Barry Johnson and Mandy Geal challenge the stereotypical relationships between client and consultant
Reading academic analyses of consultants, listening to bias and bigotry from some senior managers can leave an impression that all is not well in the relationship between consultants and the organisations they serve. There are also profound thanks from executives in organisations who have had success in their relationships with consultants. We will explore this plethora of views from both perspectives, as a client employing a consultant and as consultants delivering to a client.
Let us be clear, consultants have a mixed reputation. In this modern era, consultants are an integral part of modern business and large organisations call on consultancies frequently. With the rapid change in the business climate, technology, the law, tighter budgets and leaner businesses, external support can be, and often is, required. That support regularly comes in the form of consultants. For project managers, the inclusion of consultants in their project team can be a mixed blessing.
Consultants can bring skills and techniques that reduce risk, speed delivery, and provide innovative solutions to problems. It is our belief that consultants rely on their reputations and, therefore, strive to give good service. With different personal goals, different past experiences, different values, and working with different pressures there are bound to be frictions.
It has been said that sometimes consultants are not easy to manage. Perhaps that is a discussion that should be had early in the relationship to clarify what they expect and what you expect.
One of the most common complaints we have heard is about money. It is surprising that members of organisations employing consultants often assume that the charge for hiring a consultant equates to consultants’ pay; a muddled view ignoring the hidden costs of sales, marketing, product development, training, administration, insurance, etc. that consultants’ fees cover. We must say value for money is very difficult to judge but once fees are agreed, our belief is that agreements should be honoured.
As consultants we prefer it when clients have a positive view of us; it is probably the same for you. But there are some myths about consultants that create a negative view and as such are worth addressing. For example – all consultants are the same. This must be self-evident nonsense. As project managers, we had many productive relationships with consultancy teams on projects we handled. But the path to a conclusion was not always smooth.
The client-consultant relationship is central to the nature of consultancy work. The term client is, however, ambiguous. It covers the organisation, hiring manager, and project manager. In the situation where a third party has imposed an external consultancy, then it is ambiguous who exactly the client is and how that term is defined. We have noted this situation occurring in financial and legal firms and by the owning organisation of an apparently autonomous business.
We believe that the company must have a project manager for every project, but as the hiring manager may not be the project manager it is best to get clear exactly who will be the company interface and who will make the final decisions, as well as the scope, objectives and boundaries of the project. The consultants should also be made aware that to bypass the project manager would be regarded as extremely bad practice. For example, I had a situation where I was both the hiring manager and the project manager only to find the consultant was dealing with the senior manager of a different division.
Oh, yes, some senior managers are pirates! Both the manager in the other division and the consultant had made assumptions and those I had to unravel rapidly. In any project using external consultants, there must be only one project manager and only one lead consultant. Those two people working in harmony are an essential.
The growth of the consultant’s industry in the past 20 years has been attributed to shifts in the organisational boundaries, as trends in outsourcing and downsizing have resulted in a range of tasks that were previously performed in-house being externalised. This externalisation has created an expanding market for consultants. As a result companies need to have managers who can interact with consultants and manage projects. In many organisations, this is a need that has not yet been adequately met.
Perhaps it should be recognised that where there is the need for external help such a role is necessary, and that managers need training to do the role successfully. In rapidly changing dynamic organisations, it is a requirement for all senior managers.
The client-consultant relationship is an important one and there are different perceptions. The first sees the client in control, with the consultant in a subordinate position. The second sees the consultant as ‘expert’ and in control, with the client seeking help in a vulnerable position. Let’s explore some positive and negative views of this relationship.
Client in control
This perception sees the client as a purchaser of a specialised knowledge service, giving rise to a contractual, arm’s-length and temporary client-consultant relationship involving the delivery of the knowledge-based service. The need for this service originates in the client’s lack of knowledge or resource deficiencies. A central characteristic of this service is the consultant’s independence from the client, which enables him or her to view the client’s organisational problems without bias and to remain separate from internal power struggles, hidden agendas, and so on.
This outsider role enables consultants to view the client organisation undistorted by history and to generate objective information – a characteristics that many argue are central to value creation. The temporary characteristic requires a clear definition of the objectives, scope, conditions of the employment, work plan arrangements, key contacts and duration of the relationship. The hiring of a consultant is very similar to employing a craftsman such as a painter in your house. You tell him or her what you want, he or she delivers on time, to standard and then you pay what you agreed to pay. Such a view assumes the clients are competent buyers who are well aware of what results they want and they have done the necessary research to offer the contract to a competent painter.
Some clients may have a suspicious view of the consultant’s use of jargon, overselling and unjustified high fees, and see him or herself in control, with the ability to hire and fire the consultant. This is something which, given the consultants’ dependence on repeat business, places the consultant in a subordinate position in relation to the client. The consultant is viewed solely as an adviser, leaving responsibility for the critical examination of recommendations and the use of the advice with the client. In situations where the client’s project manager obstructs the consultant’s work, by refusing support and co-operation based on deviant political agendas, general suspicions against consultants or fear of dependence, the consultant’s inferior position may be exacerbated. Our view is if you want poor performance from a consultant just work at getting it. You could be successful. This is a situation that we do not believe any self-respecting project manager would create.
Trustful co-operation is consequently presented as an important success factor of the client-consultant relationship. This requires the consultant to understand and accommodate the client’s professional, psychological and social needs. The consultant’s expertise, and the emotional pressure on the client needing help, limit this image of the controlling client and the dependent consultant.
