or software. Every time you use your tool learn how to make it even better or how to apply it to different circumstances. In fact, developing and using consulting tools is the professional’s R&D process.
Aarni Heiskanen is a service innovation consultant and entrepreneur. His company, AE Partners, helps clients strategize and innovate B2B services. Aarni has been involved in pioneering Internet businesses in Finland. And also runs, Thinking Business, which develops Internet software for managing project portfolios.