When most people hear the title “Consultant” they either cringe or they have a puzzled look upon their face.
Let’s discuss the latter…
The puzzled look is simply from not knowing what a consultant does and the areas in which the professional consults. No matter what industry that you specialize in or focus on, there will always be a person who is curious as to how exactly you “consult” within that industry. Where is the value in consulting and why would someone actually contract with you for that service? Let’s test it out.
An art consultant. What are some of the first things that come to mind when you think about this professional?
Maybe that they provide counsel and insight for art galleries on which art is authentic or potentially counterfeit? Or maybe they help collectors navigate through the “art world”?
Now let’s look at some other consultants…
- Real Estate Consultant
- Management Consultant
- Entertainment Consultant
- Environmental Consultant
- Radio Consultant
- IT Consultant
- Legal Consultant
- Marketing Consultant
- HR Consultant
- Food Consultant
- Education Consultant
- Engineering Consultant
What types of questions are forming in your mind as you think about the services that these professionals provide? Why hire a real estate consultant when you could hire a realtor? Why would you hire a legal consultant when you could hire a lawyer? What is a management consultant managing or helping to manage? Can you see how and why people can be puzzled by the title, consultant?
Oftentimes consultants are “born” after working a given period of time in an industry, usually as an employee for a company, and upon leaving that company or retiring from the industry, they opt to provide the same services to numerous companies as a consultant. A consultant can be self-employed, a freelancer, or work as an employee for a consulting firm.
When do you hire a consultant?
This is usually the question that many professionals struggle with answering. We can narrow this down to four instances:
- Need an extra hand, set of eyes, or brain: When you’re understaffed or you have hit a “wall” and just need someone from the outside to come in to assist with (or take over) a project or task. You may need a “creative” or “analytical” mind to come in and provide fresh ideas, a critical lens, or a different approach.
- Teach and implement best practices: For the most part, consultants are subject matter experts, leaders within their field/industry, or have a vast wealth of applied wisdom with a strong track record. Because they have implemented the practices and processes that you’re trying to achieve it doesn’t make sense to try and reinvent the wheel when you can get a consultant to roll theirs in and help you get the job done.
- Training: A well-rounded consultant is also an excellent trainer. They are natural teachers who can conduct one-on-one and group trainings for your short-term and long-term needs. Consultants know how to best blend theory and practice, as they have been well-trained in both. Hire them for specific training needs so that your management team can focus on other mission-focused deliverables.
- Manage and help implement change: Sometimes it requires an outsider to come in and execute and manage the change that you know your company needs. Historically, managers are naturally non-confrontational and would rather avoid conflict by any means necessary. Hiring a consultant to come in allows for them to be the perceived “bad guy” who can work with your team to see the reality of constant change, embrace the need for that change, and ultimately celebrate how that change has made things easier and more profitable.
Why do you think some people despise and run from consultants?
Consultants have taken a “hit” over the past 15 years as firms have cranked out thousands of college-recruited students (earning their bachelor’s and master’s degrees) who have worked tirelessly on client projects and worked their way up the ladder from junior associate to consultant. They usually are assigned the research and administrative functions of the role. The more they “shine” in their roles the more responsibility that they carry.
Many clients have engaged with these young professionals to find that although aptly skilled in recalling information taught in school (and possibly from the workplace), some did not have the real-world experience to actually see and know how things were applied in real-time. They hadn’t actually put in the work and accomplished the very things they were recommending to their clients. There was the “theory” but no actual application, and who wants to risk thousands or millions of dollars on a person who has only read or heard about a process but never actually performed the actions being recommended?
When clients scan through the billable hours they realize that they are being billed for the more seasoned senior consultant, but a lot of the work being performed (rightly or wrongly) is done by the ones with the least amount of experience. When deadlines are missed or deliverables are botched, clients grow tired of hearing that it’s the fault of a lower-level associate. The client’s money is on the line and they don’t want to waste it.
There is also a history of “telling” the clients what needs to be done (or should be done) but the next step of doing the work was either not an option or one with an even heftier invoice attached–and a greater risk that the work performed would be executed by a lower-level associate and not the stellar, seasoned consultant.
Some consultants say, “I’m only here to consult” but if you know that the client does not have the resources to act upon your counsel, then what more are you bringing to the table to make it worthwhile for them? Now there are some companies who simply want the counsel that a consultant can provide. They have the human resources and other assets and tools needed to get the job done. But a consulting firm should always have the capability to (or resources that can) provide implementation services for clients.
Lack of Transparency Leads to Mistrust and Ultimately Distrust
There is a lack of transparency concerning the client-consultant relationship. In a dentist office or medical practice you already know that the nurse or dental assistant will be responsible for certain things. It is explained to you before you agree to any procedure being performed. You know that the nurse isn’t performing open-heart surgery just as you know that the dental assistant won’t be the one performing your root canal.
In law firms most clients have grown to realize that a great deal of the research and administrative support is being performed by legal assistants, paralegals, and associates. The more seasoned lawyer is brought in to handle the more complex matters. But sadly, in most instances, the client is still billed at the higher rate and not the rate aligned with the junior team members.
But when it comes to consulting, most clients are not even aware as to what portions of the workload is divided and at what rate and frequency. The client is “flying blind” and it can be an uncomfortable position.
A Message to Current and Future Consultants
It is important that your prospective client fully understands your role, function, and purpose, and that they understand which of your team members are working on what specific areas, how much they are being billed and the frequency of this billing. If different team members are billed out at different rates, then this must be properly outlined and documented so that there’s never a question later during the project.
If you want to build and maintain trust with your clients then you have to be open, honest, transparent, communicate frequently and completely, keep your word, and be consistent. If you don’t have experience in a certain area, be honest, and if possible refer them to another firm that is more experienced. Whatever you do, don’t claim to know something, take the client’s money, and then show up empty-handed or worse, with a bunch of junk deliverables. Our industry is based off of word-of-mouth. It can make your career or break it.
At the beginning and end of each day we are reminded that this is a relationship and like any healthy relationship it is built upon the positive things that we invest in it and our shared determination to avoid anyone and anything that could potentially harm it. People want to trust you so be trustworthy.
Lastly, remember to give more than you promised, never chase the money, and don’t ever compromise your character.