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  • Kevin K

What Consultants and Researchers Can Teach Each Other

I have a lot of smart friends in consulting and finance. I have even more friends in data science, market research, and analytics. So which am I? More often than not, I feel like the guy on the right – and not just because I’m a lightweight at the bar.

Why, you ask? I could say it’s because I love data. (I do.) I could say it’s because I love the delight people feel when they suddenly grasp a new idea or complicated concept. (Also true.) But if I’m honest, the real reason is because I just don’t trust the person on the left – even though most people probably do. I’m just not the guy who wins Senate elections using football metaphors…

Convergence of Strategy and Data

Fortunately for me and other data-geeks, the world is moving toward a convergence of data and consulting – toward something called “data-driven strategy”. It’s a long term trend that started over a decade ago and is still growing.

Even top tier consulting practices are now focusing heavily on data-first strategies (or at least positioning themselves as such). If you work with consulting shops and data science teams, you’ve probably seen flow charts like those below, and you’ve been wondering… How are those really different? Seriously, if you swapped out one chart for the other, most people in a typical strategy meeting would hardly notice the difference.

If you were wondering whether the world had taken notice, you might be surprised (pleased?) to learn that it has. This is already reflected in salaries, particularly at the starting level.

However, this starts to change as employees move up through the ranks. Senior market researchers make an average of $90k or so, with managers and directors stretching toward $150k and up at top firms. Data scientists do quite well (particularly at top tech companies), frequently taking in salaries well above the $135k that Glassdoor presents as the average salary at 15 years of experience. $200k and more is not uncommon, particularly for data scientists with coding chops. Yet management consultants who make partner can easily take in over $500k to $1M a year or more (counting bonuses).

So, does that mean we all need to start acting like Tyrion Lannister to compete at that level? No, but we could probably benefit from emulating certain things that Tyrion does very well. Here is my list of the top 3 that I am currently working on for my own personal growth.

1) Focus on the Story

You can have the best data in the world. You could have results that scream an outcome, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t use it to tell a story. We’ve all heard this before, but it’s easy to forget. It’s especially easy to forget that people who aren’t familiar with our data and methods lack the history and understanding to put it in context. What’s obvious to us can be a riddle to others, and not the kind that is fun to solve. The outcome is that people dismiss what seems complex and trust what seems simple even if they know it oversimplifies reality – a cognitive heuristic called Availability Bias.

Stories help us frame data in ways that people understand and remember. Early in my career, I dismissed people who didn’t want to put in the effort to understand the data in-depth (but wait, there’s more!). It took me several years to learn that my client’s failure to understand complex data was actually my failure to explain it.

2) Question Yourself... and Your Clients

We are all subject to Confirmation Bias – the tendency to believe things that we want to believe or that we expect to see. It’s everywhere… business, politics, science, economics. Moreover, our clients and partners are just as vulnerable to it as we are. My friends joke that most research and consulting are designed to confirm what the client already wants to hear, which makes it even more critical to genuinely challenge the status quo.

Questioning the status quo doesn’t come without risk, but that’s half of the value that real consultants bring to a project. Clients may get frustrated or even angry at times, but if the data tells a story then ignoring that story always backfires in the long run. With that said, it’s important to challenge the status quo in a way that elevates the client and opens up new opportunities rather than just shutting down their hopes and dreams. That brings me to my third item.

3) Sales Isn’t a Dirty Word

When I grew up, my family and friends had very strong opinions about salespeople, and those opinions weren’t good. From this, I absorbed the idea that one should never take money from family and friends. This proved a challenge for me as a consultant because I tend to quickly make friends with people I like and trust, and always felt guilty selling to them. In fact, many of my friends who are clients have called me out on this, and told me that they want me to sell them the products and services we offer.

I’ve had the benefit of working with several excellent and high-integrity salespeople over the years, but I still have to remind myself to stop thinking about sales as something dirty, and to instead think about sales as helping clients and friends achieve their goals. It helps that I know that I always over-deliver, but here’s the key question I ask myself to make sure I’m doing the right thing: “If I were the client, would I pay for my own technology and services?” If the answer is no, then I simply don’t offer a sale – I’m happy just to have a great conversation and offer any advice and support that I can. If the answer is yes, then I know I can safely turn off my guilt and focus on building a great relationship.

So those are my lessons from Tyrion Lannister on how to be a better consultant and researcher for to my clients – someone who creates real strategic value. What are your tips and lessons? Let me know in the comments below.


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