Elements of Consulting Style

The 4 types of clients and how to serve them

There is a saying in sales that customers buy only two things: happiness and solutions to problems. As an indie consultant, you’re very unlikely to be selling happiness (outside of certain types of speaking gigs where you might be the featured entertainment). Whatever the content of your services, whether it is corporate strategy, web design, M&A technical due diligence, survey design, market research, or copywriting, you are almost certainly selling solutions to problems.

And the problems external consultants solve always fall into two basic buckets: insufficient systematic confidence, and insufficient systematic doubt. If a problem does not fall into one of these two buckets, typically it will be solved by an employee, contractor, or a b2b product/service. Any consultants present will be seen as parasitic leeches to be exterminated rather than utilized more. A part of the problem rather than the solution.

Each of these two classes of problems can exist at two loci relative to the client: in their outer world or in their inner world. That gives us 4 basic types of clients (both individuals and organizations), and 4 kinds of consultant they typically hire, as shown in this 2x2. Take a look, tag yourself, and let’s unpack this.

The Four Types (Individual)

As a consultant, your identity and style are derived from your client’s identity and style: your persona is a shadow persona. So the four types of clients induce four different basic shadow identities and styles of consulting. Of course, no client is a pure or constant example of a single type, so no consultant is a pure or constant example of a single type of shadow.

  1. The Explorer is a client who wants to build capacity for systematic doubt at an outer-world locus. They do this by constantly considering possibilities, alternative perspectives, and “refactorings” of world views. They tend to hire a sparring partner type of consultant who can constantly stress test their thinking and actions, and undermine their assumptions from unexpected new directions.

  2. The Achiever is a client who wants to build systematic confidence at an outer-world locus. They typically hire consultants who take on roles as teachers or coaches, helping them develop specific functional capabilities and skills, such as public speaking, survey methodology, being more productive, architecting databases, running kickstarter campaigns, applying for government grants, or sourcing things from China.

  3. The Integrator is a client who wants to build systematic confidence at an inner-world locus. Whether or not they choose to explicitly acknowledge it, they look for an element of therapy or life coaching in their relationships with consultants they hire. Whatever the nominal subject — better relationships at work, faster time to market, improved sales conversions — the actual focus for the Integrator client is always building a better integrated psyche.

  4. The Tester is a client who wants to build systematic doubt at an inner-world locus. They do this by constantly testing their thinking, questioning their assumptions about themselves, and introspecting on their actions. Don’t mistake all the testing for an empiricist or exploratory orientation though. The Tester is primarily looking for meaning in a philosophical sense. The ambiguities and uncertainties they are probing are primarily within them. Their experiential experiments are about discovering themselves.

I estimate — and this is a pure guess based on anecdotal evidence and notes swapped with fellow consultants — that about half the demand for consulting services is from Integrators. The smallest market is Explorers. Achiever and Tester markets are in between. This is my read on individual demand (whether personal or situated within an organization).

The Four Types (Organizational)

The four types can also be used to anthropomorphically characterize organizational personalities in relation to the types of independent consultants they like to hire (large consulting firms serve a different kind of need, with a broader footprint, that doesn’t map well here).

This organizational personality is often, but not always, an extension of the personality of founders or powerful senior leaders (who may be long dead or retired).

  1. The Explorer Organization tends to be future-oriented, and is likely to have people or departments devoted to activities such as scenario planning, futures, and market modeling (often called “strategy operations”). Explorer organizations hungrily consume forecasts and trend information, as well as historical analyses and industry reports. They believe they are curious organizations.

  2. The Achiever Organization tends to be capabilities-focused, and is likely to have a well-developed and staffed training organization running various sorts of structured training and coaching programs for all employees right up to executive level. Achiever organizations love building out corporate habits-and-processes infrastructure ranging from Lean Six Sigma for everybody to media/PR training for senior executives. They believe they are winning organizations.

  3. The Integrator Organization tends to be employee mental-health and “culture” focused. They love things like employee engagement programs, well-being initiatives, and diversity and inclusion programs. You will find a strong culture of listening habits inside such organizations: town-halls, manager-employee 1:1s, and effective communication training. They believe they are compassionate organizations.

  4. The Tester Organization is a relatively new type, since it is not exactly easy for organizations (as opposed to individual employees) to be “philosophical.” Typically, in a Tester organization, you will find what Nassim Taleb calls a barbell organizational strategy: a strong focus on metaphysical values and manifestos one end, paired with a strong focus on data-driven skepticism and interrogation on the other. There is low patience for high-concept “middleware” between those two extremes. Within tester organizations, you will find habits of challenging and interrogating claims and data, strong belief in instrumentation and monitoring of operations, and a non-ironic, non-theater continuous dialogue around foundational values and principles. There will often be a culture of ritual adversarial thinking within. They believe they are rational organizations.

Of course, depending on how much they are actually winning or losing, the organizational self images may be more or less deluded in different ways. That’s where people like us come in, and where management jokes are born, but that’s a story for another day.

The market sizes represented by these 4 kinds of organizations for consulting services are hard to determine. I suspect, in terms of sheer population size, Achiever organizations are the most common. I’d guess as high as 70%, followed by Integrator, Explorer, and Tester organizations. At some point I might try to research this question.

