Over drinks recently, a colleague shared the results from some informal polling he’d done on the attitudes of senior executives (private and public sector) on consultants. The original “research” was also done over drinks at a cocktail party. Not to worry, though, I’m sure multiple bottles of wine on two occasions did nothing to dilute the message.
Around the same time, a friend who serves as the CEO of a well-known international non-profit told me a story straight from her recent board meeting. Her board is comprised of 12 fancy pants people—primarily “people of means” who’ve been ridiculously successful in their chosen line of business. By no stretch is this group inexperienced or shy about sharing their strong opinions. During this particular meeting, the board was discussing a vexing organizational challenge. Who to put in what box kind of stuff-- perfect for a management expert. At one point, an intrepid member piped up and suggested they hire a consultant to sort out the issue. In response, a spontaneous, unanimous chorus of “NOOOOOOOOOOs” rang out. While she didn’t elaborate, I suspect that too many have had lack luster experiences with consultants along the lines below.
Here’s what I’ve gathered.
- Clients hate it when a team of eager consultants show up with a project plan that requires dozens and dozens of stakeholder interviews. Data collection takes way, way too long and often opens them up to questions and concerns that they then have to deal with. In some cases, consultants are so insistent about conducting the interviews that clients wonder if it’s really about them and their problem or about the firm’s own networking. Their suggestion? Finding a way to collect data in smaller subsets would help. If you can take some themes back and check in, you might be able to avoid further time-consuming conversations.
- Clients hate it when they get a final report filled with a regurgitated summary of the feedback and recommendations gathered during the many interviews. One person said he was pressed and pressured persistently for his opinion of what the solution should be—to the point he questioned the consultant’s industry and technical knowledge. He got the sense that the team could not move forward with the report unless he and his staff provided the answers. Needless to say, he was looking for more of a blend between their ideas and the vision and perspective of the consultant.
- Clients hate it when consultants make ridiculous, un-implementable recommendations that appear to have no connection with their real world environment. In an extreme example from the other end of the spectrum from #2, one person said that he’s received reports that contain off-the-wall suggestions that are outside of his legislative authority. He argued that, with a little research or understanding the federal landscape a bit better, they would have saved the time and hassle of reviewing and commenting on an unusable report.
In reflecting on these, my first reaction was, “duh, of course. That’s so basic.” But I think the problem is that these behaviors are all too common and they boil down to a frustration clients have with not feeling heard during the project, then later struggling to defend the money spent or demonstrate their return on investment to their leadership. As additional evidence, I think about times when we’re preparing a proposal for new work. The writing teams often struggle to articulate the impact of the completed projects that we're using to tell the story of how effective we are!
Why is that?
We tell ourselves that some of our accomplishments are difficult to measure. Employee effectiveness or improved efficiency are obvious examples. But a lot of times, I’m afraid that neither or clients or the consulting team really know whether or not there was an impact-- even anecdotally. Aside from the timely receipt of a well-edited report, what changed?
This is a fundamentally different and more difficult question than whether or not the work went well. During many engagements, the team is able to forge a sufficiently positive, professional relationship with the client’s team. In the end, the client provides good references but often the feedback typically focuses on peripheral elements—the work was done on time, on budget, and the client able to check all the boxes that the scope was completed.
Instead of this superficial engagement, I think there is an opportunity to dig in with better questions for the clients upfront to gain an understanding of what positive impact (within the context of the scope) means to them. Then, by carrying out the work with an intense focus on creating the change they've articulated would go a long way to generating more satisfying, high-impact projects and avoiding these hated behaviors.