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Essential coaching skills for SAP consultants - part one

This series addresses what you can do to boost your marketability as a SAP consultant.

It's no secret the world has changed for those of us who sailed through the ERP boom of the late 1990's. Basic...

skill sets commoditized and many companies who made the big investment a few years ago, are starting to throttle back their need for external help as their systems mature. Many argue that consultants and consultancies waiting for the "next ERP" are in for a long wait. So what can you do to boost your marketability?

This series addresses this question by spending some time on SAP software skills but also looking at skills we employ in the coaching profession which is, after all, a form of consulting. It's assumed you are proficient in an area of SAP, project management, change management or training, so I'll skip the basics. Instead we'll approach these skills both as a consultant and as a coach.

The Ninety-Niners

In 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold while building a sawmill in California. Workers were told to keep news of the gold a secret, but word quickly leaked out. By 1849 about $10 million in gold was mined mostly by people from other walks of life determined to claim their share of the lode. Wherever a gold strike was made, hundreds of miners would gather to stake their claims and build a camp.

With names like Whiskey Bar, Jackass Gulch, Poker Flat, or Flapjack Canyon, each camp had its own saloon and gambling house. Many miners' free time was devoted to drinking and gambling. Prices soared in the boom economy. Some frontier mining settlements would rise quickly and then disappear when the gold ran out. Others became established communities. By 1851, most of the mining was taken up by large mining companies. Many of the Forty-Niners returned to the occupations they held before they went in search of gold.

This dramatic four-year period holds striking parallels to the late 1990s when the SAP rush was in full swing. People left their chosen profession to become consultants. They left their families behind (at least during the week) to live in makeshift communities (called Marriotts and Hiltons). Some remained wildcatters, willing to give up relative security for the life of a freelance SAP mercenary. The rewards were outstanding, the work plentiful.

Beginning in 2001, just like the mother Lode, work became scarcer. Newly minted consultants who eschewed their old positions wondered if they had made a wise move. Industrial-strength consulting firms like Accenture and IBM took the lion's share of the business as smaller firms struggled to survive or disappeared altogether.

So where does this leave the Ninety-Niners? Like many of the forty-niners, some will go back to their old jobs, but many will choose to stay. In this series, we'll look at what have become essential skills for any consultant. For the Ninety-Niners who were thrown into the deep end of SAP consulting, these skills for which you received little or no training. And while we can't exhaustively cover them in great detail, I will touch on four skills that are most important and with some practice, relatively easy to learn.

They are:

1. Listening

FACT:Active, intent listening gains you instant credibility and helps clients make quicker, better decisions.

Contextual listening
Truth saying
The Three "S" model: Symptoms, Source, Solution

2. Questioning

FACT: Knowing the right questions to ask and how to ask them gets you beyond simple system requirements and into the real business issues.

Six common question qualities: Succinct, Transparent, Non-judgmental
Intentional, Directive, Grouping
Questioning versus interrogating
Questions that spur your client to act: Listen, Learn, Empower, Recap, Action

3. Empowering

FACT: Everyone knows you need an empowered project team for a successful project, but they rarely are. You can play a key role in empowering your client which leads to more trust and more business.

Empowering your client to get better results from their SAP implementation
Removing client barriers
Enrolling in client's vision

4. Advising

FACT: You're paid to offer advice – that's what consultants do. But offering advice or expertise isn't worth much if the client doesn't take it. Learning a few simple techniques can make the difference between frustration and becoming a trusted advisor.

Advising success formulas:e.g. Value-added + Relationship = Expanded Business
Informational advising
Personal experience advising
Segues (no, not the two-wheel scooters)


I'm convinced, and evidence supports me, that listening is the most fundamental, most effective and least developed skill we have. We think we're listening when in fact we're often using the time others are speaking simply to decide what we'll say next. In this introduction we'll look at six aspects of active listening: Contextual listening, Reflecting, Paraphrasing, Truth saying and the Three "S" model: Symptoms, Source, Solution

Contextual Listening

Contextual Listening means you take into account everything relevant that's influencing the interaction. How often do you enter into a dialog with a client fully aware of the context within which you'll be speaking? Examples of contextual listening and preparation include:

** Logistics: The date and time of your call or meeting. Location, facilities (such as white boards, flip charts, etc). For example, a one-on-one client meeting in a large conference room with an equally large table can be challenging. Also consider if the client is a morning or afternoon person. If you don't know, ask them, they'll tell you.

** Emotional state and readiness of the client. Before your barge into your agenda, find out what's on the client's agenda.

** Your emotional readiness. Are you relaxed, prepared and ready to be truly 'present' with the client so you can meet their goals as well as yours? Have you cleared the rest of your day from your mind so that you can devote 100% of your energy to the interaction?


