Businesses hire consultants primarily for three reasons: either to maximize their productivity, efficiency, or profitability. Whether independent or in-house—consultants are known to always be on the ball, consistently beat the clock, and save their clients lots of time and money without cutting corners.
But even consultants’ productivity can take a hit if they have too many misaligned priorities, overbooked calendars, and/or difficult projects. When consultants become the victims of the very same problems they are supposed to solve—it can become a career risk.
Worse, when you are part of an agency, your lack of productivity can hurt the agency-client relationship and the business bottom line.
At Avoma, we work with agencies of different shapes and sizes. When agencies approach us evaluating our product, one of the common themes we hear is that they want to improve the productivity of their consultants in order to increase their operational efficiency.
In this post, we share five tips that top-performing consultants follow to stay on top of their schedule and build a lean and mean routine.
5 tips to help consultants improve their productivity
The best thing about these tips is that they are scalable and you can apply some of them to your life in general to accomplish more meaningful outcomes.
1. Build a predictable schedule
More often than not, lack of productivity and burnout is a result of unmanaged priorities. And it’s never intentional—most people don’t realize when their priorities become a melting pot of urgent tasks.
The best way to fight the problem of misplaced priorities is to have a predictable schedule. Building a predictable schedule needs you to set up repeatable habits, experiment with certain processes, and be thoughtful with your meeting scheduling habits.
Take a minute at the beginning of every day and think of what a successful day would look like—and plan your schedule accordingly. In other words, leave little room for last-minute chaos.
If you let things dictate your life—be it a client email at 9 pm or a dental appointment that coincides with a project meeting—you will find yourself chasing your tail all day.
Here are a few ways for you to build predictable habits:
- Use the ‘backcasting’ method to begin with the end in mind
- Plan the day ahead, but keep room for “structured chaos”
- Optimize workflows for efficiency and productivity
- Say no to unnecessary meetings
- Keep your meetings short
- Automate menial tasks
Some of these things are easier said than done—especially if you have overlapping dependencies with colleagues or clients. But you can always try and guard your schedule against timesuck activities so that others learn to respect your boundaries and cooperate with you.
Take backcasting for instance. With backcasting, you most likely will have dependencies on the client and your colleagues for working backward. But you can educate them on the value of zooming out and looking at the bigger picture to put things in clear perspective. Backcasting is a great way to lock in a predictable schedule so that no one can ruin your productivity streak.
That said, a rigid routine that leaves zero room for spontaneity is too boring. A lot of creativity is born from chaos. Deliberately leave some room for ad hoc activities that might pop up out of the blue—this is the principle behind “structured chaos.” Build your schedule in a way that gives you full control over your time while still allows you to entertain unplanned tasks.
Similarly, be mindful of how you run or participate in meetings. If it’s too long or doesn’t contribute to your top goals, politely turn down the meeting invites. When they are necessary, insist on keeping them short to avoid them from spilling over into your other priorities.
If you want to prevent your calendar from getting overbooked, we highly recommend you to use Avoma Scheduler to book purpose-based meetings and manage your pre-meeting workflow efficiently. With the free meeting scheduler’s Chrome extension, you can schedule meetings for you as your team without even switching your browser tabs.
2. Establish clear SLAs
Many consulting agencies run into unwanted scope creeps when they fail to sign clearly defined service-level agreements (SLAs) with the clients at the beginning of a project. An SLA is not a legally binding contract, but it’s extremely helpful in defining a project’s objectives and your duties and responsibilities to the client during the project’s tenure.
For instance, a typical SLA that agencies sign with clients includes details such as the exact way you will execute the project, the timeline, and expected results. It also clearly states the quality of the service that you are going to provide to the client, your availability, and what is expected out of the client. As a consultant, you should always have an SLA in place for you to manage customer expectations and set healthy boundaries.
Most of your clients either don’t have the time or don’t fully understand the technicalities involved in implementing a project—which is why they hired you. They might not understand that you are involved with more than one client at a time. Some projects need deeper client participation while most others don’t—based on the kind of contract you have with them or the level of complexity in a project.
It’s important for you to be empathetic to your clients’ needs and expectations, but it’s also important for you to establish ground rules so that their expectations don't breach other areas of your business.
Realistically speaking, scope creep is sometimes inevitable no matter what you have put down in an SLA. In such circumstances, you can’t slap the SLA on the clients and say “no” to them. That’s the quickest way to lose a customer and burn bridges for getting other business opportunities from them. Instead, your best bet is to say “yes” at a higher level and ask them to reevaluate the project’s renewed scope and the budget changes to match it.
In most cases, however, an SLA saves you from the frustrations of working on a project beyond its original scope and helps you stay productive. And it begins when you clearly define and document the project deliverables even before the project kicks off.
Here’s what Mandy Thompson, CEO at Digital Reach Online Solutions—a HubSpot Solutions Partner agency based out of Anchorage—has to say to consultants in order to stay productive:
If you're the consultant, document everything and try to put it into terms that both the client and the internal team will understand. Most importantly—don’t just write half sentences, but full thoughts that anyone can understand. Always think about who your communications are going to impact and try to work alongside people who think in that way.
3. Review client calls and refine your processes
Every consulting project is different with different nuances and outcomes. But most projects also have several overlapping commonalities—like you! If you aren’t pattern-matching the insights between the projects you are undertaking, you are likely missing out on the opportunity to improve your client-facing operations.
Top-performing consultants today leverage conversation intelligence software like Avoma to improve their processes, efficiency and productivity.
You may ask—how does conversation intelligence apply to productivity? Let’s look at how Avoma helps you improve productivity in two parts: Insights and efficiency.
You can set up ‘Trackers’ in Avoma to understand the pattern of what agency services your clients prefer the most, in a given period (say last 30 days).
