10 Obvious Mistakes Consultants Make

If there’s no highway exit for another 6 miles and you’re not passing anyone, there’s a handy lane on the right just for you. You know that. I know that. Every other adult knows that. Yet we see drivers dawdling along in the left (or middle) lane for miles on end as other cars are forced to pass them on the right.**

In consulting there are equally obvious rules of the road that are, nevertheless, inexplicably ignored by many of our colleagues.

Last Wednesday I reached out to a handful of providers who could potentially handle a $50-75k piece of work for me. One particularly qualified consultant emailed a request to talk about the project at 10:00. I agreed.

Ten o’clock rolled around then quickly rolled past. The remaining half hour I had set aside slipped by without a peep from the consultant.

Would you hire someone who misses their very first appointment with you and does not text, email or have someone call to let you know they’re running late? Would your clients? Most clients won’t, and I certainly didn’t. Sorry, but there’s not enough chocolate-banana cream pie in the world to make up for that maneuver.

And yet this isn’t the first time a consultant hoping to win a project failed to call me on time.

I’m not perfect by a long shot. Occasionally I forget to use my turn signal until my passenger reminds me. And when it comes to winning projects, I’ve certainly made boneheaded moves that any friend could have prevented by whispering, “Don’t do that, dummy!”

So, let’s create a list of obvious rules of the road for consultants. Guidelines we all know and yet… we sometimes forget. I’ll get us started.

Rules of the Road for Consultants

  1. Live Up To Small Promises. Especially with prospects. Heck, especially with everyone. This includes being on time or giving notice, which applies to phone calls, meetings, deliverables, and so forth. If you’re going to be late, send a text or email or something. In this day and age we expect constant communication.
  2. Return Phone Calls. It’s respectful and polite, which are good habits to be in.
  3. Fix The Links On Your Site. A prospect pointed out a broken link on my site last week. Embarrassing and hurt my credibility.
  4. Make Yourself Easy To Reach. Include contact information in your emails and on every web page. Do you know how many consultants I’ve eliminated from the consideration set because they only had a contact form on their site—no phone number or email address anywhere? Way too many.
  5. Identify Yourself. Especially on voicemails. Say who you are and leave your phone number, even if you think the other person knows.darwin_listen_to_voicemail
  6. Don’t Share a Bad Mood. We’re human and life is imperfect, so we’re bound to have moments when we’re frustrated, angry, distraught or just blue. It’s okay to vent to a partner or pet, but not to a prospect.
  7. Say “Thank You.” Often and sincerely. Whether you received a project or just a return phone call, remember that you’re not entitled to it.
  8. Be Prepared. Review documents in advance of meetings. There’s no excuse for walking into any session having not scanned information the client or prospect sent.
  9. Be Professional. Communicate using professional language, with at least a smidge of decorum. I don’t think emoticons belong in business emails. Similarly, avoid off-color jokes and definitely avoid alcohol when you’re with prospects. A beer with a client you’ve known for a long time is a different matter, but err on the side of sobriety.
  10. (Add your rule of the road below).

I had another twenty rules of the road on my shortlist, but I want to hear yours. What “obvious” practices have you occasionally forgotten or do you see mangled by other consultants? Please add your thoughts below in the comments section.

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Text and images are © 2015 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.

By | 2017-10-03T11:41:47+00:00 November 4th, 2015|61 Comments


  1. R.C. Shackelford November 4, 2015 at 6:19 am - Reply

    Use the client, prospect, employee, boss or other party’s name. Frankly, the name cannot be overused in conversation because people are reassured when they hear their name.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 8:50 am - Reply

      That’s a fantastic addition! The corollary, of course, is don’t mess up your client’s name. I’ve made it a practice to always ask people how they spell their name. Even “obvious” names like Michelle are spelled differently by different people. Thanks for contributing this important practice.

  2. Barry Horwitz November 4, 2015 at 6:38 am - Reply

    Proofread before sending … Proofread email responses (or anything you send to a client)… Be sure that you have the client’s name spelled correctly …

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 8:52 am - Reply

      Totally corrrrect… er, correct. See my note above about client’s name spelling. It’s important to get someone else to proofread. A professional proofreader is surprisingly inexpensive and 100% worth it for any blogs, articles, white papers, etc.

