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Security consulting and the value of good people skills

Get tips from a successful security consultant on how to deal with problem customers and maintain a professional, respectful attitude. Your future income could depend on it.

Most everyone in the consulting game has seen a deal go badly at some point. The customer gets mad, the consultant or sales representative becomes unprofessional, someone yells and the deal is broken for all the wrong reasons. It's one thing for your proposal or RFP to be rejected for price; it's another for you to lose work because of poor consulting skills. Relationships mean more for recurring business than any other factor. Many security consultancies get over 50% of their business from follow-up work with their existing customer base. Follow-up business is easier to win, has a lower sales cost and usually means a contract vehicle is in place to ease the administrative burden of new business. All of this means that the soft skills of human relationships have a big impact on the security consulting business.

You may say this is obvious, but I have seen it happen repeatedly. The lack of a consultative approach to customer relationships can get in the way of business. What consultants fail to understand is that the customer sets the tone and establishes the subtle, unspoken rules of communication. A good consultant goes into a meeting or a conference call, and picks up on the customer's communication style and nuances. All people -- and customers -- communicate differently. Some have a formal approach to dealing with consultants, some see them as peers, and some even see themselves as subordinates.

Every member of your team who interfaces with the customer should have good people skills. In a typical engagement life cycle, a lead is discovered by a sales representative, who in turn contacts a senior member of the security consultancy to help derive the details of a potential engagement. The sales representative should warn colleagues of any type A, aggressive or strange behavior they noticed during the initial meeting with the customer. This will prepare the consultant for the follow-up meeting. It's imperative that the representative from the consultancy -- a manager or senior consultant -- approaches the meeting with absolute professionalism and formality. You cannot go wrong with that initial approach.

I've seen consultants' informal and lackadaisical behavior offend potential customers. Always begin a relationship as a professional trying to earn the customer's trust and respect, regardless of their attitude toward you. First impressions are key to either establishing a durable relationship that will result in return business or destroying a relationship from the start. As the relationship matures it can become more informal, but never confuse informality with a lack of professionalism. Professionalism means you maintain a focus on the business of the customer and never forget that you work for them. If the customer enjoys an informal relationship that is fine, but never lose your professionalism -- even if they do.

I once answered an RFP, attended a bidder's conference and responded to hundreds of emails from a purchasing officer at a large financial organization. My colleagues were amazed at the level of reassurance and handholding the guy wanted. He always acted angry and always complained. I answered the same question fifty times in fifty different ways. I was quick to respond and reassured him that it was no problem at all, and even politely encouraged him to ask me any questions he wanted. He was very informal and even rude sometimes, but I remained professional and formal in my dealings with him. I filled in the lines for him to set up an RFP that we won. I got every piece of information security consulting business the company outsourced from that point on. He knew I understood that I worked for him, and it was important to him for me to show that. Because I read the guy right, he sent his money to me.

Being able to show value in your technical efforts and deliverables is key to success, but in consulting the human touch is almost as important. I have thrown consultants out of my office for their lack of professionalism. I have seen lots of sales representatives and consulting managers lose work because they failed to pick up on the unspoken communications the customer was sending out. Let the customer establish the tone of the relationship and always remain professional, because in the end, they are the customer and you are just a service provider.


About the author
Adam Rice is a Manager at VeriSign's Global Security Consulting. VeriSign's Global Security Consulting Services help Fortune 500 companies understand corporate security requirements, navigate the maze of diverse regulations, identify security vulnerabilities, defend against and respond to attacks, reduce risk, and meet the security compliance requirements of your business and industry. Adam has authored several white papers and technical articles on security professional services and emerging threats to the Internet community. He has an extensive background working in security professional services product development and business delivery.

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