First, our apologies to George Romero for comparing consultants to zombies. Zombies are way cooler than consultants and are often more fun to be with. Sometimes, they are even less predictable.
As long-time consultants ourselves, we admit we may be overly sensitive to the specter of wave upon wave of competitors rising up from the swamps and invading our turf. Consultants have seldom lacked for competition, but things may be intensifying.
The past couple of years have, regrettably, thrown a lot of talented people out of work. For many, the lure of opening up their own consulting shop has been hard to resist. But the fact is, knowing how to perform a function, even one requiring way-above-average smarts, isn't remotely the same as being able to consult effectively. Sooner or later, and generally much sooner, reality sets in: While they may have earned a handsome living as managers or executives, that experience has provided precious little insight into how to organize and price consulting projects.
It gets worse. For both us and the newly unemployed.
When the economy heads south, the large consultancies (as well as some of the smaller ones) tend to let people go. This has put another army of competitors on the street. While this bunch may get rehired when business picks up, the up-ramp tends to be significantly slower than the down-ramp.
So, the woods are overpopulated with wanna-be solos and mini-firms, staffed with people with minimal consulting experience and little real grasp of the economics of the business. And more to the point, perhaps, with limited skills in the subtleties of communication and the art of working with clients.
It's all in the approach
That leads us to an important point. When a company starts down the long road of choosing and using a consultant, its immediate concerns will be experience and qualifications. Is the candidate familiar with our type of business? What about our industry? Does it have experience solving problems like the one we face? Can it work with our timeline? Does it have the required bench strength? And so on and so forth.
With all of these critical questions on the table, it's easy to lose sight of secondary considerations like quality of relationships. But this is one thing you can't afford to ignore. While it might seem relatively insignificant, a consultant's approach to working with clients has an enormous effect on a project's outcome. In particular, it can mean the difference between a short-term fix and a long-term, sustainable solution.
Generally speaking, consultants take one of three basic approaches to client relationships:
The first two styles tend to yield transient benefits, at best, and introduce risk into both internal and external relationships. The benefits can be real enough, but they're subject to deterioration over time, as well as to sub-optimization without the foundation work on the people part of the success equation.
The third can deliver sustainable tangible benefits that get better year after year as proficiency grows and a continuous improvement mentality gets institutionalized. It marries the value of efficient and integrated processes with the promise of technology enhancement and the power of elevated people capacity and capability.
We should mention one other alternative for those seeking consulting help, and that is the use of students, under the direction of qualified and experienced university professors, to analyze specific problems and opportunities. These present a low-cost alternative to professional consultants and provide talented young people with realistic developmental opportunities. (Do remember, though, that they are students who are still learning.)
But will it deliver?
A challenge for the prospective client is to determine which consultant saying all the right things about people, process, and technology—and about doing it with you—really means it. Which consultant delivers a truly different day-to-day working experience, along with a transformed organization and clear business results?
You can get some sense of genuineness and authenticity in face-to-face meetings—not selling sessions and presentations, but exploratory conversations. And you can ask references point-blank about what's different: about techniques, about walking the walk versus talking the talk, about depth beyond the surface impressions, about trust levels, and about the personalities behind the skill sets.
Those are worth exploring and are far more revealing and valuable than PowerPoint decks, a cheerful smile, and a firm handshake.
And in our world of supply chain management, there's too much at stake—for us, for our customers, and for our suppliers—to not get the consulting relationship right.