It's getting somewhat unsettling. One can be having a perfectly wonderful time in either a business or social situation, when it somehow comes out that he or she is a consultant, or is "in consulting." Things tend to get quiet, in an ominous way. Mothers gather their daughters to their skirts; little boys peek out from behind their fathers' jackets. Business peers draw back—recoil might be too strong a word—and suddenly become distinctly less friendly.
We are guessing that an on-the-spot poll would put consultants somewhere below pedophiles, but still slightly ahead of members of Congress. Not easy to accept. One of us has been a professional management consultant for over 40 years; the other, nearly a neophyte, a mere 30.
We came of age believing that consulting was (and is) a noble calling, something to aspire to be good enough to do, an appellation we needed to continually strive to live up to.
So, what has happened to turn "consultant" and "consulting" into words that don't carry the weight and command the respect they once did? What do they mean today? And are there new words that have taken their place?
EVERYBODY'S A CONSULTANT
For openers, a nation of people who don't remotely do consulting have adopted the name. We have sales consultants for everything from used cars to discount electronics. Other sales people have become, say, material handling consultants or supply chain execution systems consultants, depending on what product or service is being sold. The practice is only a little short of the kind of language manipulation that has given us sanitary engineers emptying the wastebaskets on the night shift.
Then, there are the legendary abuses of teams of information technology design and implementation specialists; their employers call them consultants, and eventually they come to believe that they are. But they are technicians, performing tasks. Never mind that busloads of them, at hourly rates that look like consulting fees, are apparently needed to be able to flip the switch and turn on enterprise-changing software. Oh, yes. Logistics service providers (LSPs or 3PLs) also have teams of consultants to recommend supply chain solutions.
Finally, we have experienced a parade of honorable and well-meaning people who have found themselves unemployed and have called themselves "consultants" while doing odd jobs during their job searches. Most often, they have no idea of how to structure consulting relationships—and projects—or how to price themselves or their projects. They typically don't have the network of resources to bring appropriate experience to bear on the several pieces of a multifaceted business challenge.
Whatever the cause or causes, "consultant" and "consulting" are, it seems, terms to be avoided in polite society.
BRANDING AND POSITIONING
A working partner recently confessed to considering taking "consulting" out of the company name and off the website, based on apparently shifting perceptions of and degrees of acceptance and respect for consultants and consulting. She is not alone and may be late to the game.
An eventually world-changing readjustment might have begun in 2000 with Andersen Consulting's adoption of the Accenture name, and their creation of a new brand. The rest of us laughed at the time, but we aren't laughing now. Already split from the mother ship, a totally disengaged Accenture escaped any damage or fallout from Arthur Andersen's total collapse in the wake of the Enron affair.
Later, another global services behemoth, KPMG, rebranded its consulting unit as Bearing Point, which we still do not understand the meaning of. But it doesn't say "consulting." Coopers & Lybrand, then PwC, retained "consulting" in the name of its affiliated business services units. E&Y divested, and its consultants became part of the international giant CapGemini.
Deloitte Consulting, alone of the Big Four, continues using the apparently tainted term, but a recent consultants' listing is headed only "Deloitte." PwC and KPMG are back in the consulting business, with both using the "advisory" appellation as a substitute.
WHERE WE COME OUT ON THE QUESTION
Neither of us uses "consulting" in our organizations' names. Maybe that's the practical course for now. And maybe the tide will turn after "advisory" falls into disrepute someday.
However, we are not going to stop proudly announcing that we are consultants. Hey, it's what we are, have been, and are going to continue to be. We're not ready to reposition ourselves as coaches, cheerleaders, masters of innovation, chief fun creators, supply chain evangelists, or anything else that dodges the fundamental truth of what our professional lives are about.