A Winning Consulting Relationship

November 12, 2014

The purpose of seeking external counsel or advice (and for the purposes of this Blog we are not referring to compliance advice) is to help get to a desired position sooner by either seeking a shortcut, honed by an expert through numerous prior experiences or to seek the wisdom of someone that you would not be able to justify hiring on a full time permanent basis.

The advent of social media has made access to a wider range of people easier and has degraded this concept to the extent that the ubiquitous chat room in many people's minds, has replaced the need for specialist, external help. Special interest groups for example in LinkedIn have given rise to the misguided belief that even complex projects can now be tackled with a little help from new found friends and most importantly, for free! 

It is said that up to 70% of people believe what they hear from complete strangers on the Internet. By way of example, we came across an otherwise very sensible company that proposed to tackle a "once in a career" project involving multiple disciplines with advice from a chat room and a former colleague, who had completed a similar project once before.

So what's the worst that could have happened? Not getting the project completed perhaps, or a frustrating and potentially embarrassing delay? On the other hand, the best case scenario would have been a solution designed for someone else assuming no dead ends suggested by would be subject matter experts trying to impress other chat room participants.

Networking with fellow professionals is highly valuable (see the side bar) and will help outline a potential route but not help navigate every turn nor can it build a unique solution designed for your company.

"Big consulting" who had fallen into the habit of selling the same solutions to competing clients to the benefit of its internal margins, not surprisingly has been affected by these developments.

They weren't being perceived to be delivering competitive differentiation and had too many practitioners with little or no experience of working in industry. Effective implementation anticipates ramifications for related areas and a business' overall strategic objectives. It's hard to do that if you have never had to work with colleagues to implement a broad based organizational change.

The temptation to avoid excessive fees and chose an option that is free of cost is understandable, even commendable but experience suggests that you ultimately get what you pay for.

Creating further competition for traditional consulting has been the number of semi retired professionals shown the exit during the great recession, that have "hung out a shingle". They may not be there for the long haul, (generally after several years their pipeline (friends) of work runs dry) but none the less, are a highly valuable source of wisdom albeit sometimes, from the context of just a single employer.

These developments have all brought change to the industry; the accounting firms who made their money from audit and taxation have seen more recently, their growth from consulting. Both they and strategy houses have expanded their offerings in an attempt to generate additional revenues. 

"Big Consulting" billing rates have had to reduce but the fundamental delivery model has not changed. Big does not always mean most appropriate or even necessarily "specialist". No one can criticize appointment of a well known name but consider along with the higher fee, whether it will bring differentiated advice.

With the changing landscape a new template is needed when looking for an external partner:

  • Industry knowledge is important but depending on the type of help you require, need not be essential. However, time will be saved if you both use and understand the same jargon but solutions from other industries might be the breakthrough that you need
  • An eagerness to understand your strategy in its broadest sense. In HR terms this means talent supply, engagement and the management system. This experience translates into an ability to head off risk by preparing for challenges before implementation. No one knows better than you the upside opportunity; a good partner however, will help anticipate downside and the potential for value destruction
  • A track record of having worked inside a business is a great advantage. Managing a professional services firm should not be considered a substitute.
  • Plan to chose a consultant for the long haul. Don't underestimate the value of partnering over an extended period and on different topics. A good consultant will get to know your business and its leaders in order to deliver optimum solutions 
  • Select a partner that is authentic, who delivers tailored solutions and not pre-packaged responses, someone who looks internationally for new ideas. Most importantly that performs his or her own work and who will not switch you to a colleague later
  • Don't be mislead by a focus on value (value creation is not always a ruse to justify high fees). Your goal as a client should be to measure outcomes and a worthy partner will support this and be there after the cheque has been cashed. 

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