Having recently moved from client side to consultancy, I found lots of little surprises when switching places. I thought it would be fun to expose some of the myths I had about consultants when I was a client and give you some insight and tips for getting the best out of your consultancy.
(Editor’s note: an earlier version of this was published with text out of order. This version is correct. Our apology.)
Myth 1: Consultants know everything, so I’ll leave them to get on with it…
In fact, I would go as far to say that bad consultants act like they know everything and good consultants will tell you when they don’t. I often used to think as a client: “we are paying them to sort this out, so it’s their problem now.” How wrong I was…
So many clients believe their job is done once the brief has been given. If you’re bringing in a consultant to deliver a project and you’re expecting to leave them in a dark room and shut the door, then think again. Consultants are specialists, but not a specialist on your particular business, market or brand, so make sure you are around to fill in the gaps – you’ll make your investment go a whole lot further if you do.
I can now see that in order to get the best outcome consultants and clients need to be equal and open when it comes to who knows what. It should be proper teamwork where both parties have different knowledge and skillsets.
- Treat your consultant like a business partner – like you would an internal colleague on your team. Share your issues and concerns as they appear; ensure that the consultants are aware of the relevant, wider issues and engage with the consultants’ work using them as a useful resource and giving them the support they need to achieve the common objectives of the project. You will get a far superior service and end solutions.
Myth 2: It’s all in the brief
It all starts with the brief… I bet you think you write good briefs, but I can virtually 100% guarantee that you don’t! This is because any prior research or knowledge that has informed the brief has not been designed to uncover the information that is needed to solve the problem.
For example, you may already have a strong consumer insight that you want to exploit, but the specific, more granular insight that will direct how you might go about doing it is missing. It boils down to the fact that clients don’t know what tools the consultant needs in their toolkit, so there are many elements of the brief that are overlooked or missed entirely.
The brief is laden with expectations from both sides of the fence. The client usually feels that they have lived and breathed it for so long and they have nailed the crux of the issue in the brief. The consultant on the other hand is trained to not accept anything at face value, and will be expecting to ask lots of questions to more deeply understand and search out the nuggets or clues that may help to build the solution. I can assure you that consultants don’t do this just to be annoying – it’s so we can get to the information that is not included in the brief, the assumptions that have been made and the beliefs employed. This is necessary to help you move forwards towards a solution. The important point here is ‘help you’. So, your brief may be a good start to laying the foundations for the project, but it is just the start. The client often expects it to be a more one-sided conversation “this is what I want you to do”, whereas the consultant needs to take back a step of two and be able to frame the brief in a wider, consumer-based reality, so that they can bring some fresh thinking to the client.
- Let the consultant help you work through exploring all the possible hunches and hypotheses before pinning down the final brief. You will usually find that you end up in a better, often different and surprising place to where you thought, by allowing the consultant to be part of crafting the brief.
Myth 3: I could do that myself if I had the time – “Consulting is just basic common sense.”
This myth is in part, true. You could probably have a damn good go, and get to a half decent solution. But, I bet it wouldn’t be the best, most competitive solution. Let’s assume for a moment that you do the work yourself. There are three key factors which I can guarantee would significantly compromise the solution you come up with:
- You won’t necessarily have the lessons learnt from a hundred other projects with similar problems that can be applied as consultants can.
- You will default to what you know from your day-job, and struggle to push and probe things with a fresh perspective. Much of the value consultants bring lies in their objectivity – by analysing a problem and proposing a solution in a way that could not have been done in-house. You will have the depth of thought, but what consultants can bring is the breadth – the ability to draw out new, sensible and insightful conclusions from the data you have typically always viewed through the same lens, or unearthing brand new insight through unique methodologies.
- You may fall at the last hurdle when it comes to selling your solution upwards. Consultants have lots of experience with stakeholder engagement – they know where in the process it tends to go haywire and how difficult ‘sales’ have been overcome in the past. Also their neutrality means that they have a valuable role to play in marshaling the support of stakeholders within the clients’ organisation.
- Draw on your consultant’s experience and learnings that they have from the wide array of other projects they’ve worked on – question them as much as they question you. There may be some golden nuggets they can share with you.
- Use consultants to convince executives who you know you are going to struggle to accept an internal point of view.
Myth 4: Surely I am being fleeced – can it really cost that much?
When I was a client I often used to evaluate the value I was getting purely based on the end result – the deliverable. I conveniently neglected to consider how much time and effort it takes to get there.
The reality is that the value a consultant delivers to a client mainly comes from the work ‘behind the scenes’ and this should not be underestimated. In my experience so far, many projects go over budget at the expense of us, the consultancy firm, because we are always questioning and interrogating everything so rigorously to be sure we have thought about all of the options. Despite the fact we do this every day, because no project is ever the same, you are never certain how long things will take until you are in the thick of it.
So many hours are spent deviling the detail, hypothesising, reframing the problem etc… And to my surprise, the most intensive time is spent preparing for workshops – either with the client, or with consumers. This literally takes days, but when the spade work is put in up front, the outputs are absolutely positively disproportionate to the effort.
The moral of the story is that the value of something isn’t just in the end result. The end result would not be possible without what goes before it.
- Always ask for a full proposal, costed by stage, so you have complete transparency of how much each element is costing.
- Never work with a consultancy you don’t trust. You have to believe they are wanting to invest in a long-term partnership with you, which means being open, honest and fair from the outset.
Myth 5: They will just sort it for me, no problem!
If I tell you that good consultancy firms aren’t just sitting around with lots of spare capacity and waiting for stuff to do, you probably won’t believe me but it’s true! So, when a last minute client request comes in, it does usually mean there are late nights ahead for your consultancy team.
We do genuinely want to help our clients but, like you, we also have to plan our time so that all clients are serviced effectively. We never beg from Peter to pay Paul so to speak, so if you ask us to do something outside of the project scope, or ahead of time, we won’t bump another client to do it, but instead end up staying late in to the night to get it done. As you can imagine, this isn’t ideal in many ways. Firstly, the quality of work you will get when the consultant is tired and under considerable pressure to deliver to a very tight deadline won’t be as high as when they’ve got time to do it properly. Contrary to popular belief, we are human and do need sleep to function properly…….!
The root causes of the last minute requests, in my experience, come from two sources:
- Stakeholders – it’s often underestimated how much time stakeholder engagement takes, and how quickly their moved goal posts can be responded to.
- You! – we all do it… procrastinate. You know you need to brief something, but you haven’t got the head space or time in your diary to think about the brief at the moment, so you just keep putting it off.
- If you want to have a good working relationship and good quality work from your consultancy don’t give them ridiculous deadlines.
- As a general rule of thumb, however long you think something should take to do, triple it! Seriously, this was a big eye opener for me.
- Try to give the consultant as much of a ‘heads up’ as you can when something is ‘brewing’. Don’t wait until you’ve dotted the ‘i’s’ and crossed the ‘t’s’, but communicate regularly even if it’s just ‘thinking aloud’ – the formality of a brief can wait but at least the cogs can start churning in the mean time.
- Try to anticipate in advance what big stakeholder meetings might be coming up and what they will be expecting to see from you so you can be one step ahead of the game and be prepared.
So, being a consultant is great – it’s not better than being a client, it’s just very different! The biggest difference is focusing on the ‘why’s’ and not the ‘what’s’ and having a few less hours of sleep than I’m used to…
image credit: 7cs.cc
Shelly Greenway is a Visual Brand Strategist at UK consultancy Reach. She has client experience in brand marketing and innovation at Johnson & Johnson, Reckitt Benckiser, Kraft Foods and Danone.