This helps you position your agency better and become more relevant to your clients.
You can also review your meetings and calls from time to time to understand how you can improve your resonance with your clients. For instance, reviewing calls will help you understand how fast you talk, how many filler words you use per minute, and whether or not you are patient to hear your clients’ response.
We recommend an ideal talk speed range between 100-180 words/minute, less than 2 filler words/minute, and a wait time of at least 1.25 seconds after you ask a question to your client and before you resume the conversation.
In short, the idea is that reviewing past client calls allows you to examine your meeting performance and improve your future interactions with clients.
The next aspect to improving your productivity is improving your efficiency. Conversation intelligence helps you streamline collaboration across the board so that you aren’t operating an island. Let’s say an account manager from your agency onboards a big client but it’s up to you to see through the project implementation.
If you weren’t part of the onboarding call, you can always fall back on the call recording or the meeting notes to understand the client’s context before jumping on the project.
But it’s not always practical for you to listen to call recordings that are typically 40–60 minutes long. Let's say you have five consultants on your team who get into 5-10 client meetings each per day. And you want to have a quick understanding of what happened on each of those calls.
And it doesn't make sense to go through the transcriptions of the calls. That's where notes help.
Notes are a quick one-pager description of what was discussed on a given call.
But from the consultant’s POV, balancing between actively listening to the client and taking notes and then updating it to a CRM is a lot of grunt work.
And yet, diligently taken notes help you retain the context of the discussion. This is where Avoma helps. Avoma’s AI takes notes on behalf of your consultant and automatically syncs it to your CRM, while you can focus on the conversation.
All of these are a much better use of your time than handling each client case differently. Most client cases operate in the continuum of similarities, but you won’t realize this until you sit down and review the client conversations as a routine.
4. Lean on collaboration when you can
Collaboration and productivity are close cousins, but that doesn’t mean they always complement each other. Too much collaboration can be a productivity killer because it demands your time and commitment.
Imagine the constant buzz of Slack notifications going off on your laptop or the “sync up” meetings booked on your calendar in the name of collaboration. An increase in communication volume from all directions is the biggest flaw in workplace collaboration in today’s age.
If you do collaboration right, it can take a huge load off of your shoulders.
Arguably, the future of our businesses in a fast-paced business world depends on our collective ability to collaborate and communicate effectively. However, you need to replace the traditional channels of collaboration (e.g., an overload of meetings) with the right mix of priorities and technology.
By design, most workplaces are fragmented into isolated business functions. These silos are even more pronounced in today's remote-first world—and agencies aren’t untouched by it.
Cross-functional collaboration allows you to share important resources, contribute to each other's success, and solve even the most pressing business problems.
For collaboration to work as a proxy for improved productivity, you need a thorough plan and the right attitude from all stakeholders.
Think of it as a tool—use collaboration to identify the different areas of the project that need more teamwork than others. For instance, include specific guidelines on who is accountable for what stage of the process and merge different processes into one if it helps you to get on the same page as others.
Let's say client onboarding is taking a beating in your agency lately. Your account managers have onboarded a client account and they assume that they have successfully handed them over to the implementation team—while the latter is at loggerheads with you on who owns the next step.
In such a scenario, a well-defined collaborative workflow can help you clarify that onboarding formally belongs to the account managers while the implementation and/or consulting can work in tandem to make the client transition more seamless.
Collaboration is the binding agent that brings agency teams together and helps them rally for a common cause. Use it to fuel innovation, increase productivity, and push the envelope on growing your agency.
5. Coach for agile teams
When you’re hired as a consultant, you probably work alongside account managers and/or implementation experts who might not be as suave as you when it comes to working with clients.
In an agency setup, the consulting position comes with a high degree of respect as well as responsibilities to coach junior team members in your wise ways. But coaching is a tough job, especially when you are buried knee-deep in multiple client requirements. After all, we are talking about improving productivity here—not adding more chores to your already hectic routine.
And yet, coaching your less experienced team member is a productivity trick that pays off in the long run.
Consulting is not a one-time rodeo—it’s a gift that keeps giving in the form of client referrals, contract renewals, or account expansions. Therefore, when you coach people around you to follow an agile framework of managing projects—you are essentially improving the average productivity of the entire team including yours.
Once again, here’s Mandy offering her advice on how best to coach junior reps or account managers:
The number one thing is to just always be as empathetic. Be a good listener and mirror things back and to ensure that there's understanding. Many people don't want to clarify, but clarity is everything. Make sure the other person feels heard and understood—and they have more confidence.
Historically, coaching demanded an in-person, 1:1 session where a senior team member would deliver a sermon on solution implementation best practices or how to interface with clients in difficult situations.
The same arraignment applied to feedback and review sessions—which was a huge commitment on everyone’s part because you both had to show up at the same time in the same room.
The recent advancements in the field of conversation intelligence allow us to leave all of that behind. It has made coaching agile, giving you the ability to coach people, share specific feedback, and collaborate more effectively—all in an asynchronous manner.
For instance, every person learns differently. A more seasoned account manager might not need as thorough or hands-on coaching as a newbie account manager. The latter might want more concrete and quality feedback that leaves no room for ambiguity.
Productivity begins with your mindset
Productivity is an ever-evolving organism which is why you need systems and processes that will scale with the increasing complexity of your projects. Also, most professionals think of productivity in the context of their own efficiency—which is wrong.
No man is an island and we need to start thinking about how to collectively become better at managing group meetings, improve asynchronous communication, and affect behavioral changes across the board.
In that sense, you have to look at productivity as a mindset—an intention to do better with your available time so that you can enjoy all meaningful things in life.
Of course, a tool is a vehicle for productivity—but you need to choose a horizontal solution that lets every team become collectively more productive and sets a culture of collaboration.