    • Fred Diamond November 4, 2015 at 9:43 am - Reply

      I had lunch yesterday with a peer. I endorsed another consultant I felt she should get to know. She replied, “He always has at least one typo in his emails so I’ll pass.”

      • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 9:48 am - Reply

        Wow, Fred, that’s a clear and powerful example. Note that she said, “always.” Clients will forgive us the occasional mistake. Persistent sloppiness, however, will chase away prospects. Thank you for bringing this principle to life, Fred.

  3. John Cunningham November 4, 2015 at 7:03 am - Reply

    Simply do what you say you are going to do…somewhat related to #1 but critical.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 8:54 am - Reply

      Aren’t you amazed by the number of people who don’t live up to their promises – even small promises? That problem is so common that simply doing what you’ll say you’ll do is an incredible trust builder. Thanks for adding this point to the discussion, John.

  4. Grant Cooper November 4, 2015 at 7:05 am - Reply

    (Excellent article, David!)

    I would add:

    11) Don’t bring up your politics or religion… it’s basically irrelevant in any case, a distraction at best, and a turnoff or deal-breaker or at worst.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 8:55 am - Reply

      I agree, Grant. Raising controversial business issues is good practice; surfacing controversial personal issues is bad business.

  5. C. M. Brown November 4, 2015 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Pass on the karma/don’t be greedy – if you aren’t a good fit for an opportunity, pass it on to your network. What goes around, comes around. And the prospective client will appreciate the recommendation of a “specialist” for their special project.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 8:57 am - Reply

      When we focus on what we do and allow others to shine in their areas of expertise, everyone benefits. Thank you for chiming in with that excellent point.

  6. Ryan November 4, 2015 at 8:26 am - Reply


    Great post. These are all very simple, but as you note, many continue to struggle with these basic acts. Points 1 and 2 in particular seem to pop up across virtually every field – as anyone who’s tried working with a home contractor can attest. By simply being responsive, a consultant can stand out among the competition. Also important to note, these behaviors are all within our control – no larger global forces at work.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 9:37 am - Reply

      Very good point, Ryan: these are all within our control. We are definitely the masters of our own destiny and often we can achieve success simply by getting out of our own way!

      You’re 100% on the mark with the responsiveness comment too. Quick turnaround counts for more than many consultants realize.Thank you for being part of the conversation, Ryan.

  7. Donna G November 4, 2015 at 8:45 am - Reply

    Great points, David! I’d like to suggest another… be respectful of time. It shows you have mutual respect for your clients’ busy lives as much as your own. Just because a meeting is scheduled to be 30 or 60 minutes doesn’t mean you have to fill the full time. If you’ve completed your agenda/objectives, sign off and free the person up to do other things. (better yet, try scheduling for 20 or 45 minutes and manage to that time!)

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 9:39 am - Reply

      I like that, Donna. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re important or listening well when we let a client ramble; whereas, in truth they appreciate when we politely keep them on track and preserve their own precious time. Thanks for the practical tips, too.

  8. Liz Wainger November 4, 2015 at 8:55 am - Reply

    Great post. The Russians have a saying that it is the small change in life that matters and you have clearly hit on that in this post. Being punctual is a big issue. When you are late it is as though you are stealing time from others. The other point is to respond to people. If someone has reached out to you, have the courtesy to respond even if you can’t help them or a project isn’t right for you. Thank you for reminding us about the importance of the small change.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 9:43 am - Reply

      Да. спасибо. Being punctual fits nicely with Donna’s comment about respecting clients’ time. Those are excellent rules of the road, as is responsiveness.

      As you (and the Russians) say, small changes are important. In fact, I’d venture to guess we get more mileage from small, daily changes than from the occasional epiphany an about-face. Thank you for contributing, Liz.

