Every Consulting Firm Needs a Discovery Service

It has become an all too common story; a company hires a consulting firm to help them with a specific problem and winds up spending a lot of money without any real solution. 

In a recent UK study, more than 50% of consulting-firm clients have the feeling that the value they receive in return for their payment doesn't match up (says this Harvard article).

Unfortunately, this happens because many consulting firms rely on the outdated "trial and error" method to solve problems for their clients. 

Let me be straightforward with you. I would never again start an important consulting project with a new client with such a ‘trial and error’ mindset. 

Just like an operator wouldn’t order spare parts for a broken manufacturing machine without a full diagnostic, a consulting firm will only quote costs on a large-scale project with a proper discovery.

And to avoid ‘hit and miss’, I’ve learned to leverage the incredible power of an upfront discovery or diagnosis approach, fully paid. 

What is upfront discovery or diagnosis in consulting?

In today's business climate and complexity, more and more companies seem to turn to consultancy expertise to get an edge on the competition. Depending on the source: all major consulting firms are growing between 10 and 20%. Amazing. 

I am currently working with a few high-tech consulting firms to develop an upfront discovery service. This service will help their client companies assess their needs and objectives, gaps, and roadblocks and identify potential areas of improvement in the context of the issues they are dealing with. 

I’ve been iterating many times already, but here’s my current definition: 

An upfront discovery process in consulting is a systematized method of gathering pertinent information on the client’s pressing business problem, analyzing gaps and roadblocks with the goal of developing an improvement roadmap that will guide the client achieve the desired business outcomes. 

The deliverable of such an upfront discovery is an IMPROVEMENT ROADMAP. 

Below is a picture of my colleague and myself - several years ago - with a printed (!) improvement roadmap (150k discovery project). 

improvement roadmap

The advantages of discovery: the consulting perspective

There are many advantages to the discovery service for consultancies:

  • Deep understanding: It is crucial to understand the business’s motives, vision, challenges, specific roadblocks, and historical data to grasp the AS/IS of the client fully. The discovery will provide an intimate look into the client’s company and the pressing problem that must be solved. 

  • Consistency: It allows systematization of the consulting work: almost every new project starts with the same first step – discovery. This creates consistency, high repeatability of analysis, little variability in data sources, and high predictability of outcomes (the roadmap structure and content).

  • Investment: It guarantees baseline financial commitment: irrespective of the long-term commitment of your client to your services, the discovery service provides the bare minimum that you can expect from a client in terms of fees.

  • Knowledge: The more discovery projects, the more patterns will be identified, the more precise the roadmap components, and the fewer ‘hits and misses’ or ‘trial and error’ in the ultimate problem resolution proposal. As I always say: repeatability is the foundation for expertise. 

The advantages of discovery: the client’s perspective

From the clients’ perspective, there is one giant reason to start working with a consultancy through a discovery process: the unique information they get on their business, the expert assessment of gaps, and the recommendations that specifically target their pain points and business outcomes. This expert information is of incredible value. 

If you’d ask me: it’s the most inviting format for the client to get ‘expertise in a box’, reduce risk, avoid trial and error, increase decision-making quality and delivery speed, understand the scope and timing, outline their precise involvement and seize the final output/delivery they will receive. 

The entire process, that's what I have experienced, becomes far more open and honest, and encourages greater collaboration and trust.

Sounds like a stroke of genius, not?

Recommended reading: The Productization Dilemma in Consulting

A 4-step model for consultants

Here’s the 4-step process I’ve been using myself and teaching my clients. I’ve discovered that it has broad applicability. It works for smaller, 50k projects and projects of €500k or even >1M in scope. 

It’s a unique way of conducting consulting projects and remaining in the driver's seat all the time. Believe me, you can successfully apply it to almost any consulting project. Yes, any.

  • Step 1: Perform an upfront discovery, diagnosis, or audit
  • Step 2: Develop an improvement roadmap 
  • Step 3: Develop the ultimate project plan
  • Step 4: Provide implementation guidance (advisory retainer)

I will go through each step individually.

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Step 1: Upfront discovery and/or diagnosis 

I’ve learned that most clients don’t understand their problem(s) or have difficulties explaining them accurately. The biggest win? You don’t write proposals. Never. You are not an order taker but an expert, an authority in your expertise domain.

Your diagnosis is your fixed-priced methodology to understand the client’s problem and is your stepping stone, your Trojan Horse to (hopefully) start a more significant project, engagement, or long-term client relationship. 

Clients commit to a precise and transparent project with a specific result in mind: understanding the outlook and specifics of their problem and receiving a roadmap (Step 2) for improvement.

Included in your diagnostic: every possible characteristic of the prototypical client pain you are specialized in. And all these characteristics are the input for your roadmap in Step 2.

