After close to 30 years in consulting, we're proud to say we've worked with and for executives from some of the finest companies in the world. In many cases, these relationships have long outlasted the engagements that gave rise to them. In some cases, what began as working relationships, have even developed into long-lasting friendships, often spanning very different cultures and geographies.
Thankfully, looking back, we can say this represents the bulk of our experience. But, along the way, it's also true that we've had encounters and relationships that proved to be significantly less desirable and successful.
So what makes the difference? And how should you approach a consulting relationship in order to make sure you get the most out of the consultants you hire and the investments you make?
Here are a few tips "from the horse's mouth." We hope they help to make your next investment in consulting services more profitable - not to mention enjoyable - for both you and your "hired help."
The Vetting Process - Remember, It's a Two-Way Street!
Perhaps the first mistake some clients make is to approach the consultant vetting process as though it exists just for them. Of course, this thinking goes, if we select "consultant X," they'll obviously take the engagement. But we can tell you from our own experience that's not necessarily the case. And we have "walked" on more than one occasion when "the signs" have suggested to us the likelihood of an unworkable or otherwise undesirable situation.
The truth is, the vetting process is everyone's opportunity to evaluate both parties' work practices, cultural norms, levels of courtesy, responsiveness and professionalism. More substantively, it's the consultants' first glimpse at the conditions under which they will have to work and will be expected to deliver results.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself, then, about how evenhandedly and effectively you're conducting your consultant vetting process: Are you being reasonable about the amount of a consultant's time you're asking for during the vetting process for conference calls, proposal generation, sales calls, follow-up, etc.?
You'll undoubtedly be asking a prospective consultant to provide tax information, sign confidentiality agreements, develop statements of work, etc., etc. Are you prepared to be as open to, concerned with and responsive to their requests to process their documents - letters of agreement, cancellation clauses, etc., etc.?
These are just a few of the areas that serve to convey to your would-be outside service provider just how collaborative a working partner you're likely to be as a client. Consequently, it's important to remember that while you're evaluating them, they're also evaluating you!
You're Buying Outside Expertise - Use It!
Perhaps one of the most common mistakes we see potential clients make is to sub-optimize the very expertise they're buying. You should hire a consultant because you've identified a problem you'd like some help with. You shouldn't hire them to implement what you think the solution is. Remember, they are the ones with the expertise in this area. After all, that's the reason you're seeking outside help in the first place: because you don't have their kind of expertise inside your company, right?
Therefore, give your outside expert the leeway to assess and analyze your situation so that they can advise you on a solution based on their expertise. That's how you get the most value for the investment in consulting you're making.
Then, in order to further ensure that the consulting work gets the results you're seeking, have the flexibility to provide your external consultant with the support and conditions they need to have the best shot at success. Some of the biggest obstacles to effective consulting are client-caused conditions, work-practices, or policies that hamper implementation effectiveness and, therefore, ultimate project success. And when that happens, of course, you know who gets blamed!
Don't Forget Candor and Trust
There are fewer statements truer of today's world than to say that we live in cynical times. It's also perhaps true that candor is one of the most valuable - if, perhaps, underused - commodities in business. But candor is precisely what's needed - from both parties - during the run-up to a consulting engagement.
Ironically, though, we sometimes have the sense that clients feel compelled to "play it close to the vest," to "protect" themselves in the early stages of a relationship with consultants. In reality, however, this wariness is no protection at all; it's an obstacle.
Clients get the most for their investment when they engage candidly in a business partnering relationship. Under these circumstances, most consultants, treated like partners, will "go the extra mile" for a client, maximizing a client's consulting dollars. It all comes down to the old saying "you get more with honey than with fire."
Remember the "Golden Rule"
Much of what we've talked about above can be boiled down to one concept: reciprocity - the time-honored "golden rule." There are clients who operate from a sense of power and who see the "carrot" represented by possible consulting fees as "leverage" to control the relationship. Theirs is a "master/servant" or at least "boss/subordinate" view of the consulting/client relationship. Fortunately, in our experience, these clients are in the minority, but they are still more prevalent than is good for their own interests.
Instead, we're arguing here for a consultant/client relationship that represents an authentic partnership. In that context, values like candor, trust, responsiveness, communication, professionalism operate in both directions to the benefit of both parties in the engagement. In other words, you should want a colleague and an equal partner. And if that's what you're looking for, then that's how you should treat them.
A Viable, Independent Partner
Ask yourself this: If the consultant you're vetting tolerates the most one-sided, non-reciprocal kind of treatment, could it be because they're desperate for your business? And if so, what might that say about how busy they are? And what might that say about how competent they are?
Our experience tells us that smart clients want - or, at least, should want - consultants who welcome their business but don't desperately need it. These are consultants who are viable, independent partners, who will tell you what they think you need to hear and not what they think you want to hear.
It's in this spirit of independence and candor that we've offered these comments on how best to approach the important challenge of sourcing and working with outside consultants who can potentially add significant value to your company's efforts. We hope these recommendations bear fruit for you the next time you're looking to bring outside experts into your company!
Ray Gagnon is Principal of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm with a long-standing practice in Strategic Planning, GE Work-Out and Business Process Improvement, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.