The Consultant’s Role – Why we are??

The gospel according to Alan Weiss, probably the most profound statement of what we do (or rather should do) as consultants:

The role of a consultant is to improve the client’s condition.

When we walk away from a client, the client’s condition should be better than it was before we arrived, or we’ve failed.

Delete that “About Us” slide

Do consultants really add value to a business?

Lately, my limited television viewing has included the House of Lies series. Its interesting to watch real life  consulting situations melded with all the jokes and anecdotes about consultants that you have heard. And while this may be a comedy series, it does have a lot of factual details to can make consultants smile and wince in cognizance to the situations depicted.

Which brings me to the question – Do we add value to your business?

Executives I’ve spoken to are varied in their opinion, depending upon which side of the change they’re on. Some swear by the consultants they’ve hired and sing praises in every forum they find. The majority however have a not-so-favourable opinion of the value delivered.

In all honesty, we as consultants are also guilty of doing too little to change the perception that the world has of us. Its time we project and publicise the value we bring to customers, not just the size of the deals. Not just get the business, but create evangelists among clients.

 

So we can have our reputation for bringing value precede us. So we waste less time proving who we are and spend more time doing what we can do.

So we can get rid of that “About Us” slide in our presentation deck.

Mapping the true value of IT

Most analyses of IT value consider the quantitative aspects of the IT investment as parameters for evaluation. The quantitative parameters like Capital and Operational cost, revenue increase etc. are strong indicators of the value of any investment. Using these parameters is a strong starting step towards understanding how valuable a particular IT investment is to the organization. However, relying solely on the quantitative benefits of an IT investment is an incomplete evaluation of the value. Quantitative benefits would only indicate the dollar worth of the investment. However, how valuable the particular investment is to the organization is dependent on other factors, which may enhance or even degrade the true value of an investment.

 

IT Value

 

The IT Investment Value Tetrad, depicted above, extends the value of IT investments across four specific areas which affect a particular investment’s value to the organization. The four factors individually increase or decrease the value of an IT investment and their sum total is a very close approximation of the true value of the IT investment.

 

The IT Investment Tetrad defines the following four factors which contribute to the value of any investment:

Quantitative Benefits – The net financial savings or gains that can be easily quantified in monetary value. These benefits essentially include savings in costs or directly attributable increases in revenue of the organization.

Qualitative Benefits – Savings or benefits from the IT investment that are more difficult to quantify in financial terms, but are still significant to business goals, strategy or operations. These include benefits like Brand enhancement, organization and operational efficiency and knowledge capital enhancement.

Risk – The risks of implementing the solution, especially the managing of costs and the achievement of identified benefits. This includes risks of delays, adverse exigencies and risk of obsolescence. Value of the investment is inversely proportional to the magnitude of risk identified.  

Stakeholder Reach – The number of stakeholders, both in terms of number and type, which are impacted, positively or negatively, by the IT Investment. For example, core network equipment, which would benefit the working of the entire branch office, is ordinarily rated higher that software procured for the exclusive use of a particular department.

The above mentioned factors, when evaluated objectively, present a true picture of the potential value that an IT investment brings to the organization. Also, as this evaluation does not rely on any one type of factor but rather represents all the factors, this type of value finds acceptance to all stakeholders.

The most important characteristic of this evaluation is that the single value arrived at the end of the analysis allows an objective comparison of different investment opportunities which may be of different types. A comparison based on the pure quantitative value would be possible only between investments of the same type. Using the IT Investment Value Tetrad, an objective comparison and prioritization of an investment opportunity to buy networking equipment can be done vis-à-vis an investment opportunity to buy software. Given the current economic scenario and the ever increasing need to classify and prioritize IT investments, the Tetrad based analysis is a powerful tool to ensure better business value.

Benefits across the table

As defined above, the IT Investment Value Tetrad can enable a rational decision making process based on the true value of any IT Investment. The specific benefits for both types of stakeholders helps the process of Business IT fitment within the organization.

