Interview with Christine Lambden, Consulting Skills Trainer and Author
Christine Lambden and Casey Conner recently spoke on Expanding Your Influence at the DOUG Professional Development Seminar. She is a popular speaker and has appeared on Fox News and NBC’s Today Show, and has been quoted in Kiplingers, Profit, and Consulting Magazine on the business of consulting. We took advantage of the opportunity to ask her some questions about consulting.
What is the best way to start work as a consultant and should I keep my day job?
It depends. I know that is the standard consultant’s answer, but in this case, it’s appropriate. If you want to work with a team of consultants on big projects, apply for full-time work with consulting firms that have dedicated Oracle practices. If you want to do on-call database or application troubleshooting for a bunch of smaller clients, you can probably start accumulating clients while you are in your current job. The one caveat I would add is that the Oracle community is still a lot like a small town. People talk. Don’t take on any consulting work without talking to your boss. Integrity matters in this business and it’s very difficult to recover from a mistake.
What is the biggest mistake that you made when you first started consulting?
I thought I had to know everything. The key is to know a little bit more than your client does about your specialty, and to be brave enough to say, “I don’t know but I’ll find out.” If I’d known this then, I would have made fewer mistakes and been willing to ask more questions early on. It took me a long time to learn that the best way to show people you are smart is to ask questions and let them teach you.
What skills do you most rely on as a consultant?
For me, one of my biggest character flaws is that I’m a fan of conspiracy theories. I like to fit puzzle pieces together. I like to delve into the hidden agendas and motives of the people around me. As a consultant, this is a huge advantage because I am good at making the people I work for happy, because I instinctively try to find out what makes them tick. I can’t overstate the value of people skills in consulting, so asking questions, listening and being interested in the people around you are critical skills.
As someone who has been in the consulting business for most of the last 24 years, perhaps you can help me. I’m just starting out with some private consulting. I want to be fair but don’t want to be taken advantage of. Where can I find out how much I should charge for a project?
You’re going to get tired of hearing the same advice from me over and over, but the answer is that you have to ask questions. Find someone who is doing the same thing you do and ask them for advice. As much as our clients hate it, consultants love to talk about bill rates. Join groups on LinkedIn and organizations like DOUG so you can connect with people in your field and build a network of experts you can call on for help. Believe me, how much to charge is not the last question you’ll have as a consultant. It’s wonderful to be able to go to other experts with problems and challenges – and we wouldn’t be consultants if we didn’t love to give advice.
When all else fails, start high with your rate, but make it clear to the client that you are willing to negotiate. A student in one of our consulting skills training sessions came to Casey and I recently with this very question. His expertise is unusual and he couldn’t find anyone else doing exactly what he does. He had recently been laid-off and several of the companies he had dealt with in his previous job wanted to hire him as an advisor. His initial thought was to divide his previous annual salary by 2000 to arrive at an hourly rate and charge that, which would have made his bill rate about $60/hour. We suggested that he go much higher because he appears to be the only person providing this service. Clients never tell you that your rate is too low, but they don’t hesitate to tell you when they think it’s too high. Every deal is a negotiation.
He presented his first proposal with a bill rate of $300/hour. The client said, “Whoa. We can’t do that. It’s too high. Can you come down to $200/hour if we add a bonus for any new product deals we get as a result of your work?” He doesn’t work full-time, but he is making more money than he did with a full-time job.
As a consultant, how do you deal with job insecurity? Do you ever get scared that all the project work will dry up?
Of course I worry about that, but I like roller coasters and white-water rafting, so a little job stress doesn’t freak me out. When my friends in the business get scared, I have two pieces of advice. First, work your network so you have options. People need to know you and what you do so they can help you maintain a pipeline of opportunity. Second, what makes you think a permanent job on some corporation’s payroll will provide more job security? That may have been true ten years ago, but I don’t think it is true today. The best job security is having marketable skills and knowing how to sell yourself.
How have social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook changed the landscape for consultants?