Reflecting is the art of showing the client what you're observing about their situation, needs, goals and about them as people. Careful use of reflecting (that is, please don't be a parrot) shows your client you understand what they've said, and more importantly what they really mean. For example, a client who focuses on the incompetence of some other department may, with some reflecting, come to realize the problem is procedural, not one of competence.

Aspects of reflecting include:

** Emotional context of the dialog: is there fear, anger, excitement?

** The intensity of the client reaction. If you've hit a nerve (positive or negative), reflect back to the client your observation and go with the emotion.

** Inconsistencies between what they say and how they seem. This is especially common with business professionals. If you're sensing the client believes they should be enthusiastic about their project – and they're trying to be – but they clearly are not, gently reflect this back and you may uncover some valuable stuff.

** When something said doesn't fit what they've said previously or the rest of the conversation. This can often be the source of a gap between what they think they should say and what they really mean.


Paraphrasing is different from reflecting. With reflecting, you hold up a mirror to your client to get clarification. With paraphrasing, you use your skills to synthesize the client's information to provide context and clarity. Paraphrasing involves keeping the original intent, but changing the way it's expressed. Sometimes the language is similar to the client's other times you paraphrase to introduce a synthesized idea. For example:

** The client is convinced the purchasing department is there solely to hinder her from doing her job. There are endless forms, signatures, signing authority levels and approvals for even the most mundane items. The client has suggested on many occasions changes that would streamline their processes, but never even gets a reply.

One paraphrase could be: "And so, you're ability to get your job done is dependent on successful interaction with purchasing – and perhaps other departments?"

Notice the paraphrase steers clear of interdepartmental friction and concentrates instead on the notion of "successful interaction." Getting embroiled in or taking sides in a client's organizational issues is a red herring that sheds little light on your ability to complete your consulting assignment.

Truth Saying

As a consultant/coach, you have been given a precious gift to use or misuse as you will. Once you have established credibility with the client, you have the gift of being the one person to whom the client can tell the truth without fear of reprisal. Read that last sentence again. This is a very fragile gift and used wisely can lead to a fruitful and open relationship with the client. Abuse it, and forget any chance of success.

Acting as a client / coach you can take care to present the truth in a respectful and sensitive way. Some examples include:

** How others are affected by them and their work, or their department's work (think about the purchasing example above).
** How their actions are in line or out of line with their (or their department's) goals.
** How well they do their job and satisfy customers even though processes can be improved.

** That they are OK just as they are. Think about this one. When consultants are called in, it means CHANGE. Many people see change as a threat not only to what they do, but to who they are. Make your client right about who they are. If this sounds "soft" to you, I'd ask you to just try it once. See if it works for you.

The Three "S" Model

The Three "S" Model consists of recognizing the Symptoms, finding the Source and ultimately the Solution. The model can help you prepare for client interview or workshop sessions, and is a useful checklist to make sure you've completed your analysis thoroughly before jumping to "the answer."

Symptoms are outward signs: the complaint, the problems, the challenges. They are clues to what the client is experiencing and feeling, what motivates them and what's getting in the way of their success. Examples of symptoms and what they might indicate are:

Symptom- heavy expediting, pride in their ability to put out fires

May indicate- a culture that values firefighters over planners. Lack of coordination between planning, sales and manufacturing.

Symptom- interdepartmental friction

May indicate- mismatched goals or measurement systems, poor communication

Locating the Source is about asking "why is this happening?" It's easy to get stuck on the symptoms, and clients can go on and on and on about how bad things are. A skillful consultant/coach will then steer the client toward finding the source. And doing so can often be like peeling away the layers of an onion.

Your client, for example, may say the source is another department's incompetence. As a skillful listener, you hear there's more underneath so you ask the client to elaborate. You continue to ask: "and why do you think that is?" until you believe you've both discovered the root source of the issue. This is a good time to reflect and paraphrase what the client's already told you.

Here's a question about Solutions: Is it your responsibility to find the solution or the clients? The answer of course depends on the context of the relationship. For example, if you alone possess the expertise needed to describe and implement the solution, and that's what you're getting paid to do, then by all means offer up your option.

However, don't shut yourself out to the possibility of the client finding their own solution. Explore, question, look at the Symptoms and Sources to help guide the client to an answer they come up with and ultimately own. You may find that, with a little structure, the client had the answer all along. We'll discuss this more when we talk about Empowerment and Advising. Part Two of this series will explore Questioning. As consultants, we develop interview guides to ensure we get the right information as efficiently as possible. But knowing HOW to ask the question and when to use a particular type of question can mean the difference between the client answering you, and you walking away with valuable information.

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