Benefits for Top Management:

  • Enhanced measurability and valuation of IT Investments
  • Increased objectivity in evaluating IT Investments
  • Increased clarity on the strategic role of IT in the business
  • Compelling business justification for Investments to present to external stakeholders

Benefits for CIOs and IT Managers:

  • Stronger Business based valuation of Technology
  • Objective prioritization of IT investments in relation to Business goals
  • Stronger business case to justify investment requirement
  • Increased contribution to the Organization’s strategic goals

Interviewer Etiquette

A lot has been said and written about how a candidate should dress, groom, speak, behave, non-verbally communicate, answer the questions at an interview. While most of these suggestions are taken seriously and often followed, it brings me to wonder about the lack of such suggestions for the interviewer. After all, an interview is a two way process.

Consider then this anecdote shared with me by a very good friend:

“When I received a call for an interview at the firm’s residential guest house rather than the corporate office, I had to wonder whether I would be subjected to a “casting couch” of sorts. Considering the person interviewing me was the Sales Head of one of the largest IT firms in India, I gave him the benefit of being impossibly busy. Being the professional I’d like myself to be projected as, I landed at the address, dressed impeccably in suit and tie, even though it was the end of a long gruelling day. 

When I reached the place, I was asked to wait for exactly 27 minutes. If I were in an office, I would have asked to be announced again. However the caretaker of the guesthouse had already done so… twice! As I was just about to leave a note, I was greeted by an unshaven man, dressed in a loose T-Shirt and Bermuda shorts, holding a copy of my resume. I was informed that the original person, the erstwhile Sales Head was unable to make it to the meeting and this person, another Sales Head at par with the original interviewer in the corporate hierarchy,  would now be taking my interview.

What followed was perhaps the worst interview of my life. Rather than discuss my strengths and weaknesses as suited to the role, this person started off a diatribe about various competitors and industry individuals. That, using some of the most colourful language I had heard. He spoke about people in the industry who I worked with and had learnt a lot from. After about 10 minutes into the “knowledge session”, I excused myself and called the interview to a close, when I realised that this individual would be a regular contact during my workday, if I chose to join the organization.”

While I listened to my friend, I realised that this is not some obscure firm operating out of a small town in India. This is one of Indian IT’s biggest powerhouses, held as a shining example of professionalism. And I could not help but wonder:

1. What kind of impression did my friend now carry about this organization?

2. What would be his feedback to his circle, should someone ask him for his opinion about this firm?

3. In the future, if my friend had to make a decision about business deals with the firm, how could it be anything but negative?

4. For a third party listener like myself, what is my impression about this firm and its care for its brand?

 

Probably this is a stray incident and it might be an exception rather than the norm. However, this was a senior level position my friend was interviewing for. There would have been some ways the whole incident could have been managed:

1. The original interviewer could have been courteous enough to call and let my friend know directly that he would be late or unable to make it to the meeting.

2. Reschedule the meeting rather than allow the meeting be conducted by a proxy who obviously had no clue about the position being hired for, much less the skills needed for interviewing.

3. Ensure the meeting is held in a formal manner. Treating the same casually like a chore to be "ticked off the To Do list” just leaves a bad impression on the candidate.

4. Remember the axiom “A good customer tells three, a bad customer tells nine”. This holds true for partners, vendors and potential employees.

5. Protect your brand value. Marketing can build a brand only so far. It is the “moments of truth” that actually build the brand.

Just like hiring managers would not hire an unprofessional, shabbily dressed, ill mannered and casual candidate, the same holds true for candidates. In today’s day and age, where the average employee lifespan is 18 months, it is important that employers extend the same professionalism that they expect from their candidates, not just in the work life once they’re hired, but from every “moment of truth” that they have with the candidate.

Saying No to the Customer

 

A lot of thought provoking insight comes when you interact with people. People who play various roles: Spouse, parent, leader, subordinate, fellow citizen. As a sales person, the one fundamental role that stays with me is that of a customer. Hardened sales leaders will concur that everyone you meet is a customer and you are always selling.

So then what happens when the customer is being unreasonable? When the customer is bullying you into delivering free services? Or cutting your price way below your cost, just because he’s the bigger guy? What happens when the customer ignores the value of the products or services you deliver and evaluates them as a commodity?

You say NO !!!

Agreed, you may not get the business. Agreed, you may let your competitor win. Agreed, you might fall short of your target this quarter. Agreed, the customer will not want to have anything to do with you henceforth.