  9. Ellen Jaffe Cogan November 4, 2015 at 9:19 am - Reply

    David, I like your post because it’s clear and doesn’t use jargon. Jargon is a big turn-off for most prospective clients.
    The one I would add is to use professional grammar and address. Yo! and Hey! are for personal emails, not for business professionals. When you are proofreading, check not only for spelling, but accurate grammar with sentences that are concise and convey your meaning clearly. Don’t waste time by having them read through a lot of added fluff.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 9:46 am - Reply

      Well said, Ellen. Jargon is pompous; slang is immature. The golden middle ground is the straightforward, professional language you’re recommending. That’s a good reminder for all of us. Thank you for making it part of the list.

  10. Fred Diamond November 4, 2015 at 9:48 am - Reply

    Here’s one. Be pragmatic. Avoid the temptation to get very angry or resentful about a deal that didn’t come through on your time table. Express good thoughts to the prospective client even though you didn’t get the gig. They may need your services in the future or when they move on to another job years down the road. Remembering you in a positive way will only help you with them and referrals they may give.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 9:55 am - Reply

      Another gem, Fred. (The pun on your surname was unintended.) When a prospect doesn’t pan out, rather than thinking badly of yourself (“I don’t deserve to win projects”) or badly of the client (“They’re stupid for not using me”) give both parties the credit they deserve: “I offer excellent value and the prospect made the best decision for himself, given his knowledge, goals and priorities.”

  11. Rich Stockwell November 4, 2015 at 10:23 am - Reply

    “Promise little, but deliver much”

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 2:51 pm - Reply

      Exceeding client expectations is certainly a good practice as long as it doesn’t turn into scope creep. How about slightly editing your suggestion to “Promise much, deliver more.” Either way, it’s a good addition to the conversation – thanks for contributing it!

  12. Paul Jones November 4, 2015 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Be a person of good humor. Not a jokester or a clown. But someone that is engaging and makes others smile and feel at ease. People like being around people they like. Being confident, informative and making the other person feel good being around you is invaluable. I’ve rarely been involved in business dealings where I’ve said, “I can’t stand him, let’s hire him.” Even if you’re just one among a group competing with closely aligned skill sets, others will remember you if you left them feeling good after interacting with you. Just remember you still have to deliver the goods.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 2:57 pm - Reply

      Paul, that directly parallels a discussion I was having with a consultant today about injecting humanity into conversations. We’re human beings dealing with other human beings. A modicum of levity and good cheer can easily tilt a new-business conversation in your favor. “Like” is one of the Six Pillars of Consulting Success. As you pointed out, rarely will a client hire a jerk just because the person is smart or does good work. Thank you for bringing up humor–I think I’ll write a blog post about it.

  13. Gayle Carson November 4, 2015 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Doesn’t this go back to what you learned in kindergarten? Most of what you listed came from my parents. It’s called good manners–or and one more thing, common sense.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 3:02 pm - Reply

      You’re right, Gayle. Though I encourage all consultants to be better behaved than I was in kindergarten… or the subsequent 15 years, for that matter. As my sons were growing up I tried to impress upon them the importance of basic interpersonal skills. No matter what profession you embark on, they serve you in good stead.

  14. James Sullivan November 4, 2015 at 11:04 am - Reply

    Spending time talking about yourself and your skills instead of asking the client what they need.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 3:04 pm - Reply

      Bravo. That is an excellent rule of the road that virtually every consultant struggle with constantly. Thank you for calling it out for everyone to read (and re-read)!

  15. Jim Milliken November 4, 2015 at 11:31 am - Reply

    Active is big. It’s also nuanced. While you can’t keep chattering on, you also can’t just sit there passively. It’s a question of participating thoughtfully and productively while making sure most of the clock is occupied by the person a the other end.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 3:06 pm - Reply

      Jim, you’re thinking along the same lines as James. Awareness of listening skills must run in the name. You also raise an important tension: our conversations can not be 100% about the client; after all, we do have a role to play. Understanding how to manage that tension is one of the critical skills consultants must master to consistently close new business.

  16. Jim Milliken November 4, 2015 at 11:33 am - Reply

    I didn’t make that mistake intentionally as an example. Just a case of thought outrunning fingers. The word “listening” is missing from that first sentence. Count it as this month’s self-inflicted embarrassment. Back to Proofreading 101.

