beyond the final report: consulting the right way takes more than being right

Last week, I told a room full of aspiring consultants in the School of Management at George Brown College's Centre for Business that being right is only half the value of my work.  The rest of the value lies in how the first half is conveyed to clients and other stakeholders.

This was puzzling to them since most were from other countries and had already worked for years in their areas of specialization.  Being right, as an employee, is all you can ask.

By show of hands, most wanted to resume work as employees.  After graduation, the majority were hoping for recruitment by a blue chip firm, where they could spend a few years working in a cubicle while they figured out their next move.  They felt ready to research and analyze the hell out of anything put before them but didn’t seem to have considered what happens after that.

I confessed to having figured this out very late in my career.  Like many consultants, it was enough to understand the question, find the best answer, and serve it up in a report.  The client could consume and digest it any way they pleased.  After all, they’d paid for it, and in my mind, they’d act on the recommendations it contained or would pay the price of ignoring my counsel as well.

Indeed, this remains the business of many consultants in our field.  Their work is a succession of reports that deal with discrete steps toward achievement of client objectives.  Each segment of study produces a report, and that report either helps the client to continue going forward, or contributes nothing to their momentum, or actually stalls them.  Every consulting group that does a piece of this work can deliver their results, collect their fees, and walk away.

When clients ask for help reaching an objective, what they are lacking is almost never a block of cellulose.  But that’s what they get when the consultant delivers the result on paper, contributing nothing further to the achievement of what’s in their report.  It’s just a stack of paper, and you’ll find stacks of these filed and stacked in cabinets and closets at our clients’ offices. 

I’m not faulting consultants for delivering results in this way.  It’s usually what the client asks for.  However, it’s rarely what they need.

A quick aside – clients rarely know what they need.  They request proposals from consultants for self-diagnosed symptoms, and they assume that they’ve guessed right about the cure.  The consultants, like snake oil salesmen and quacks, are within their rights to provide what’s asked of them, without responsibility for wasting the client’s time and money.  In the worst cases, they do actual harm.

Extending this medical analogy, which is the better form of consultant’s care?  To let a self-diagnosing patient dictate their own treatment, charge a fee, write a prescription, and depart before the medicine takes effect, OOOOORRRRRRRR, to offer holistic advice as well as medication, to follow up with the patient to make sure the prescription is followed correctly, and that it produces the intended result?  Obviously, the latter (as I have previously stated in my post on disruption and consulting).

Although we haven’t managed to achieve this level of care in the practice of actual medicine, it is possible to deliver consulting services in this way.  If the final report contains the prescription, and the prescription is correct, that’s only half the care owed to the client.  As I explained to the class of business students, successful treatment starts with the client’s trust in the consultant, a shared understanding of the diagnosis, the reasoning behind the recommended course of treatment, help administering the cure, and monitoring of results.

That sounds like a terribly unprofitable service model, which is why so many firms prefer to assert the right answers, deliver the result in a report and presentation, and get away before being implicated in the outcome.  For most consultants, the alternative is even more unsavory, because, when implementation fails (and, it likely will when clients are resistant to change), the only way to evade responsibility is to blame the client, which pretty much ruins the possibility of a repeat engagement.

Yet that’s what consultants typically do.  They push away from a client after delivering a report.  It works because most organizations in my field will engage consultants for a specific purpose only once in a board term or once in a senior staff tenure.  Most consulting groups serve a series of different clients, rather than winning consecutive assignments with a single client.  Accountability for bad performance is indirect, at best, under these circumstances.

So, if the product of consulting work is a report, things are pretty dismal for clients.  Consultants still get their fees and build their resumes, but client success doesn’t necessarily track alongside the consulting firm’s profitability.  What I was trying to tell the students is that client success is more likely if finding solutions and delivering reports are seen as the mid-point of service rather than the end.

One compensation for the extra time and effort this entails is the slow build of trust between the consultant and client.  Trust means repeat engagements, and repeat engagements mean less time and money spent in competitive bids and client cultivation.

That’s really how NetGain has survived, I guess.  Multi-year client engagements and long successions of separate contracts have resulted from trust.  MOCA, the National Ballet School, the Toronto Centre for the Arts, and the City of Toronto’s Economic Development and Culture division are all examples of clients who have returned again and again for service that goes beyond the final report.

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