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Sunday, 06 March 2016 17:08

Giving the client's watch back

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We’ve all heard the joke: a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. What makes the joke funny, in the way Dilbert is funny, is that we know there is some truth in it. I don’t want to tar all consultants with the same brush, but some consultants really do just borrow your watch to tell you the time. To be fair, many don’t and even when they do, sometimes it’s what the client asked for.

Consultants are an easy target for cynical humour. An often well paid profession with a history of self-aggrandisement is bound to be. I say this as someone who goes around with the brand “consultant” myself. When I talk about consultants, I am thinking “us” as much as “them”.

Part of the reasons we are such a common focus for jokes is our behaviour. I want to explore one murky issue with consultants’ behaviour. I want to discuss what happens when consultants finish their engagements. What happens when it’s time to give the client’s watch back?

Those dastardly consultants

At the end of a consulting engagement it is common to hand-over something to a client. This frequently includes advice about what to do next. There is an obvious moral hazard in asking a person who is dependent on you for their income about what you should do next. There is always a temptation to recommend that part of what you do next is buy some more consulting time. And I think it is a moral hazard that many consultants leverage as pretty much business-as-usual behaviour.

This moral hazard has two elements: manipulating advice as to next steps and building a client dependency.

Next steps plans are often shaped around consulting service lines. This might be easy to identify except it is perfectly legitimate for an explicitly commercial organization as any consultancy is, to try and sell-on to clients. It is also sometimes the right to advise the client to buy more consulting service. But there is a fundamental difference between the situation in which a client continues to use a consultant’s services after an initial engagement because it is the right thing to do – and a process of manipulating the advice to ensure that this happens.

And let’s be honest. This happens all the time.

The other hazard I mentioned concerns the building of client dependency. That is engineering a situation in which the client needs to continue to use someone with the consultant’s skills. Again there is a subtle, but clear, distinction between a client deciding the consultant has more value to add, and the deliberate engineering of an engagement so that a dependency is created.

This is not only unethical – it is bad consulting. The skill of a really good consultant is not just to help whilst they are around, it is having a lasting influence after the work is over. If you do not make a lasting impact on the client after your engagement is finished, then you are not a good consultant. It is how the client organization continues for the better after you have finished that is the real measure of success. By the time you finish, the client should be able to use their own watch. 

Anyway, if you really want to keep the client’s watch – why not take a permanent job with them?

One point always to keep in mind is that once an engagement starts, the client is paying for help. The client is not paying to be sold to. It is not paid business development. When consultants start thinking of paid work as part of their sales funnel, then they are on the wrong side of the ethical line.

The innocent clients

So here we have it: nasty, self-serving consultants manipulating poor defenceless clients. Except, of course, it is not that simple.

Clients are often complicit in their manipulation by consultants. Clients can be lazy and give consultants a lack of oversight. Clients do not always challenge consultants’ findings, especially the next steps, robustly enough. Clients regularly accept consultants wandering around their organization selling whilst they are billing.

Clients routinely extend consultants once they are engaged, because it’s simpler than finding someone else. Recruitment, resourcing and procurement processes can be so complex that existing consultants are extended to avoid the pain of finding someone more suited to a role. All consultants know it’s much easier to carry on with a client than get through the door in the first place.

Then there is the stupidity of inflexible pay-grades and headcount limits. These often mean it’s often possible, without challenge, to engage a consultant for a long time on an extraordinarily high day rate. Yet it’s not allowed to employ someone for a significantly lower cost, who could do the work just as well, because it does not fit the pay and headcount model.

With these widespread client behaviours, it is not really surprising that the consulting industry very profitably leverages them. If you are going to hand your watch over, at least keep control of it.

 Finding the right balance

For consultants – yes you are a business.  But you are in a privileged position. As such you should take ethics on board, and not just in your company values statement or marketing materials. I’m sure many consultants are exemplars of ethical behaviour. But it’s hardly unknown that some manipulate findings and try to become a critical part of the client’s organization.

I’m not suggesting you forget sensible commercial behaviour. I am suggesting you take ethics seriously and regularly ask yourself: whose interest are you pursing primarily? When it is no longer the clients, you are abusing that privileged position you have. If you do, don’t be surprised by the continued cynicism about our industry.

For clients – don’t be lazy, complicit or naïve. Or if you choose to be, I’m afraid you will quickly find someone who will happily take advantage. All for a very reasonable day rate!

Read 4473 times Last modified on Sunday, 06 March 2016 17:13
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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