What is Consulting?

I was talking to an IIM-Bangalore student some time back, who I happened to meet in a restaurant. We were both waiting for our food and I happened to ask her what she intended to do after graduating.

“Oh, I’m going to get into consulting”, was the reply.

So my next question was, “So what, in your opinion, is consulting?”

“Its bringing high value to the client we work with, by our expertise and experience, so as to enable them to excel in their respective industries”

Spoken like a true consultant. Her professors would be proud. Her campus recruitment office would be proud. The corporates who interview her would be floored. This kid sure had a bright future!!

But then it got me thinking about the whole deal about consulting. Having a few years of consulting experience myself, I felt there were three little issues in that definition:

1. Bringing High Value to the Client

That is usually the client’s expectation. Somehow most clients believe that they can hire this magician to come and work magic with their troubles. Consultants also, on their part, consider themselves superheroes. So very rarely is the problem the focus of the engagement, as consultants pull out their rabbits… pseudo-American accents, 50+ slide presentations, huge pivot-table spreadsheets and volumes of Arial 12pt documents!! Woe befall the client who is not wowed by this show!!!

Fix: Understand that the client has the expertise to fix the problem. The consultant only shows the way. The consultant can never bring high value. She can only enable high value.

2. Our Expertise and Experience

This is the fault that most large consultancy companies are unanimously guilty of. I agree that the collective intelligence, expertise and experience of the entire firm is a huge force to reckon with. So most consultants can wield a lot of power with that force. But very rarely are consultants taught to wield it in the right way. Most of the time, this force turns into a baton to silence client and stakeholder objections. “We’re the consultants from , what we say is Gospel truth… and we say it will work!!”

Fix: Go back to the common knowledge pool and check for similar cases. Then understand how similar assignments were delivered. Do not, ever, rehash an old assignment deliverable. The consultant may use the structure, but never the content of the old deliverable. Look for ideas to solve the problem at hand. And listen to your client with an open mind. He knows more about the business than you possibly ever will!!!

3. Enabling clients to excel

A tall order that one!! Very rarely does a consultant genuinely understand what a client’s parameters for excellence are. Simply, because he hasn’t asked the client. Coupled with their “Our expertise and experience” belief, consultants end up promising the sun, moon and a few stars, when all the client wanted was a better lightbulb. And the rest of the assignment is spent window-dressing every deliverable to justify that promise!!

Fix: Under-commit, over-deliver. Before an assignment begins, define quantifiable parameters for success with the client. Meeting those parameters are the objective of your assignment. Moreover, put a strong framework in place, with processes that enable the client to sustainably perform on those parameters. Educate your client to measure and optimize performance. All that works much better than window-dressing.

So to all the consultants, who are and will be, you may say anything that sounds good in an interview, a client meeting, a sales pitch or in an elevator…. but know that when it comes down to delivery, its your reputation that’s on the line if you can’t back up your word… with or without your firm backing you!!


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