26 August 2011

The Consulting Conundrum

In a meeting yesterday, this is what a prospective client of mine told me: “We’ve hired consultants before. They are full of babble. They don’t deliver.”

I was affronted. And hurt. You see, I’m a consultant. The meeting was obviously starting on the wrong foot and I had to quickly come up with a defence – for myself, and the consulting fraternity. It got me thinking about my own profession. What if she was right! That, consultants were full of babble and they didn’t deliver.

Various images sprung up in my head and I was reminded of Robert Townsend’s comment in his book, Up The Organization, which I had read some twenty years ago. Although I don’t remember it verbatim, it went something like this: “Consultants are people who borrow your watch and tell you what time it is, and then walk off with the watch.”

As you can see, this was not flattery. If this was a fitting description of what I did for a living, then I was in the wrong profession. But, perceptions are perceptions, no matter how much truth there is in them.

Leaving aside my client’s idiosyncrasies – and Robert Townsend’s wisdom – there does seem to be a controversy over how a consultant really should work with a client. There seems to be a mismatch between what a client expects from a consultant and what a consultant delivers in the end. This can not only lead to bad feelings between the two, it can actually damage each other’s reputation. Perhaps, there was a way out.

Let’s face it: We can’t do everything alone. Once in a while, we need someone to help us out. This dictum holds good not only for the individual or the individual team manager, even the best organisations depend on external help from time to time. And, its commonplace to hire a few consultants on their teams. The question is: If there’s already an external consultant on their team, how is an organisation supposed to get the best out of him?

Set your goals in the beginning

As you know, consultants come in different shapes and sizes – from individual experts to multinational consulting firms – and with different core competencies. Although the consultant’s individual area of expertise is critical in selecting the right consultant for your organisation, your success with a consultant depends a great deal more on the goals you set for the consultant and the role you expect the consultant to play.

If these are not determined early in the process of selecting and working with the consultant, chances are, you will find your consultant underutilised, your organisation out-of-pocket by a large sum of money, and yourself unhappy. Soon, this will lead to a breakdown in your relationship with the consultant, forcing you or the consultant to walk off in a huff – sometimes with a trail of unfinished tasks – which really doesn’t do anyone any good. When this happens, you and your organisation have as much to lose as the consultant.

Once I had to end a relationship with a client because she refused to set the goals in the beginning. I entered the relationship offering marketing strategies, but ended up setting organisation goals and sales budgets, taking calls on HR issues, recruitment and training, and deciding on IT purchases. I even selected the books for the office library. Before long, I became an extra pair of hands in the client’s office – a sort of an odd-job manager who was involved in almost every activity.

Although the importance showered on me was gratifying, and my client got more than her money’s worth for hiring my services, it took the client-consultant relationship to a virtual dead end.

If you’re a CEO with an external consultant on your team, don’t ever let this happen. Remind yourself that a consultant is an expert in a specific field. Not everything. Consult him only for his expertise. Express and explain what is expected from him as he sets out to help you solve the problem for which he is hired. In other words, set your goals right in the beginning of the client-consultant relationship.

Be honest, be open

A consultant offers guidance based on your description of the problem. If you are frank about your organisation’s problems, the consultant gets a better picture of the issues involved and makes a better recommendation. That means putting aside your embarrassment and telling your consultant the whole story. It means coming clean with the consultant. It means honesty.

One way of looking at it is to consider that, together, the consultant and you own the problem – and later, the diagnosis and even the solution. This gives your consultant a lot more confidence to work with and actually results in a team effort. The ownership is shared. The idea is to apply the consultant’s knowledge, skills and insights to arrive at a solution that has the best chance of working for you and your organisation.

It also means keeping an open mind – not only in terms of viewing the problem at hand, but also in accepting the consultant’s recommendations.

Sometimes, as a CEO or a line manager, you’re so neck-deep in day-to-day operations that it’s difficult for you to see the problem as it is. It’s easy to mix up the symptoms with the cause, thereby arriving at an incorrect definition of the problem. Just stop for a second and imagine how difficult it is for the consultant to work on an incorrect brief from you. The entire foundation of his solution is likely to be shaky.

Sometimes, a consultant will prescribe a course of action totally contrary to what you may expect from him. It may even mean a serious change in the way your organisation thinks or behaves. It may mean letting go of old habits – habits, which may have been your strengths at one time but are incompatible with the changing market scene today. And, believe it or not, the best of us suffer from such temperaments. Here’s a case in point:

On an assignment with a large well-know business house, I found them to be so full of themselves that they refused to look the problem in the eye. In their retail venture, which generated inadequate revenues as a result of too few customers, they became hell-bent on starting a customer loyalty programme. With total disregard for the problem at hand. They mixed up a simple branding problem, which advertising would have solved, with a customer loyalty issue. Today, they still don’t have enough footfalls in their stores; and still no great revenues from sales. Now, they have one more problem – they cannot justify the cost of running the customer loyalty programme as it can’t reach substantial economies of scale.

When you hire a consultant, have faith in him. Tell him your whole story. Let the consultant do his homework. Then put your heads together to diagnose the problem. You will arrive at a much better solution thereafter.

Collaborate, become a partner

Here’s the prototype consultancy model:

The consultant is hired for his expertise which your organisation doesn’t posses. He works with you and your team as a collaborator, without exercising direct control on or over your organisation’s resources and systems. He listens patiently to your needs and, after doing his own analysis and homework, suggests a course of action for your organisation (the solution).

Much like a doctor attends to his patient by diagnosing an ailment and prescribing appropriate medication and a diet.

Just as a patient believes that the doctor can cure his ailment and that things will improve if he follows the doctor’s prescription, you have to have faith in the consultant’s advice. Just as the patient has to swallow the medicine himself, you have to resist the urge to maintain status quo and implement the recommended strategies and processes. Sort of, bootstrap yourself to a new level. This requires fundamental shifts in your attitude and in your work style – even at a personal level. If you’re unwilling to change, neither will your organisation.

Once you agree with the consultant’s recommendations, you can internally influence the members of your team – either using the hierarchical authority that the consultant lacks, or simply as an inside man – to ensure a successful and speedy implementation. You know exactly how your organisation adapts to new situations, reacts to new ideas, responds to new types of behaviour, and you are the best person to recognise and leverage the consultant’s skills for your organisation’s benefit.

As a client, you must hold up your end. You should always aim for a partnership.

From what I’ve read and heard, Robert Townsend’s story at Avis is a wonderful example of this kind of partnership – with Bill Bernbach – and is worth a mention here. When Townsend became President of Avis Rent-a-Car in 1962, Avis was an unprofitable company. With Bernbach’s masterful advertising, Avis assumed the “We’re No.2. We try harder.” platform and propelled its sales and market share manifold in just a few years.

Apparently, Bernbach recommended Townsend to overhaul Avis’ customer service and upgrade its product offering before his agency, DDB, creates the advertising. People from DDB, in fact, spent several months learning the Avis business, meeting with and talking to Avis employees about the company. This led them to ask a simple question: “Why does anyone ever rent a car from you?” The reply was: “We try harder because we have to.” The rest is marketing history.

Yes, Bernbach is credited with the “We’re No.2. We try harder.” advertising for Avis. But, don’t forget, Townsend had the wisdom to listen to Bernbach and the courage to run the advertising he recommended.