Explaining What Performance Consulting is to Clients

When I was initially starting out as a performance consultant, clients used to ask what that title meant—what is a performance consultant? And I’d stumble into a definition of what human performance improvement is and what distinguishes it from other approaches only to discover that after about the second sentence my client’s eyes had usually glazed over. Typically we, as performance consultants do a lousy job trying to explain to clients what it is we do and why it works. And the biggest reason why this happens repeatedly is that we fail to see (or hear) things from a client’s perspective.

An accurate definition of HPT or HPI may be fine and good but frankly, most clients don’t care about the academics or the theory. Their focus is more likely to be on: “what can you do for me?” Now if a client wants to know how my approach differs from that of someone in another field, I’m more than happy to provide a performance consulting model or explain particular aspects of the process. But now, when talking with clients, my explanation usually is about the payoff to the clients—the business result. Most of the time I tell clients (especially executives) that I’m a “business consultant.” Because, frankly, the process I use (performance consulting) is of secondary interest to my clients—what they want are results.

The audio-logo (mentioned previously in this blog) is a good technique to explain to clients what performance consulting is or to provide a way to help them get their hands around it. It’s particularly good at providing an example of performance consulting at work (for more information on audio-logo’s see our blog archives). But I find that in most cases, it is just a distraction to try and explain what HPI is or what the process is like (unless the client is hungry for those details—and some are). Instead, the focus on business results or fixing the problem seems to work the best from my experience.

Think of it this way: if a client asked you to provide training, it would be overkill to go into an explanation of the ADDIE model or the rationale for using multiple colored markers on each flipchart. Yet as performance consultants we often feel like we have to explain the theory behind the approach. I’ve concluded that unless the client asks for explanation or differentiation, I’m a “business consultant” who helps them improve performance.

2 Replies to “Explaining What Performance Consulting is to Clients”

  1. I’ve never thought of defining performance consulting as business consulting, but it makes sense because at the beginning and end of the project, the results is defined and measured by the business goal.

    May I ask, how did you get started in the field of performance consulting? I have a Masters in Instructional Systems Technology, and my job title is instructional designer/developer, but I prefer looking at the greater performance approach, for which training may be used to help solve a problem. What is a good way to get started as a performance consultant?

  2. John–very good questions. The truth is that I backed into performance work. At some point I may post on this blog the story of my first big “a-ha” moment where I got that, gee, sometimes training won’t fix the problem–it’s due to some other issue (than knowledge or skill). So I wish I could tell you there was some great plan or intention or path for me but instead it was purely accidental.

    As for how to get started? I think there are several points or answers to your question about “how to get started.” One can always seek positions with companies that either offer HPI/HPT-related positions or work that has enough flexibility where it’s about solving the problem rather than staying within the boundaries. But even that isn’t enough because I have friends who have performance consulting positions who still end up doing mostly training work. Because part of the issue is that clients (whether you’re an internal practitioner or an external consultant) still tend to think of training (or if they’re really stretching their thinking–some OD interventions) as the solution to every problem. So a big part is in educating clients.

    But ultimately, I don’t think it’s about trying to “sell” performance. Rather, the more we get clients to focus on business results and outcomes and organizational priorities, the easier it is to do this work. A client may come to you seeking training but if you can gently (through questions–Dana Gaines Robinson has been especially eloquent on this) migrate the conversation to big picture priorities and targets, the focus tends to become “here’s where we want to end up–so how do we get there?” versus “when can you get this training for me?”

    There’s a lot more really to answer your question John because it also gets into things like preparing yourself professionally, being proactive, picking your first project and some other topics that I promise to cover in this blog as well. In the meantime, I hope you have a great holiday season and thanks for responding to the blog!

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