It’s easier to connect with people you wouldn’t meet any other way and you can actually develop a sort of relationship with them entirely online. If you are going to use “I don’t know but I’ll find out,” and you should, then you’re going to need some people who know more than you do that are willing to help you find out. Otherwise, you’ll spend all your time surfing the web looking for that one obscure blogger who wrote about your issue. I use both Facebook and LinkedIn to maintain contact with people I’ve worked with over the years. Even if neither of us has the time or need for a phone call every week, we see occasional updates about each other and have the sense of being connected. That way, when I do need to call them, they remember who I am.
How do you feel that the workplace has changed in just the past year? the past 10 years? the past generation?
Oh, my. I love questions like this. Remember, I’m a person who looks for patterns. To start with, my first job out of college (1984) was with a major oil company in Houston. Women weren’t allowed to wear pants to work and people smoked in their offices. When we wanted to send a message overseas, we called the Telex operator down in the computer lab and dictated it. Everything is easier now.
Over the past ten years, I think there has been a dramatic shift into specialization and companies have learned a lot about how to use consultants as on-call experts, rather than trying to muddle through with partially-trained employees leading their implementations or upgrades. There seem to be many more individual entrepreneurs in the consulting world and more opportunity for them to find work. If you can’t find one company that can afford to hire you full time, it’s now possible to find three companies who each want to hire you for one-third of your time.
In the past year, I’ve seen more independent consultants banding together in informal alliances with other independent consultants in related or complementary fields. If, for example, you are an Apps DBA, you might get more project leads from a friend who is an Apps Developer than from another Apps DBA. Referrals and return engagements are the lifeblood of a consulting practice, and this is especially true for independents.
As a best-selling author, how long did it take for you and Casey to finish your first book and is another one in the works?
After we came up with the idea for the book, we spent more than two years asking questions, listening to gossip, watching the consultants around us and talking with clients about what makes an extraordinary consultant. During that time, we communicated primarily via instant message. At the end of that time, we took the accumulated archive of conversations and looked for common threads. The actual writing took only a few weeks, but we couldn’t have done it without all the background research. Since the book is also filled with stories from past consulting gigs, it might also be fair to say that it took us more than 30 years to write the book. Like any deliverable, the writing is easy if you’ve done all the research and interviews and homework before you start.
Our second book, Extraordinary Interviews, is now available from our website at www.ConsultingStance.com . We are kicking around ideas for a third book, but right now we are focused on building our training business. We have taken the foundation concepts from Everyday Practices of Extraordinary Consultants and expanded on them to create a one-day training class for anyone who wants to learn or polish their consulting skills. We are also offering this for internal consultants who work inside corporations, which pretty much means every IT and support department in the world. We have our hands full for the moment.
Back in the nineties, you did Oracle consulting here in Dallas and were a member of DOUG. Can you comment on any differences that you’ve seen between DOUG today vs. DOUG fifteen years ago?
First, it’s bigger. DOUG has grown along with the rest of the Oracle world. It’s still a friendly, helpful, professional organization, but there seems to be a greater emphasis on education and professional development. The resources you make available to your members are impressive and it sounds like there are plans to expand those services even further. Another big difference is that Oracle is involved in the organization to a certain extent. I don’t remember that being the case in the beginning.
I have always been a huge proponent of establishing relationships in your industry, and DOUG today appears to be an excellent place to do just that. I met some amazing people at the meeting I attended and I plan to return often, even though I don’t live in Dallas or work with Oracle anymore. DOUG still feels like home to me.
Christine Lambden has been a part of the Oracle community since 1993, including three years with Oracle Consulting. Since 2000, she has started three different consulting firms with varying success. A significant percentage of her advice is of the don’t-make-the-same-mistakes-we-did variety. She is the co-author of Everyday Practices of Extraordinary Consultants (2008) and Extraordinary Interviews (2009) and is now a partner in Consulting Stance, where she teaches consulting skills and multi-directional leadership classes for corporations and independent consultants.