  17. Karl Walinskas November 4, 2015 at 11:35 am - Reply

    Don’t be the worst dressed person in the room when meeting with the client. Dress for the part. If you’re in a suit and she’s business casual, that’s far more forgivable than the other way around. If you look like you’re ready to hit the links in a business meeting, the seriousness level of how you come across goes down, as does your perception of value.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 3:12 pm - Reply

      Karl, that’s an interesting guideline. Occasionally I’ll forgo a tie even when the client is suit & tie formal. Why? Because I’m the consultant and I’m comfortable not having to conform. That said, it’s important to make sharp sartorial choices. I wouldn’t show up in a bathing suit and flip flops. Overall, I’d have to agree with you: to be perceived as successful, dress as if you’re successful. Thanks for chiming in on the discussion.

  18. Diana November 4, 2015 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    Overall, I’ve learned that the client is hiring you, first and foremost. Only secondarily are they buying my output/results.

    Otherwise, they would have gone with a canned solution or the latest business book theories.

    • Diana November 4, 2015 at 2:07 pm - Reply

      Oops, I meant “the client is hiring me…”. So much for my own proofreading.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 3:23 pm - Reply

      Diana, that’s a surprising conclusion. Without having talked to your clients, I’d venture to guess they’re hiring you first and foremost because they believe you will deliver the results they want. They trust you and believe they are more likely to achieve their goal with you than with a canned solution or the latest book. Again, that’s just my guess. Either way, they’re hiring you and that’s a good thing!

  19. Praveen Puri November 4, 2015 at 4:30 pm - Reply

    Don’t make a short story long. Just give enough info to make your point clear. You don’t have to show off all your knowledge on a topic.

    • David A. Fields November 4, 2015 at 5:26 pm - Reply

      Oooh, that’s a good one, Praveen. If a client or prospect needs more information or clarification, they’re likely to ask. Too often we’re overloading the client with information – in prospecting conversations, in speeches, and even in deliverables. Thank you for adding that nugget to the list.

  20. Jaime Campbell November 4, 2015 at 9:25 pm - Reply

    Be confident enough in your expertise / results to build and maintain trust, and humble enough that you can have relatedness with your client.

    Remember, your client needs you, and that puts your client in a vulnerable position. You’re not an expert at everything in the universe either, so a little humility can not only go a long way in the relationship but also actually help create a better project outcome because people feel like they can talk to you more about matters related to the project as well as the bigger business context…and they are more likely to feel like they can be vulnerable with you.

    This also leads to more projects.

    • David A. Fields November 5, 2015 at 4:58 pm - Reply

      Insightful addition to the list, Jaime. The savory balance of confidence and humility is ambrosia for consulting prospects.

  21. Denise Martin November 5, 2015 at 11:32 am - Reply

    Strong list of guidelines; I would just add my piece – be genuine and personal. By genuine of course we all know means: not overstating your capabilities, but also not downplaying what you’re willing to attempt outside of your immediate scope, with comment of same. Or geniunely speaking up or even stepping away if the client/prospect’s chemistry is wrong or changes to the bad. Keeping it real and transparent.

    By personal I’m calling attention to noting that this client/prospect is different from all others and wants due attention at the personal level. Not to pry, but certainly to note the little touches that can make a huge difference in building rapport. When little comments slip in knowledge that you can tag later, the personal touch is different from what others are neglecting to do. SOP for those who make it so.

    • David A. Fields November 5, 2015 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      Perfect addition to Jaime’s Campbell’s comment. We are in a supremely human business and we thrive when we create a personal connection with those who have the authority to hire us. (And with others too, of course.)

  22. None November 6, 2015 at 1:20 am - Reply

    For me the most important item in the list is listening. Listen, listen and listen before asking meaningful questions.Another was understand the task and role to make long lasting relationship….

    • David A. Fields November 6, 2015 at 8:12 am - Reply

      Totally agree on the importance of listening. A surprisingly difficult skill to master. Thanks for contributing.

  23. Ray Suarez November 7, 2015 at 1:23 am - Reply

    Nicely done, David. My thoughts: be present in the moment, keep an open and curious mind, ask and don’t tell, be useful and serve.

    • David A. Fields November 8, 2015 at 9:01 pm - Reply

      Those are all good additions, Ray, and are unquestionably the fundamentals of successful consulting. I like especially like how the start and end of your list go together: Be present and serve. An excellent guide for us all. Thank you for being part of the conversation.

