How to see through the consultancy illusion by Kelly Barner

Posted on September 3, 2013


Editor’s Note: I have been a fan of Kelly Barner’s writing style for some time, as she has always found a way to provide meaningful insight in an informative yet entertaining fashion.  However, today’s post has caught my attention for an entirely different reason.  Specifically, what I have always considered to be the “smoke and mirrors” approach of the majority of consultancy firms whose innate ability to reflect back what the client wants to hear as opposed to what they need to hear has cost tens (perhaps even hundreds) of millions of lost dollars over the years.  As someone who has been called in on the QT behind the scenes many times to help a client fix the damage relating to yet another consultants “win the business first worry about making is work later” approach, Barner’s article provides valuable advice on what you should look for in a relationship with a consultant.

Sourcing projects for services are often regarded as more complicated than those for products. ‘Specifications’ are harder to define and award strategies are more likely to be based on subjective evaluation criteria. Consulting services may be the most complicated of all, since the work is often long-term and outcome based. In some cases, the full requirements of the effort are unknown at the outset.

Consultants have gotten a bad name for blowing into a company, creating a whirlwind of activity, and then blowing back out – taking a tidy sum from your pocket and leaving behind little more than their own footprints. As a former (I won’t go so far as to say ‘reformed’) consultant myself, I can remember the way some companies and individuals reacted to my team’s presence on site. We were met with attitudes that ranged from suspicion to outright distrust.

What's coming out of your consultant's hat?

What’s coming out of your consultant’s hat?

Sometimes consulting services come directly from your procurement solution provider, which brings additional challenges. It wasn’t enough that the company had to spend good money to buy a solution, professional services were required in order to use it.

Procurement teams go through a detailed process when comparing solutions, and it is important to include a provider’s service capabilities and delivery in the evaluation. Steve Ashcroft, Purchasing and Proposals Coach at Brian Farrington, Ltd., recently shared a blog post that identified some of the challenges companies face when they consider bringing in a consultant (Uh-oh, they’re consultants!). When should you use a consultant and how do you get the most out of the arrangement? Being able to answer those questions start with knowing where the consultants have come from.

Transitions from practitioner to blogger or analyst to consultant are common and have been covered here on Procurement Insights (Why Mickey North Rizza can’t go home again . . . or can she?) My time in consulting was as a part of Emptoris’ Consulting Services team – a job I loved and that I only left because a change in my personal circumstances didn’t allow me to travel anymore.

I worked alongside colleagues from ‘Big’ consulting firms as well as analytical and category specialists. We each had our niche and would be paired with clients based on our experience and capabilities. Although we were often rolled out during the sales process, and sometimes had to help respond to RFPs looking to evaluate our capabilities, rarely were the questions targeted enough to distinguish us from any other provider. In other words, the companies evaluating us didn’t really know what questions to ask, and probably didn’t know what they really needed.

I’d like to flatter myself by thinking I was a good consultant. I was also effective on behalf of my clients. Sadly, the two don’t always go hand in hand. The following are expectations that anyone looking to hire a consultant (at a solution provider or otherwise) should have. Not only are they reasonable, they are key to the success (and the ROI) of the engagement.

  • I owned my clients’ objectives and goals as though they were my own. If my client fell short, I felt responsible, and did everything in my power to make them a success. I never threw them under the bus in an effort to distance myself from missed targets – at their company or when facing my own boss.
  • On my most successful engagements, I was a good cultural fit with the team I was hired by. This allowed us to collaborate well and work together seamlessly. This is particularly important on long-term engagements. We went to lunch and dinner together because we enjoyed each other’s company. That in turn made us that much more effective back in the office.
  • I was confident enough in my capabilities that I wanted to make sure the client succeeded after I was done and had gone home. Far from being an indication that I was not needed, my clients realized that I was not deliberately building a dependency that might lead to additional business for my company. Ironically, the lack of dependency creation made them more likely to want to re-engage.

While these are all ‘soft’ qualifications, these considerations are critical for any organization considering bringing on a third party service provider. Don’t undercut your effort by focusing on the temporary nature of the project. If you don’t like what you see or how the interactions are going, say something – sooner rather than later.


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