How To: Success With Your Consulting Engineer
For some, there is anxiety in hiring a consulting engineer. Others thrive with Consultants. Still others, have been there, but the experience wasn’t good — too much money without the desired result. Is it the Consultant? Or the Client? Or . . . ?? Let’s follow up with the previous article on How To Find The Right Engineering Consultant by talking about what makes the relationship work.
So many things in life boil down to relationships. Why are some Consulting relationships wonderful and wildly successful, while others turn sour? From the view of a consulting engineer who also hires consultants, here are some observations. If you’re starting down that road, please consider the following.
Ways To Makes The Consulting Engineer Relationship Successful
In order of importance, from my perspective, here is a list of things that make successful customer / client relationships. It is most certainly 2 sides, and both you and the consultant must be on the same page. The items in the list apply in many circumstances, but for our purposes, we’ll frame them in view of hiring a consulting engineer. There’s really nothing astounding here, since you might get the same advice for relationships with employees or doctors or attornies. The examples highlight the advice.
This is most important as it plays a role in all the rest, yet often the least well practiced. Communication is the key to success in marriage, with children, with employees, and yes, consultants. We’re all people, so listening as well as talking — written and oral. Communicating what has happened, what is happening, and what you want to happen. But it’s more than that. It’s taking the time to make sure understanding is happening both directions. We must also know what others are communicating.
A Positive Example is one customer I’ve worked with for years. The owner always asks me if I think they’re ready to move to the next step. “Is there anything we have not considered?” More importantly, he listens — to his employees, to vendors, and to me. He seeks knowledge and asks a lot of questions. He probably already knows most of the answers, but he listens anyway. Then, once in a while, a true gem pops up.
A Negative Example. After working with one customer for years, he kept coming back to the same rut. He was asking for something we (those working with him, including me) had already proven was a bad idea. It was, unfortunately his idea, and for years he sort of listened. But not really. Finally he insisted that it be done and when we asked how to overcome the many issues, he exploded. For years he didn’t really listen. In his mind we were avoiding what he wanted. In our minds, we’d proven it was a bad idea. Poor communication mixed with NIH is so very dangerous.
Defined and Reasonable Expectations.
If unmet expectations are the root of frustration, then setting appropriate and reasonable expectations is a key to success. Again, it’s kind of a statement of the obvious, but often neglected. Interestingly, setting of expectations inherently intertwines with communication. How can you separate them? For success, the things we expect or want or need must be communicated, understood, and agreed upon.
The Positive Example. One customer puts down the team goals in a document, then takes input on accomplishing the goals — easy / hard / a stretch / or risky. Identifying the goals, and all the subparts — with understanding on how the subparts effect the goal — make the difference in setting expectations for him. Key point is the expectations change as we learn more — so go back to #1, Communication.
The Negative Example for expectations is above with the negative example of communication. In that case, communication failed to change expectations, ending in frustration.
How big is the project? What does it entail? The definition of what the project is, and what it is not, is the scope. One of the big kickers in expectations comes when the project keeps changing. Like shooting at a moving target, if the project changes without all agreeing to those changes (communication), the expectations get out of whack. Keeping the Project Scope in control is a must. “Scope Creep” as we call it, is when the project keeps expanding, and that is an enemy of effectiveness.
Good Example. Define the project with a specification — a list of requirements. Also define the ways to make changes to the document. (ie. — 1. The boss makes the changes when he wants. or 2. The team reviews issues and decides together whether to change parts of the project.) I’ve had successful projects both ways.
Poor Example. One customer used to call me nearly every day to discuss the project. They would ask great questions about enhancements to what I was doing and want answers to whether I can contain these new changes within the timeframe. The ideas he gave were great, but the impact to the project was enormous. The biggest difficulty was the distraction in trying to quote changes and timing impact over and over again. In the end, the project was delay was long, with miss-match inclusions because of the many changes.
Take time to think about options in the beginning, then solidify the specification. Communication with documentation of some sort is key.
Everything takes time. We all know that, but we often don’t understand the extent of “everything”. As a consulting Engineer, my goal is to deliver what the customer requests, without burdening them in the nitty-gritty details. This works well most of the time, but sometimes the expectation from the customer is that it only takes me a couple hours — when in reality, there is much more to it. One sure way to sour a relationship is to place demands. This is true on both sides of the relationship.
Bad Example. One customer came to me and said, I know we planned to take 3 more months on this, but we’ve decided to go to a show, and this has to come. The show is in 5 weeks. He didn’t realize he was asking the impossible, so his expectation was that I’d drop everything and accomplish it. Yet, lead times to get things necessary were 6 weeks — if the design was already done.
Rolling with the Changes.
No matter how well we plan, there are always monkey wrenches that love to jump in the fan. That’s just the way things work, so everyone must be willing to roll with changes that will come. That said, it’s not just willy-nilly — go back to the items above. Communicating the need for change is huge, and resetting expectations with a solid plan is next. Making sure the project scope changes are identified . . . . you see where this is going.
The project will all come together as the team works together and keeps information flowing — especially when changes come. This is clear enough without examples.
Taking time to bring the Consultant up to speed.
In chronological order, this actually comes first, but in order of importance, communication is first. Some of this was discussed in the first part article. From experience, it’s hard to jump into a design or a problem without all the background. Honestly, the lack of background has great value because you can see things without historical baggage, but getting up to speed is sometimes tricky. Take time to bring your consulting engineer into the project. Answer lots of questions, and don’t try to do the full download all at once. The results are better when you allow time to digest and think.
Great Example. On a Forensic project with one customer, they sent me a lot of background information in advance. When I arrived on scene, the mood was intense, but also contemplative. We took time to dissect the failure bit by bit, and we all pointed out what we saw. Sure, they had seen it before, but they showed me as if it was all new. We took time for photos and questions. In the end, the questions, the answers, and the time for thinking walked us right down the road to the cause.
For a Poor Example, read the previous article. I’ve had to rescue some customer projects by going back to the beginning for understanding. The answers are often right there in the hidden details.
Consulting Engineers As A Valuable Resource.
We all use “consultants” once in a while. Everytime you go to the doctor’s office, or visit an attorney, or hire an accountant, or engage a handyman. They are all consultants you hire because they have an expertise you want to engage. Consulting engineers are very similar — though we probably won’t get as intimately involved as your dentist.
Without a doubt, the consulting engineer is an extremely valuable resource. They are a person you can call on for assistance in relatively short order, they have a ton of experience, and you only pay them for the time they spend. Consultants can be a lever to your success. Take time to build the relationship, and you’ll have even greater success.