  24. Ira Skop January 7, 2016 at 10:15 am - Reply

    As a corollary to being prompt, don’t arrive too early. If you were slotted for a particular start time, the person receiving you probably has the time before fully booked. Don’t put them in the position of having to receive/entertain/accommodate you before they expected to.

    • David A. Fields January 7, 2016 at 10:26 am - Reply

      That’s an interesting point, Ira. I hadn’t really considered the stress being early puts on a client. (Probably because I’m rarely early!) Thank you for adding a great insight to the conversation.

  25. Julie May 22, 2016 at 2:56 am - Reply

    I would add to be flexible, yet have boundaries – especially if you are a consultant on retainer. I almost always go above and beyond, but that can open the door to the client expecting you will give more than the 20 hours per week you agreed upon in the contract. My approach to this is similar to what psychotherapist say: “Our time is about over, is there anything else we need to clarify before we end this session? I also believe that in being flexible, particularly as the client has new, urgent issues/projects, that you communicate clearly “I am happy to help with this, it will put the original priorities we set behind schedule. Are you okay with renegotiating the due dates for the original assignments or should we add on retainer time for these extra assignments?”

    • David A. Fields May 22, 2016 at 3:26 pm - Reply

      Julie, flexibility with boundaries is an outstanding addition to the list. What I particularly like about the examples you gave is how your language gives perceived control to the client. “Are you okay with…” and “Is there anything you need…” give agency to the client while clearly delineating what’s allowable. It takes a long time for many consultants to master that type of language–looks like you have it down.

  26. Kalpana Katdare January 31, 2017 at 5:53 am - Reply

    David, excellent post! In addition, I have found two interesting things:
    1. People don’t read emails thoroughly so end up asking a technical question which has already been answered in the previous email. I really don’t know whether to pretend and re-write the answer or point out that I have already answered the question. It’s as if they were deaf the first time.
    2. People don’t bother to answer emails especially if it’s related to something important like payments or follow-up course of action or setting up meeting times. It’s becoming a trend now not to reply to emails (to exude superiority?)

    • David A. Fields January 31, 2017 at 7:15 am - Reply

      Kalpana, the trend you’re pointing to is one I haven’t seen, and I’d be interested to know whether others in the community have or not. I may post a question on the Solo Consultants Network. What I have absolutely seen is that clients skim emails or only read the first line or two. Therefore, long emails or emails that cover multiple topics can be counterproductive.

      When I want the client to take action, I generally make the email extremely pointed with a single request. If there are multiple actions, such as in a follow-up note after a meeting, I start with a clear statement that there are X requests in the email, then boldface the requests and sometimes format them as red so they stand out.

      Either way, being very clear and concise with emails is a good practice. Thank you for raising that, Kalpana!

  27. Kalpana Katdare January 31, 2017 at 10:57 pm - Reply

    Thanks David, that’s a good suggestion. I will make sure to follow that the next time and see if I get better responses. Maybe I am generalizing exceptions!! 🙂

  28. Jay February 2, 2017 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    Thank you very much David. As a student of an MBA school I will take note of these rules and try to use it for my project work.

    One of the rule I am following with project clients is “Be honest & pragmatic with client” which helps me to come up with practical recommendations and solutions.

    • David A. Fields February 2, 2017 at 9:47 pm - Reply

      That’s a good rule, Jay. All of the habits will apply while you’re in school and after you graduate, whether you go into consulting or not.

  29. Sharon Richmond July 25, 2018 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    “Tell the truth.” is an important one in my book. That applies to not overpromising (‘I’ll get that to you tomorrow,’ when clearly you don’t have time available to do so), and even more important, it helps build trust (“I understand your goals and constraints; based on my experience / best judgment these constraints will most likely be too narrow for you to reach your goals. What can we think differently about?”)

    • David A. Fields July 25, 2018 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      You’re absolutely right to add your voice to the choir singing about honesty, integrity, and transparency. Ultimately, we have only our reputations and those reputations reflect how we behave when the client’s watching… and when he’s not! Thank you for increasing the volume on the call for honesty, Sharon.

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