Step 2: Roadmapping as the core deliverable

Your upfront discovery or diagnosis leads to Step 2, creating a so-called roadmap. It is your critical strategic process of determining the actions, chronological steps, and resources needed to solve the client’s problem.

Roadmapping is often falsely assumed as the act of designing a roadmap. Huh. And indeed, a vital output of the roadmapping process is a roadmap :-). 

However, creating such a roadmap requires a synthesis of all your knowledge and expertise. It determines all the significant components and the prioritization hierarchy to solve your client's problem. And most importantly, it also secures buy-in and support from executive stakeholders. 

On top, roadmapping supports structured visual narrative in workshops and beyond. I have had great collaboration experiences with it. 

Here are a couple of resources you can use to help with roadmapping:

  • The virtual collaboration tool Miro has a special section on roadmapping. You can use their roadmap templates to collaborate with your client. Enter the search term ‘roadmap’ in the Miro search bar.

  • Cambridge University has a department that provides roadmapping expertise and training! Great expertise!

Photo editor looking at multi colored sticky notes on glass in meeting room at creative office

Step 3: The ultimate project proposal

The risk of writing an inadequate proposal is always greater without an upfront discovery phase. If your final project goes without discovery, I am 90% sure it will cost more time and money to get started because there won't be enough information even to understand why certain decisions were made during the proposal preparation.

The proposal produced as a result of an upfront discovery project will be much more detailed and tailored than what would have been developed without. The client gave full access, allowing for an in-depth assessment of the pressing problem(s) they'd like to solve. 

A few important tips

  • The roadmap is the proposal: The discovery roadmap is your expert guide to developing the proposal (all the problem and resolution components are in the roadmap, right?).
  • Assessing the quality of your roadmap? Ask yourself this: can competitors steel this roadmap and start doing a flawless implementation with it? If yes, you've done an excellent job. 
  • Altitude of involvement? The depth of involvement of the consulting firm depends on the capacity to deliver. Big consulting firms with excess capacity, can go all the way and do both upstream (strategic) and downstream (implementation, execution) work. For small consulting firms, I'd recommend being careful with full roadmap implementation and staying as upstream as possible.
  • Roadmap ownership: Make sure the client owns the roadmap implementation. Of course, the consulting firm is there to guide and support the implementation, but the client remains accountable for the ultimate success. I've always guided my clients to become self-sufficient one day. Even if that feels counter-intuitive for a consulting firm, clients ultimately will need to move on and adopt the changes. 

Step 4: The long tail, your advisory retainer, the client’s ‘peace of mind’

Several of my current consulting clients are keen to sell advisory retainers after full project delivery.

The client is buying ‘peace of mind’ over a more extended period (e.g., 6 or 12 months) and pays ‘access to the consultancy’ to look over the shoulder of the client, giving guidance for further implementation and/or adoption.

‘Being available’ is the essential difference between ‘pay for access’ (upstream advisory retainer) versus ‘pay for work’ (downstream implementation work). Again, it depends on the size of the consulting firm (capacity to deliver) to choose between upstream (my favorite approach) or downstream project support. 

I’d always advise you to give the advisory retainer a basic structure, such as reviewing the roadmap monthly with the team or the C-person (preferably) in a (e.g., 90') workshop format.

By the way, even the big, famous management consulting firms (you know their names, right?) seem to offer more and more of these advisory retainers. They are 'staying close' to the CEO or other execs to give them transformation guidance and peace of mind. It seems to be a new trend and, of course, an excellent business development strategy. 

There’s much great content about advisory retainers. You can read the pros and cons, reasons, costs, payment, etc. Here’s a great article from Hubspot (my business software).

Two watch-outs I experienced with my clients.

  • C-level only: limit your contact to the C-level (or senior project owner), and avoid getting dragged into the implementation work by the implementation team (being in cc in 100’s of emails, help!). That’s why you’d better define the boundaries of your retainer (e.g., 1x workshop per month for roadmap review, C-level only, etc.).

  • Volume risk: selling advisory retainers is a great way to have predictable revenue, but you also have to be careful to oversell and run out of capacity suddenly with too many retainers.

Pricing your discovery consulting services

There are two ways to go about pricing your discovery/diagnostic service:

  • Fix fee: offering a standard, fixed fee that a client of any size needs to commit to paying. Although it's easier to sell, I'd never recommend fixed pricing. Why not? See next bullet point. But, if the projects have a similar size all the time (difficult to imagine, though), fixed pricing is more straightforward. 

  • Fee range:  offering a fee range (e.g., 30-80k for SMEs or 50-150K for Enterprises) depending on the size of the company you’re taking on as a client. The logic here is that the larger the company, the more potential stakeholders you’d have to involve in the discovery process. Remember, the pricing here is more flexible but the discovery process is set and non-negotiable. For the (big scale) 150k roadmap of the picture above, we did almost 30 interviews (much work, including the planning to get those busy people on the agenda).

