The new book ‘Big Con’ by Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington is a damming assessment of the consulting industry particularly the relationship between the large consulting companies and public and private companies as well as risk-averse governments. While the book paints a critical picture of consultancies and the consultant industry, for commerce and industry, the use of consultants is often beneficial, but needs to be used with discretion. Consultants come in many forms of speciality and experience including Engineering, IT, manufacturing, and logistics and of course management. For the commercial manager, responsible of producing profitable income by satisfying customer demand, consultants can be a useful additional resource.
Other than in large organisations, management and administration tend to be kept small and need to be agile. The careful use of outside consultants can be a cost effective way to engage the best experience for only as long as required. Outsourcing specialist areas such as advertising and Public Relations to specialist consultancies have been considered normal for a long time. Now there are also different disciplines regarding e-commerce, social media and data management where outside consultants can and do provide cost effective specialist expertise and experience outside of the client’s own.
To be effective in any of these areas or other disciplines, consultants need to be fully and accurately briefed on the client’s requirements and intended outcomes. There needs to be good communication between the consultant and client to ensure that the brief is clear and that it is adhered to.
Companies seek consultants generally in order to provide new knowledge outside, of their own limitations, perhaps to answer specific business questions or advise on identified or unidentified short-comings. Consultants may be used to give peer group assessments of management plans and decisions. However, they can also be misused to prove a smoke-screen, or an “independent” endorsement of unpopular management decisions.
When considering using outside consultants, commercial managers need to be clear about:
• What is the objective?
• Whether the requirement continuous or specific?
• The need for additional expertise that they currently don’t have
• What benefits would outside experience bring.
Additionally, does the organisation seek:
• A dispassionate third party view to provide answers for perceived problems?
• Confirm management thinking.
• Provide excuse for responsibility
The responsibility for generating the profitable revenue for any business is that of the commercial manager, who is in charge of all those activities which are directly or indirectly involved in anticipating and satisfying customer demand. But in assessing the performance of their marketing activities, every commercial manager may at some time develop a tendency to “tunnel vision,” restricting their ability to identify and appreciate new threats and opportunities.
Outside consultants provide a dispassionate answer to business problems with a different perspective as “the onlooker, who sees most of the game,” free from company politics and prejudice. Generally consultants are either analysts who investigate problems, or developers, providing solutions to requirements, but they can combine both attributes. Consultants should not prescribe answers but encourage and guide clients to ownership of their own solutions.
Robert Townsend, former Chairman of Avis Rent-a –car, was of the opinion that small consultancies or individuals were better value than large consultant companies. His logic was that small consultancies and individual consultants did the work themselves, whereas much of the work done by large consultants was done by juniors with limited experience.
When a professionally qualified consultant, properly briefed provides an answer to a problem, it should be based on their dispassionate analysis of facts coupled with their experience and expertise. How that answer is received by the client depends largely on why the client asked the question in the first place. Usually, the client is seeking confirmation for their own actions, or for alternative and new answers to their own. For the commercial manager with an open mind to new ideas and results, the opportunity of a meeting to explore the ideas of informed consultants can prove very beneficial. Alternatively, the commercial manager who rejects such opportunities may be accused of having a closed mind to anything “Not invented here” and afraid of peer group scrutiny. The attitude of “we know all there is to know” by some chief executive officers and commercial managers, is not helpful to the company as it tends to fossilize productive management thinking and practice. If a consultant identifies a previously unidentified problem to which they have a solution, then why did the management fail to notice it before? However, while principles learned in one situation may be adapted for another, the experience of one business does not translate directly to another because the business size, market and culture are frequently different.
Assuming they have been selected for their competency and experience, consultants can make a major contribution to the success of the marketing organization by providing specialist expertise, independent analysis, and objectivity. It should be remembered that consultants are not experts, but only specialists in particular areas of study or experience. Consultants do not claim to provide the perfect answer to every marketing or management question, neither do they claim to be always right, but whether or not their answers are acceptable will largely depend on how well they were briefed, the prevailing culture of the business, and the real purpose of their engagement.
© N.C.Watkis, Contract Marketing Service 21 Apr 23