One of the phenomena I experience as a consultant is the response at a cocktail party or similar gathering, i.e. any networking opportunity, when I announce that I am a consultant. The look on the face of those I am communicating with emanates, “Ah, a snake oil salesman”. It’s more a look of aversion than one of interest. Well, why is that?
Whenever I sit down with a CEO or begin a group session with a new client, I ask if the participants have had experience with a process similar to what we are about to embark upon, e.g. planning, process improvement, reorganization, etc. Then I ask how many felt that the previous consulting work had added value. Unfortunately, very often the answer is “no”.
What are the sources of this discontent? Here is my take on some of them:
1. Nothing Changed
Sources of this come in a couple different sizes. First, nothing changes in an organization when plans left behind by consultants do not define specific outcomes, timelines and individuals responsible to create results, i.e., no accountability. Hence, they are really statements of intention rather than true plans of action. Second, planning consultants often take no responsibility for assisting clients to actually achieve the targets defined in plan. Unless follow-thru and accountability improves, results won’t improve. For a team to create a different future they have to be different, and the consultant needs to coach them on how “different” looks, feels and acts until it becomes the new normal.
2. Cookie Cutters
We have heard complaints and have inherited clients because they experienced having to conform themselves and their organization to consultant methodology rather than the consultant adapting the methodology to meet the needs of the client. In evaluations, we often hear from clients that they appreciate the fact that we modified our approach based on their unique needs. My philosophy on this is that you have to meet the client where they are and not where you want them to ultimately be. A good consultant, like a good chess player, is always playing several moves ahead. However, to earn the right to take a client further, you first have to meet the need that they can perceive and modify your approach accordingly.
3. The B Team
The advantage of large consulting firms is their breadth of experience. The disadvantage is that you are often sold the job by the A Team, but those doing the work are the B Team. That B Team may well lack the experience to make critical distinctions and adjustments on the fly, resulting in sub-optimal outcomes.
I profess I am very biased here, but my take on complaints about costs are that they are often ill-founded. An unsophisticated client looks at the sticker price for a day of consulting, compares that to his or her own compensation per day and recoils from the consultant, because the fees seem outrageous. Two things here. First, consultants have to imbed in their pricing the cost of time required to market, develop/improve products, pay overhead, run the business and work with prospects to get an agreement on scope of work and price. All of that goes into the perceived cost per day. The rule of thumb is that under the best circumstances, the consultant is getting 1/3 of the total which in turn pays for the time he has devoted to establishing the relationship, getting the work, and molding his tools to fit the particular client.
Second, evaluate the cost in terms of the value of the result. If the result you are asking the consultant to produce is not worth what you have to pay to get it, then, of course, you shouldn’t buy it. A less expensive consultant or reconsidering whether or not to do the work at all may be the solution. Or truly evaluating and understanding what the value will be over time of the change the consultant is helping you with may be is a better solution.
Lastly, if the consultant doesn’t deliver that value, my take is don’t pay them or demand that they continue work until the value you paid for is achieved. The caveat here is that you have a responsibility to execute your end of what the consultant recommended before accusing the consultant for not delivering.
One more thought on apprehension with consultants. Look at your consultant in the same way that you do your accountant or legal counsel. Find the consultant that you can establish a strong working relationship with and have confidence in. Then, consider working with them over a length of time. You wouldn’t go out to bid every time you needed a legal opinion, and you shouldn’t with a management consultant. A consultant’s effectiveness increases in large measure by the quality of relationships established with you and your people. Though it takes time, the stronger the relationship gets, the more value is added in successive interactions, and usually the successive interactions take less time because of the relationship. The more you know one another, the more you can accomplish in less time and with less cost.
Using consultants well
My intent here is to give you some concrete steps to take when considering a consultant for your business. Look for a consultant who can offer knowledge and tools that go beyond what your current C-suite execs possess. Then check the consultant against the most common complaints I listed above. Does the consultant leave you with tools that have assigned accountability? Does he or she tailor the tools to your organization and its needs? Who actually does the work? What is the cost compared to the value over time? Answer those questions positively and you will find a solid consultant relationship you can value for a long time.