PROFESSIONAL SERVICES: Consulting – A view from both sides of the desk

During the 14 years that I wore corporate advertising, sales, and marketing manager’s hats, I hired a lot of agencies and consultants. They helped me with things like marketing strategy and communications, sales management, brand strategy, new product development and introduction, customer and market research, and a host of other programs. Most of the money I paid them, I would like to believe, was well spent. Some of it, I know, was wasted.

Let me first sit behind the client’s desk and share with you some characteristics of effective consultants that helped me implement successful programs.

1. They listened. Consultants, one hopes, know a lot about their chosen field and they are anxious to tell you about it. But the good ones bite their tongue until they have listened long enough to really understand your needs.

2. They had real-world experience to share. There’s no substitute for having been in the trenches. Formal education is important, but the school of hard knocks is still the best teacher.

3. They kept it simple. Change is hard. Complex change is really hard. Programs that show results are almost always simple and logical, with manageable, measurable steps. Jack Trout, a legendary management consultant, says, “Complexity is at the heart of a bad consultant’s business.” Amen.

4. They had empathy for the organization and its culture. Every company that has been around awhile has a strong culture. If you understand it and work within it, you multiply your chances for success.

As a manager, you should be concerned with your colleagues’ attitudes and morale. It always works better if your consultant shares that concern.

5. They told me what I was paying for. You’re entitled to know for what you’re being charged, how the work will be done, what the deliverable will be, and when it will be delivered. These details should be clear in the proposal and subsequent invoices.

6. They followed up. Nothing bothered me more than paying a consultant a bunch of money and then having to constantly call them to see if they were doing anything. Most of the time they were, but the onus should be on them to keep the client informed.

Now, let me switch to the consultant’s side of the desk. Here are the responsibilities that you should assume if you want your money’s worth.

1. You must invest your own time and effort. You may be hiring a consultant in part to save time, but you can’t disconnect from the process. Your interest and engagement will not only produce better solutions, but will demonstrate commitment to the rest of your organization.

2. You must decide what you want your consultant to do. Do you want him or her to be a trainer or facilitator? A messenger or presenter? An analyzer or a doer? Every consultant has a special expertise. Make sure it matches up with your requirement.

3. You must communicate. This means communicating not only with the consultant, but also with your employees. Don’t create new initiatives in an information vacuum and then expect your people to enthusiastically embrace the proposed changes.

4. You must have realistic expectations. Unless you’re in a cutting-edge, highly-fluid environment, don’t try to impose revolutionary or rapid change. Instead, look for common sense, actionable tactics that you can implement on time and within budget. And watch out the next time that someone asks you to “think outside the box.” This usually results in ideas that are also outside your company’s capabilities and your customer’s real needs.

There’s an old adage: “A consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is.” Having been on both sides of the desk, I’ve come to realize that it has to be that way. After all, who knows more about your business than you do? You and your consultant can do great things, if you make sure to synchronize your watches.

Duane Gilbert owns Strategic Marketing Services in Traverse City. He specializes in helping companies develop marketing processes and plans that are focused on measurable results; 938-0744. BN

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