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Examples of 3 discovery consulting services you can learn from

Having spoken to 200+ consultants, dozens of whom were my clients, there are several excellent examples of consultancies offering discovery-roadmap-advisory services that I’ve aggregated. Have a look.

Example 1: Salesforce post-M&A integration consultancy (boutique consultancy, experts in merging Salesforce after large-scale enterprise M&A):

  • Step 1: diagnosis (they call it 'an audit') of integration challenges, opportunities, duration estimation, and cost estimation
  • Step 2: a roadmap to integrate the two systems (mainly done by the client with expert guidance)
  • Step 3: client implements with the expert guidance of the consultants
  • Step 4: CIO gets personal guidance during 12 months (advisory retainer)
Example 2: CRM sales cycle improvements (midsized consultancy, experts in enterprise B2B sales process improvement):

  • Step 1: diagnosis of improvement opportunities (understanding the process of both marketing qualified leads and sales qualified leads)
  • Step 2: a roadmap to enhance the internal sales process, including the development of playbooks and a training program (delivered by consultants)
  • Step 3: the agreed roadmap gets implemented in co-creation with the internal team, mostly 70-80% of the workload is for the consulting firm
  • Step 4: CMO and CSO getting personal guidance during 12 months (with one workshop per month - follow-thru of the roadmap) and execution of training program (to help clients get self-sufficient)

Example 3: Retail demand forecasting improvements (midsized consulting firm, experts in automating supermarket demand forecasting using AI):

  • Step 1: a feasibility study to uncover demand forecast improvement opportunities, including initial opportunity-based cost estimations. 
  • Step 2: a roadmap to improve demand forecasting, much focus on the assessment of data availability and data quality
  • Step 3: implementation of a new demand forecast program in 2 phases (phase 1 by consultancy only, phase 2 in co-creation, including a training program for the CoE analytics with a self-sufficiency objective)
  • Step 4: 6-12 months of personal guidance for the demand forecasting leader

Other examples: I am currently working with 2 more consulting firms on their upfront discovery programs. I will keep you posted here and refer to it in my newsletter. 

A few tips and tricks

Standardizing your discovery service(s) is an important element of the consulting business approach that I advocate. Here are a few lessons I learned in my consulting work and what I am experiencing with my clients.

  • Focus 1: The narrower the focus and expertise of the consulting firm, the easier it is to build a discovery approach. For consultancies with a mix of practices and/or expertise domains, it can be a heck of a job as they will need to understand all the patterns of the prototypical pains of their multiple target audiences. It requires solid experience and training of the team, so think twice. I know a few 'multiple-audiences consultancies' that have developed discovery services but only for a limited number of strategic expertise domains (e.g., digital transformation). 

  • Visibility and trust: I cannot advise it enough. Keep sharing your discovery case studies as much and as broadly as possible, and allocate enough time for the writing and distribution. I've always experienced that prospects are impressed by a robust discovery approach and quickly start trusting the consulting firm's expertise.
  • Focus 2: Do not take on clients outside of your scope of the ideal client. Your deliverables (from the roadmap) will not match their expectations. Why? Because your components of the discovery and the roadmap MUST be of the highest possible standardization, and the only way to achieve that is by sticking to the same target audience (with similar problems).

  • UX: You must strive for a 5-star experience in how you execute the diagnostic (e.g., automated questionnaires, top-notch reporting, top interview style, and advanced data gathering). The high-end visual delivery of the roadmap (e.g., with the virtual roadmap tool Miro.com) will be a key reference point to build market trust. 

  • Agile: Start building a discovery service in small steps, carefully testing and validating your approach before going big.

  • Upstream: Beware of becoming the ‘order taker’ of the project leader, and make sure you stay away from getting in cc in team email streams. As the expert, you are the strategic advisor and provide ‘peace of mind’ for your C-level clients.
Recommended reading: To Succeed As A Consultancy, Get Rid Of The Scarcity Mindset

In conclusion

Offering discovery services as a standard business development approach is an excellent way to leverage your expertise as a consulting firm. 

Your clients will be happier and more relaxed, knowing exactly how to recommend your consultancy's discovery expertise to their network. 

Discovery and roadmap development are not about eliminating customization. It’s about leveraging deep expertise to categorize prospects’ pain points and needs. It’s about creating transparent expectations with your new clients and delivering a 5-star experience.

The discovery-based consulting model that I suggest will work for any consultancy, irrespective of the size or project scope. 

Good luck! 

Need support to build a discovery approach for your consulting firm? Feel free to book a call

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