The raw population statistics however, are misleading, since the actual market size needs to be weighted by:

  1. The relative sizes of the organizations (revenue/market cap for private sector, operating budgets in the case of government/non-profit)

  2. Profitability, which determines the discretionary funding available for hiring consulting support

  3. Sectoral culture around hiring external consulting support versus relying on building out internal resources and capabilities.

For example, even though the Tester type organization is probably the rarest, the big tech companies are almost all Tester, tend to have tons of discretionary cash, but are almost always systematically averse to using that money to hire consultants (which makes getting hired by one of them a bit of a coup), relative to old economy organizations. They all love contractors though.

At the other extreme, individual government agencies at any level usually have very little discretionary money, but due to sheer scale there’s a lot in aggregate. But you have to run through layers of bureaucratic defenses and processes to get at any of it. To the point that there are meta-consultants who specialize in teaching small businesses and other consultants how to sell to the government.

Your Consulting Style

To determine your consulting style, ask yourself what is the easiest kind of deal for you to close, ideally via inbound leads. Do you find it easiest to convince an HR person to sponsor a training workshop on a particular skill, or do individual senior executives tend to reach out to you for a particular personalized need based on your blog posts?

I personally operate almost entirely in the top right quadrant, and almost entirely serving individual senior executives who reach out to me, rather than their organizations.

The organizations I have worked with so far have been a more mixed bag. I’ve worked with organizations of each of the four types.

The reason for the difference is subtle and worth understanding even if you typically serve one of the other quadrants. In general, the higher up in the organization your primary individual client or internal champion, the more their individual personality will override the organization’s personality. An Explorer type middle-manager in an HR department within an overall Achiever organization is unlikely to have the influence to find the budget to hire you for a scenarios-and-futures workshop. But an Explorer type Senior VP can pull it off, even if it goes against the organizational grain.

Also note a subtlety: outside and inside are relative. An “outer world” problem for an executive can be an “inner world” problem for the organization, and how you operate depends on the role you’ve been cast into in the drama: working for the organization as a whole, or for the organization as seen from the perspective of a particular executive.

So if you find it easiest to sell to middle managers, then your style is determined by the typical organization type you sell into, and the individuals you end up working with will be a mixed bag.

If you find it easiest to sell to senior executives or individual clients, then your style is determined by the specific individuals who tend to hire you, and the organizations you work with will be a mixed bag.

Take a shot at plotting yourself along both dimensions of the 2x2. Here’s my self-assessment.

  • Along the confidence/doubt dimension, I’m so bad at serving people and organizations looking for systematic confidence, if I could reliably detect them up front, I’d run away every time.

  • Along the inner/outer dimension, I’m generally better at outer-world locus consulting than inner-world. It’s not that I’m uninterested in others’ inner lives; I’m just uninterested/ill-equipped to help with the doubt/confidence dimension of inner life, which is where most people need the help.

Note that the same person or organization may have needs (and the money to pay for support in) all four quadrants. When I started eight years ago I was surprised by the percentage of clients who also hired people in other quadrants besides me. Now I expect it. Some spend thousands of dollars a month on an entire support suite. Relying on external consulting support is an operational orientation.

That said, the client’s personality generally favors one or the other of the quadrants, especially for individuals.

Classifying Your Client

How can you tell which kind of potential client you are looking at? Here’s a handy set of tells that work both at individual and organizational levels, mutatis mutandis:

  1. The tell of the Explorer in Need is a sense of staleness and being in a rut evident in ways of talking, distractibility, and arbitrary pursuit of Next Shiny New Things. The situation need a dose of freshness and a shake-up of perspectives, and they know it, but don’t quite know how to address it.

  2. The tell of the Achiever in Need is energy being dissipated “random acts of X” where they are thrashing and improvising behaviors in an area where skilled and disciplined behavioral precedents exist. Marketing is particularly full of “random acts of marketing” clients.

  3. The tell of the Integrator in Need is endemic mental health issues across activities. There is too much anxiety. There are communication problems everywhere. Relationships are fraying and falling apart all over the places. Morale is plummeting.

  4. The tell of the Tester in Need is toxic arguments that go nowhere, disagreements over facts and data that get weaponized along lines of control, big ego conflicts, and ideological battles. Behaviors are driven more by the need to feed ongoing beefs than accomplishing missions. In an organizational context, monitoring, instrumentation, and data governance are heavily politicized.

Notice something? In each case, you classify the organization by looking for a locus of either chaotic or dissipative energy expenditure in futile ways. That futility is your opportunity.

An important point to keep in mind, incidentally, is that both individuals and organizations can have two polar opposite reasons for hiring a consultant: to build on a strength, or to mitigate a weakness. And it might surprise you to hear this, but it is vastly more common for both individuals and organizations to be driven by a growth motivation (working on strengths) in retaining consulting support.

It usually takes a crisis situation to drive an individual or organization to seek external help for a weakness. The “crisis gig” economy is a whole distinct economy in its own right.

In each of the four cases, and whether the motive is growth-oriented or deficiency-oriented, the way the consultant addresses both the symptoms and root causes is by injecting a much-needed dose of disinterested systematicity in the right place.

I’ll cover that concept in a future post.

Previously on The Art of Gig

May 15: Making it interesting: Pricing for interestingness (subscribers only).

May 8: Always Be Strategizing: Every gig is a strategy gig (subscribers only).

May 2: The Shadow’s Journey: Every consultant has an origin story (subscribers only).

April 30: 42 Great Imperatives: The one true doctrine for all indie consultants (public)