Consultant in control
Many organisational cultures emphasise self-reliance and put a value on solving one’s own problems. It has been suggested for a person to seek help and make him or herself temporarily dependent on another person is a de facto confession of weakness or failure. In a pure analytical sense that may seem to be the case, but is it? It has been suggested that the consultant’s supposed understanding of this dynamic, and the client’s potential reactions to it, can give the consultant an upper hand in managing the client-consultant relationship. In this scenario, consultants have to convince clients of their value. This leads to the issue of how consultants persuade clients of the value of their services.
Our reality is that few managers in the tumult of modern high-pressure business are concerned about being dependent in any specific situation. The world is too complex to know everything that is happening. If you do have inadequate managers or managers who become disabled by some lack of knowledge, then help them or replace them. Life is just too short, and the consequences for the organisation can be too great to do otherwise.
This change of perspective shifts the image of the power distribution in the client-consultant relationship toward the consultant, depicting him or her as the controlling party in the relationship. The role of the client changes from that of an informed buyer to that of the naïve victim of the consultant’s rhetoric and impressive management skills, which ensure that the client has a positive feeling toward the service. The client’s assumed uncritical acceptance of the consultant’s services is to a large extent treated as based on the socio-psychological needs emerging from the nature of managerial work. We believe that this form of analysis is unhelpful.
The nature of organisational life places responsibility on managers to perform and achieve in a context where often they neither understand how their actions produce results, although experience shows them that they do, nor are they able to influence the most volatile element in the organisation – other people whom they don’t control. Secondly, partly as a result of this uncertainty, their assessment of themselves is also under downward pressure. That does not mean they succumb to that pressure and with experience they manage it.
Managers thus have two parallel challenges in their professional lives. One is about controlling their organisational unit and the other is about continuously contributing to its ‘performance’. Where the managers’ contributions to both their organisation and their identity are under threat, consultants’ offers of support, control, organisational improvement are about managing their identity as managers. A positive managerial identity is sought-out, and gratefully and uncritically accepted. Consultants’ ideas and techniques should, in this intervention, play a role in creating the organisation in such a way that it is possible to control, change, and ‘improve’ – and, at the same time, reinforce a positive identity of the employed managers.
We have emphasised that the negative views, embedded culture, myths and, unfortunately, some real experiences can make the relationship between managers and consultants difficult before any action is even started. Because something can happen however, does not mean it will happen. We, therefore, recommend that you exercise due diligence in the decisions involved in deciding to employ a consultant. For example, who that consultant may be, what you expect the consultant to provide, by whom and how the consultant will be managed, by whom and how final project action decisions will be made, and the cost benefits of employing the chosen consultant.
There are many elements to a consultancy project. Let’s just describe some important ones. The first is to establish that the project or problem cannot be handled in-house. We have met this situation on more than one occasion. Let us give you an example. One of the authors of this article was responsible for training and development in a UK company of a large multi-national corporation. The European Social Fund was looking to support graduate work experience training.
Having read the blurb and analysed the best approach to ensuring we could meet the criteria and manage the bureaucracy we went ahead. We told all the European divisions we were doing this, with an open invitation for them to be involved. One of my section heads, with some advice from the finance function, managed the process. We were successful and were awarded what amounted to 60,000. As I was running a ‘zero budgeted’ training and development unit at the time, it was a great earner for us.
Yes, a lot of money back in 1993 for doing something a division had been planning to do anyway. Walking through headquarters I bumped into a business MD, and we stopped to chat. It appeared he had just hired an external consultant to do the same thing as we had done. We had the experience, the requirement involved training and training was my responsibility, but he had not even picked the phone up. Why didn’t he know? The question is; do you need a consultant to do something you can do in house? To prevent this your company needs a database of skills. Has your company got such a database?
Let’s assume the decision to use an external consultancy has been taken. The decision makers will have considered the advantages and disadvantages of choosing different types of consultancy, a large one-stop shop with broad experience, which may be expensive, or a small specialist, which can match the company culture but will they have the particular experience needed? Now it comes to choosing which consultancy. You identify possible consultants and specify the objectives. You need proposals that you can evaluate with criteria to select the consultants. You talk to the consultants, discuss fees and agree a contract. You and they are on the road.
What has to happen next is to manage the consultants. It is more than managing the consultants; it is also managing your organisation. The project manager will ease open some doors and kick others down. He or she will manage relationships and keep track of the operations. The consultants will propose solutions, and the proposals will be evaluated. After this, the work of implementation that produces the outputs and changes required will begin.
One of the great advantages of bringing in consultants is that people in the organisation can learn from their experience and from observing how they diagnose the situation, propose solutions and manage the relationships. It is a great learning experience for your graduate trainees to be an assistant to the consultants, but only if you follow up with them so they can tell you what they have learned. What we are suggesting is, when you employ consultants, it is not just to solve a problem, it is also for your people to learn the skills and techniques of consulting.
We have examined different perceptions of the client-consultant relationship and considered both positive and negative interpretations of the power and control dynamics in that relationship. In conclusion, as consultants we prefer and recommend working in partnership with clients. From our experience, this type of relationship engenders the best interactions to achieve a successful outcome for any consulting project. This requires clear roles and responsibilities, but most of all requires respect for the different perspectives, knowledge, skills and experience that both client and consultant can contribute. Note that this can happen without ‘liking’ but rarely happens without trust.