Analysts talk, consultants listen

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I spent 20 years as an analyst at Forrester Research. Now I sell my insights to companies and prospective authors as a consultant. While analysts and consultants have a lot in common, their approaches are different.

The analyst focuses on talking over listening

This is based on my experience as an analyst, working with and competing with other other analysts, and serving corporate clients.

Here’s the crux of it:

If an analyst does not have an opinion, he or she does not exist.

The job of the analyst is to have an informed opinion about things that matter to the corporate client base. Should IT focus on supporting the organization or innovating? What should media companies do about streaming? Is social media best used for marketing or customer service? These are the types of questions on which the analyst must have an opinion.

The analyst focuses on developing that opinion and communicating it. Communicating the opinion happens in reports, in blog posts, and with the press. You give speeches and presentations, both in large settings and with small groups of clients. The clients ask questions and you answer them. I rapidly learned that the clients will expect you to know anything even peripherally connected with your areas of expertise. When I was a TV industry expert I got questions on hardware, regulation, court decisions, the future of advertising, streaming, the personalities of people running media companies . . . everything.

This sounds like there is a focus on talking over listening, and there is. But you can’t succeed as an an analyst without listening. Your opinions are based on research, some of which comes from interviewing clients and hearing their opinions and concerns. You answer clients’ inquiries one-on-one. But even as you’re listening, you’re thinking about the positions and analysis that you’ve developed. You are listening partly to find something new to say.

Analyst companies certainly need to serve clients, but the job of serving the client’s needs generally falls to sales and support staff. If the client needs help, these staffers listen, then find the appropriate analyst to address the problem. Taking care of individual clients is not the analyst’s job. This sounds callous, but it has benefits: it keeps the analyst’s opinion honest. If your opinion is that Microsoft is toast in a market, you don’t change that opinion just because Microsoft is a client and is unhappy with it.

The consultant focuses on listening over talking

Now that I am a consultant, I have clients, and helping those clients is my job. I’m also frequently communicate with people who are not clients, but might be — or might talk to others who are prospects.

This has caused a complete shift in my perspective.

I now find clients’ problems and challenges intriguing. You want to write a book? How fascinating. Please tell me more about it. You’re frustrated by the quality of writing in your company? What makes you say that? I talk a lot less and listen more.

It’s not fake, either. I really want to understand what issues people are facing. I have a lot more empathy, along with my intellectual curiosity. It’s not completely commercial, either; I’m often speaking with people who will never hire me. I still want to know how they think, because understanding how people think and write is what I do now.

A consultant won’t get very far without an opinion. The cliche is that “A consultant asks for your watch, then tells you the time.” But no one wants to hire someone without knowledge and a point of view. It’s the proportion that’s different. I’m much more interested in learning what I don’t know than in explaining what I do.

(That sounds a bit strange coming from somebody who blogs every day, but this feels more visible in my interactions with individual clients and prospects, which my readers mostly don’t get to see.)

Comparing two ways of looking at the world

The analyst sees the world and says “What insight can I find that no one else has seen?” This requires collecting a lot of information — listening. But the analyst must synthesize that research and analysis into a point of view and share it with everyone they possibly can. That means more focus on talking than listening.

The danger for the analyst is in arrogance — believing you are smarter than everyone else. A timid analyst never succeeds. But an arrogant analyst may succeed for a while, then come crashing down. Analysts need talking skills, but must work on listening as well.

The consultant sees people and says “How can I help?” This requires a lot of empathy. The success of the consultant depends on identifying the problem that a client has, then helping to solve it. That requires a focus more on listening than talking.

The danger for the consultant is in irrelevance — not knowing anything of value to clients. An arrogant consultant rarely succeeds. But an empathetic consultant may succeed for a while, then find their business waning as their knowledge and capabilities become obsolete. Consultants must work on developing content and insights along with the empathy — they must work on talking as well as listening.

It was heady being an analyst at the top of my game. It’s humbling being a consultant. But I now find that I enjoy listening and understanding people’s problems, especially when I can apply my insights and abilities to solving them. Being an analyst got me where I am today. But I like who I am better now.

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