Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

Laura Weiss | Essays

Better Service Through Consultmanship

Abraham van Strij, Interior of a Tavern, 1825. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature story on how short skits are being used to train medical school students to be better doctors. The national “Standardized Patient Program” has been around for about a decade and employs real actors who answer casting calls to perform the role of patients with a specific set of ailments, lifestyle and medical history. By interacting with these live personas in 15-minute vignettes, med students learn how to ask questions that will yield an accurate diagnosis, deal with a range of behavioral quirks, or show compassion while delivering difficult news. It’s entirely scripted to enable standardized performance reviews by not only the faculty but also the actor/patients themselves. I doubt there’s anyone reading this who would not wish their next doctor visit to be with someone trained in this manner.

As consumers of all kinds of services, each of us innately wishes to be served well. Yet in performing our own day jobs we’re often lacking a service mentality. We don’t have to work in “sales” to heed its importance. Great service is the key to most successful organizations, because it’s not limited to customer facing job functions. Any role that requires engagement with other human beings can benefit from sensitivity to good service — communicating clearly, keeping projects on schedule, providing appropriate feedback, etc. And yet such capabilities are colloquially characterized in MBA programs as “soft skills,” considered as secondary in importance to the muscularity of economics, strategy and finance. Similarly, in design education, coursework categorized under “professional practice” is inferior to the sexiness of studio design, history and theory.

When I was on staff at a well-known design consultancy, the concept of client service — how we delivered the design and innovation services we offered — was not given much attention despite being at the core of the firm’s business model (most revenue is generated by client fees). A colleague and I, both in leadership positions at the time, decided we’d experiment with teaching our team to be better consultants, not just great designers. We developed a collaborative workshop focused on diagnosing and managing sticky client situations that were inspired by our own experiences. Instead of actors we used ourselves, and adapted our own practice of experiential prototyping to recreate and act out the dialogues contained within actual email, phone call and meeting scenarios. We called it “consultmanship,” and the name in all its wonkiness sort of stuck. After a few rounds of refinement with other members of our staff, it was integrated into company-wide project leadership training, and became the highest rated class the first time it was offered. It was clear that practitioners, not just clients, were hungry for more satisfying service interactions.

I’ve introduced the same curriculum to my team at the Taproot Foundation where we work with corporate social responsibility leaders to build their pro bono programs. At least biannually our Advisory Services practice engages in an interactive exploration of classic consulting challenges through reenactments of a range of client-consultant scenarios — defining the problem to be solved, addressing the challenge of timely decision-making or managing an unexpected expansion of project scope, for example. These sessions enable institutional learning and strengthen our ability to deliver better services. More recently, we’ve applied the same technique to our talent development program, as well, to help our next generation of leaders build effective management skills through experiential learning.

As business and design professionals alike continue to apply their specialized skills in increasingly broader contexts, within both the private and social sectors, they should always be aware that the industry language, tools and approaches they bring with them are often not enough. Good bedside manner, dare I say consultmanship, can help make these experiences more satisfying, more sustainable and ultimately more impactful for everyone involved.

Posted in: Business

Comments [4]

Very good.
I wonder however how much of a good "Bedside manner" can actually be taught? For the most part it seems to be something that is quite unique to an individual.

I have often seen doctors attempt to appear to be interested when their attention is elsewhere. Maybe another model would be a store clerk or bank teller. Where the "Service Provider" operates in a purely reactive role. Responding to every single point that the Client is making.
After all the Client is always right.

If you haven't learned all you need to know to actually give a darn about other people by the tie you are five, don't have high hopes to genuinely master the skill in your life time.
Russell McGorman

With respect, I disagree with the two prior commenters, whose remarks suggest that they think the soft skills of customer care cannot be taught.

I'm a creative and an introvert for whom strong people skills did not come naturally, but I learned them the hard way, through practice, observation and reading, with some good coaching (but not much, I'm afraid). I spent more than 25 years in sales with what most people would say was great success in serving customers.

My point is that I emphatically believe these skills can be taught or at least enhanced, though maybe not in everyone. I think Ms. Weiss makes great points that I wish more business owners and managers would follow.

Dave V

What I know, as a one on the receiving end of consultant services, is that the truism that a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time is true more often than not.
Russell McGorman

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