Consultants a helping hand or battle of wills?

Last week we looked at consultants from the user's point of view. This week consultants answer back. Julia Vowler reports

Last week we looked at consultants from the user's point of view. This week consultants answer back. Julia Vowler reports

When it comes to having a successful relationship with a consultancy, it is a two-way street. The user has the responsibility to be a good client - and that doesn't mean having an open cheque-book and a vacant expression.

What it does mean is that if you want to get the best out of your consultants you have to enable them to do the job you have brought them in to do. This is true whether it is a top-level strategic consultancy on future business directions or nuts-and-bolts system implementation, and anything in between.

First of all, says Andy Tinlan, director of strategy at KPMG Consulting, accept that IT consulting is changing profoundly. "The old way was to write a tender which came from the IT or project manager, but now projects are sold at the main board-level," he says. "The scope of what is involved has broadened, so it is important to sit down with the chief executive and explore the business issues and drivers. That is very different from responding to a written specification."

Bill Lang, executive director at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, agrees. "Six or seven years ago there used to be strategic consulting, management consulting and IT consulting. That has completely changed. The big consultancies now have all three, and although we still see to the IT director we increasingly go to the main board and the business owners."

All consultants emphasise the absolute necessity for clarity of goals, even if that is something that can only emerge after strategic business consulting. Users who do not know what they want the consultant to achieve are asking for trouble. Moreover, they should understand that the true metric is a predefined business benefit, and not just that the accompanying system went in under time and budget.

"The success and win lines have to be clearly defined and measurable, and must be measured in terms of business objectives," says veteran consultant Roger Montague, a director at Mastek.

Successful consulting

To do this requires openness on the part of the client. "The best and most successful consulting is where clients are open about their real objectives and drivers and there are no hidden agendas where the consultant is just being brought into prove something - politics cloud the consulting issue," warns Montague.

Tinlan agrees. To get the best out of consultants clients must be prepared to be more open, to work more intimately both with their consultants and, increasingly in the age of e-business, even with their business rivals, on the creation of Internet exchanges, for example.

"The client has to be comfortable about opening up," says Tinlan. "There has to be an open agenda - not a walled garden.

"Increasingly, it's about working in a different way, being more agile. In most of our projects 80% is about coaching a culture change."

Another profound culture change is the way in which consultants are remunerated. While some clients insist on what Lang calls the "fee-rate beauty parade", consultants are looking increasingly for partnership status with their clients.

Users are justifiably wary of the word partnership but these days, especially in e-business projects, the term is nailed firmly to the idea of "risk and reward" which is much safer - at least for the user.

For the consultant it is trickier. By taking a share of the profit, rather than a fee - whether fixed or time-and-materials - although the consultant gains useful things like the confidence of the client and a future revenue stream, there is a downside.

"It is taking a punt on the client's ability to use well what we have done for them," says Lang.

"We pre-screen and assess the client and do credit checks and so on," says Tinlan. "It's risky yes, but it does create a genuine partnership."

But when the consultant has a financial interest in the project, there should be less risk of destructive distrust by sceptical clients.

"There has got to be an element of win-win," says Montague. "Shared risk and reward means there is less suspicion of us."

Lang adds, "My 'client from hell' would be where the project is given to someone who has been promoted beyond their level of competence, where the business has not been brought into the project, where the client doesn't know what they want, and when they are told they don't believe it, think money is everything and get the contract out to beat you up with all the time and create an adversarial relationship."

Perfect partners

A good consultant will:

  • Be keen to earn your trust

  • Be keen to do so well for you that you give them repeat business and become a referenceable site for them

  • Establish with you what your goals are and how you will measure success

  • Want to understand your business drivers

  • Walk away from the bid if they cannot do the project well

  • Tell you at the bid if they think you are after the wrong solution

  • Leave behind their knowledge and skills so you won't need them for the same thing next time

  • Never bid the A team and field the B team

  • Be a catalyst for change, a peacemaker between warring factions

  • Be willing to share your risks and rewards

    Are you the client from hell?

  • You are slow at decision making and the project starts to drift

  • You are secretive about your goals, and run a lot of hidden agendas

  • Dominant personalities try to hijack the project, blockers try to sabotage it

  • You bring consultants in just to confirm your point of view to a sceptical board

  • You keep tinkering with the project scope

  • You are vague about your budget

  • You keep "testing" the consultant at bid stage to see if they come up with the "right" answer you have secretly agreed on

  • Your key decision-makers remain elusive throughout the project

  • No one in-house owns the project

  • You are riddled with internecine warfare and the consultant gets caught in the crossfire

  • You run endless "beauty parades" on fee rates

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