Chris Sands – Director of Professional Services

I’ve been Consulting in IT for 35 years now and I’m often asked by friends and business associates what they should be looking for when hiring people in to carry out consultancy. After all, there are lots of consultancies to choose from and they’ve heard plenty of horror stories.

My top tip is basically to exercise common sense, but in my experience this commodity is not as common as you would think.

The best 2 scenarios in which you should employ a consultancy are:

  • For things that you only do occasionally, and you don’t need to keep the capabilities all the time. So, a specialist HR person to deal with grievances or specialist to upgrade your ERP system.
  • To get something done that you couldn’t do yourself and to do it without having to learn by your own mistakes.  You can also get it done in a shorter space of time.

The danger in the second scenario is that you don’t get the skills in-house, so always factor into your thinking about how you will take over these skills.

So, if you are going to take the plunge. Here are the 5 things you need to look for when choosing your consultancy partner, and you need all 5.

#1 They need to listen

The biggest complaint that I hear about consultancies is that they simply don’t listen to what the customer really wants. It’s really frustrating to tell somebody one thing and you get something back that’s completely different.  From a Consultant’s point-of-view it can be easy to fill in the dots and the temptation is to discover fewer dots when working with a Client and the joining up of the dots can be more imaginative. If you are being asked lots of questions and you feel the Consultant is drilling down on your answers, then this is a good indication that they are creating enough of the dots to be a pretty good representation of what you will need.

When I was a young Consultant this was the thing that I found most difficult. I wanted to impress my clients with how much I knew. I was also keen to get going and didn’t want to ‘waste’ time talking to the people who were doing the job. After all, how difficult could what they were doing be. Luckily for me (and my clients) I was taken aside by a wiser older colleague who told me that the perfect balance of a meeting was at least two-thirds the client talking and never more than one-third me talking on the scientific basis that we have two ears and one mouth. This also cured me of my desire to impress.

#2 They need to be honest

Consultants have a bad reputation for honesty. I remember as a young consultant being told off by a salesman for telling the truth. I had told the client that the software solution that they had already implemented, albeit disastrously, and which was in competition with the Cognos software that we sold, was perfectly capable of doing what they wanted to do. They needed to go back to basics and understand what they were trying to measure in the business and why.  The software they had was not at fault.  The advice they’d got was poor and the project had been terribly run, but with better advice and half-decent project management they’d be fine.

You need a Consultancy that is happy to say that they can’t help you, when they can’t. If they’ve listened to you and think that you need a certain solution and that you haven’t got the budget for that it really does no one any good to cut the number of days down to get it in your budget.  Or, if you haven’t got the real buy-in from senior management then it’s probably better to work on that rather than getting started on something that will not transform the business. The satisfaction that you get from a client’s senior management team when they say that they can’t imagine running the business without what you have delivered is worth its weight in gold and makes up for the wait.

In my line of business, the 2 biggest impediments to success are bad data and lack of senior management sponsorship.  These issues can be covered in a 5-minute conversation. No need for an extensive PowerPoint presentation and demonstrations.  Not matter how much I need to pay my mortgage and put food on the table, these are immutable facts and the project will not be successful until these 2 things are sorted out. When you are talking to a consultancy find out how willing they are to talk about the impediments to success and how much they gloss over these things. It’s a pretty good indicator.

#3 They need to have done it (or something like it) before

In presentations always look for how much time is spent on talking about how they have solved similar problems for other clients rather than generically how great they are. The look of relief that I get when I ask potential clients if I can skip the first 10 slides of the PowerPoint which is telling them how great we are so that we can spend more time on their specific challenges and how we might be able to solve them.

Always take up references. I am amazed how often clients don’t contact the references that we’ve provided. We’re proud of them and what we’ve done for them. Someone once said to me it’s like going for a job as a juggler and having a long interview covering where you learnt juggling, why you like it and where you’ve worked and nobody ever saying, ‘Can we see you juggle?’.  I have lost out to firms where I knew that they simply did not have the skills that they needed to complete the engagement. I have lost out and then turned up on a sub-contract role to deliver the exact same requirement, which as, my grandkids would say, was totally awks! We all had a good laugh about it, and I joked that I wished we had spent more time on the first 10 PowerPoint slides.

#4 They need to know what they are talking about (and you can understand it)

Consultants have a reputation for using language and concepts that no one really understands. You can be made to feel an idiot for not being up-to-date with the latest hot topic from The Harvard Business review. The rule of thumb that I use is that if the person cannot explain something simply than they probably don’t understand it themselves. If they can’t understand it, then it’s very unlikely that they’ll be able to implement it in a coherent way. I would urge everyone to say when they don’t understand something or when it’s not clear. There are billions of Pounds that would have been saved on the various consultancy fads if people had just pressed a little harder and been happy to say that the Emperor seems to be buck naked.

On one occasion we were talking to a client in the NHS for some consultancy work to create a series of scorecards to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of some of the services that were being offered. At the end of the meeting the CFO asked me why he should use a small consultancy firm when he could use McKinseys. My answer was that if he employed McKinseys there was a very good chance that he’d be the stupidest person in the room, whereas if he employed us, I could guarantee him that he wouldn’t be. Good consultants work hard to make something intelligible. Just as great footballers don’t always make the best coaches, because they struggle to understand why people can’t do things that they find so easy, so clever academic types can find it difficult to talk at a level that the people who make use of what they do can actually understand it and implement.

#5 They need to be clear how they’ll get the job done

In my opinion this is where you should be spending 50% of the time in discussions with the consultancy. A couple of high level Gannt Charts are not enough. It’s the least exciting part of any engagement but it is where most of the things that will stop the engagement being a success can be found.  You will want to know how much effort you are going to have to put in. The likelihood is that it will be a serious commitment and needs discussing in detail.  You should also have confidence in how they are going to get you to where you want to be and how you will know you are making progress. And most importantly, what are the sorts of risks you should be aware of.  When a consultancy is happy to talk about what could go wrong you know that they have thought seriously about delivery in the real world. If you were setting off on a gruelling adventure into a beautiful wilderness, you’d be well advised to take along a Bear Gryll’s type of person, who knows the pitfalls that you might face and who can get you out of any unforeseen scrapes, as a guide. The equivalent that you see in consulting is someone setting off into the blue beyond armed only with a glossy brochure, a compass app on their mobile phone and a couple of guys who used to be in the Boy Scouts. These are the people who end up, at best, looking like idiots on Social Media and, at worst, dead.

If you follow these 5 rules then you will work with an ideal partner and they will be a consultancy that you will benefit from working with.  If you find a consultancy that meets all these criteria, then be sure to tell all your friends about them.