The number one reason why you would want to risk all of the above is that you BELIEVE you have something of value to offer. If you believe your product or service is differentiated from its competitors, its relatively easy to avoid succumbing to unreasonable demands from customers.

I do not advocate walking away from every deal that starts to show some sign of trouble. I am assuming you have done everything to ensure that the uniqueness of your product is conveyed to the customer. A detailed, logical comparison between your offering and the competitors convinces most buyers. But to those few customers who will not see reason and unreasonably negotiate like its an agenda, its always noble to shake hands and walk away.

Three things happen here:

  1. You leave with your differentiation and market position intact. You did not succumb to becoming a commodity and hence decrease your chances of being treated as one. Sometimes being a snob is good.

  2. The customer will gain respect for you. When such a buyer is playing unreasonable, she’s not going to expect you to be reasonable and mature. When you walk away from the table, the buyer will be left with an impression that he is missing out on something. Doubt can be good.

  3. Chances are you get what you pay for. If the competitor vendor is going to win the deal on unreasonable terms, 95% of the time, quality will suffer. So the next time the buyer looks for a product or service, they will remember the one vendor who refused to compromise on the product or service they believed in.

But, the primary requirement for taking this stand is your unwavering belief that your product or service is unique and differentiated and can bring genuine value to the buyer.

Comments from readers, especially from the buyer side of the table, are welcome.

A year’s worth of no blogging

Its surprising to note that its been more than 14 months since my last post. Not that I’ve run out of things to say, so its about time I break the streak. Henceforth, we write!!

Thank you, Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs Picture courtesy: Apple Computer Inc.

It must be very strange that I write my reactionary post to the demise of Steve Jobs, five days after he passed away. Unlike most media agencies who would have a readymade eulogy for every ailing celebrity, for me, the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs was extremely sudden and has still to sink in. It was just like the time I was told that Michael Jackson passed on.

I am not an Apple user, have never bought an Apple product (apart from an IPod that I was gifted and hardly use) and have been fed a staple of competing products from the day I saw my first computer. But when you saw an Apple product, you felt envy. They were beautiful, simply beautiful. While most of us would argue that were not exactly functional, you have to agree that they were beautiful.

As a computer technician, I remember when I was asked to install software on an iMac G3. None of the other technicians wanted to take that service call. This was in India where the standard is Windows and Intel. And the Apple iMac was the costly fancy gadget that everyone wanted to just gape at and not mess around with. In a small discussion room in my office, there stood the Bondi Blue funny shaped monitor. When I snapped out of the awe for the funny looking computer, my first reaction was “Where’s the CPU??” And when they told me, I said “Why didn’t they think of that before??”

That reaction embodies Steve Jobs’ influence on Technology. He proved that technology was not just functional, but needed to be aesthetic too. The joy of a product is not just what it can do, but also what it looks like, feels like, the experience that the user gets. For Steve, like with Michael Jackson, it was the experience, not just the product. When you focus on that, its not about the product anymore. Ask any Apple fan anywhere in the world. 

Then as I got Steve Jobs as a case study in MBA class, you started to marvel at the maverick business sense the man had. With ideas that were way beyond the present, but with constant touch with what the customer would desire, he went onto to do things that were outrageous for the norm. The Apple Macintosh, iMac, the iPod, the Macbook, the Apple Store, the iPad… everything that made no conventional business sense, but Steve knew it would work. And how.

I know Steve only from what I’ve read about him, the presentations he made and generally hearsay. But when you hear him talk about life in a commencement address to new students at Stanford, you realize the depth of the man. he was not all technology and business, not all greed and the other human shortcomings. He was about life, and being the best you can be. And he was. In his own way, Steve Jobs was the best he could be.

Sir Richard Branson, the entrepreneur I most admire, calls Steve Jobs the entrepreneur he most admired. And in a way, I have to agree. Steve Jobs was the magician and showman who resurrected not once, but thrice in an entrepreneurial career that I’m sure he looked back at with restless satisfaction. There are few people for whom Frank Sinatra’s My Way would be the perfect swan song. Sinatra was one. Steve Jobs would be the other. But then for Steve Jobs, his swan song would be the enormous legacy of products, ideas and “awesomeness” he’s left us to gape at…

I’m going to miss him say, “One more thing…”

Thank you, Steve.