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Ethics and Practices for Consultants

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Since consultants are neither organized nor licensed, there is no fixed code of ethics and no set of rules and regulations they must conform to. On one level, each person pretty much adheres to his or her own moral strictures. On this subject, a funny story comes to mind. A ten-year-old boy was doing his homework while his father sat in the same room, reading the newspaper. The boy looked up and asked, "Dad, what does 'ethics' mean?" The father put down his paper and explained carefully as follows: "Well, you know that sometimes my customers leave things accidentally in the pockets of the clothing they bring into my dry-cleaning store. Suppose, after a customer leaves the shop, I find a ten-dollar bill in one of his pockets. Here is where 'ethics' enters into the situation.

The question immediately arises as to whether or not I should tell my partner." It is not for me to tell you how to comport yourself in your newly chosen profession. I can only pass on my own "ten commandments" to which I have conformed without strain over the years, and which may have something to do with the successful relationship I have with my clients.
  1. Thou shalt always work to the best of thine ability to ensure the quick success of thy client's project.
  2. Thou shalt not waive, lower, or raise thy hourly or daily fee for any one particular client.
  3. Thou shalt not become involved in thy client's organizational politics.
  4. Thou shalt not accept any fee for personnel placement.
  5. Thou shalt not be idle.
  6. Thou shalt never "load" time or an expense account.
  7. Thou shalt not accept the assignment of any study or investigation that has a foregone conclusion by the client.
  8. Thou shalt not lie to a client.
  9. Thou shalt not accept a contingency fee.
  10. Thou shalt not quit by accepting a full-time position and becoming an employee once again.
How you practice your consultancy will turn out to be a very individual thing according to some of your already ingrained work habits and attitudes. But here is a description of some of my methods, should you find them useful.

Without sacrificing thoroughness, I always work as fast and as soon as possible. Getting an assignment completed quickly frees me to accept other assignments without time conflicts. Juggling four assignments at once sometimes boggles the mind. As a result, my desk is usually cleared when the next call comes through, and I can give the client my undivided attention. (This backfired on me once when a new client noted the neat appearance of my desk. I quoted the old adage "A cluttered desk portrays a cluttered mind." "That's true," he replied. "What worries me is that your desk is empty.") If a piece of work is due six weeks hence, I apply myself to it in such a concentrated way that I generally turn it in three weeks early. I also begin work immediately, even though I may have enough time to start work later, because I like to start when the problem is fresh in my mind. My clientele seem to appreciate this method.

I always come right to the point. Although I am never abrupt when establishing a rapport with a client while attempting to establish his true goals, I am extremely blunt and border on abrasiveness when dealing with the actual problems and tasks at hand. It has always seemed to me that deep down the client appreciates this kind of incisive candor when paying by the hour or day. Friends, relations, or employees of the client may all have their own emotional and/or tangible reasons for telling him what he wants to hear, but my function as consultant is entirely different. For example, I have often told individual clients who have brought me samples of their work with a need for professional evaluation that they have absolutely no talent and that they are wasting their time and money in that particular area; I have recommended that they either give it up or go to school. I can also be just as candid in the opposite case and urge the talented individual on with much more than encouragement. Indeed, I will pick up the phone and immediately put that client in touch with important contacts in the industry.

Another example. An attorney once called to enlist my services. Knowing nothing about my industry, he wanted to invest money in it by opening a place of business and hiring an experienced manager. He was about to sign a long-term lease and wanted my opinion about the location. The site was fifty miles from my office, so it was necessary to book him in advance for a full day's work. I deliberately arrived in my car one hour early so that I could drive around and apprise myself of the territory before we met. The prospects, from every point of view, were dismal. At the appointed time, I told him of my findings in no uncertain terms. It took all often minutes. I got back into my car and somewhat abashedly told him that I would have to bill him for my daily fee. His rejoinder was: "Hell, that's the best money I ever spent. You just saved me over $30,000 on a lease that would have been worthless to me. I am grateful." Of course, that was one of my more intelligent clients. Regardless of the client's attributes, I always work the same way.

I draw no line when it comes to blunt advice. I have told the owner of a small business that was suffering from internal theft that his brother-in-law was stealing him blind. I have told the president of a large corporation that his general manager was totally incompetent and was the cause of the loss of a large number of high-caliber junior executives. I have told a client that there ought to be a law against what he was doing. I have told a client that his work was so good that I could guarantee his selling one piece of it for a minimum of $5,000. He did.

About half of my clients don't take my advice. Those that do take only half of the advice. But you will not be paid on the basis of whether or not your advice is taken. You will be paid for advice given. A great number of people make appointments with consultants for strange and even bizarre reasons, most of which they themselves are not aware of. Some of them either have a need for, or will confuse you with, a psychiatrist. They will enter your office, talk freely and constantly for one hour, and leave happily without your having said a word. This is obviously some kind of catharsis for them, and they have no one else they can speak to in a confidential atmosphere. Some clients will use you as a sounding board for their ideas; whether you agree or disagree with them, they act on those ideas anyhow. Some clients want to plunge ahead with high-price, high-risk investment schemes. I always advise testing the plan first, and they oft times become annoyed with me. Some clients have a compulsive need to lose large sums of money; I advise them to join Gamblers Anonymous.

Finally, I never take on any assignment that shows every sign of failure and no chance of success. I like winners, not losers.

I wouldn't exactly call these practices techniques. Rather, they are manifestations of who I am. Who you are will dictate your practices and your ethics. After all, you are becoming a consultant to "do your own thing."
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