Are consultants just a drain on resources? Not the good ones, who provide bespoke solutions and work quietly behind the scenes. My favourite joke about consultants is: “Why is a management consultant like a hippopotamus? Because they are thick skinned and charge a lot!”

This weak pun summarises the somewhat jaundiced view of management consultants held by many people. Perceived as adding little value to the organisation or the project, consultants have been blamed for everything from the collapse of major IT projects, needless reorganisation, and process re-engineering; plus the wholesale destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, as they continue to produce ever more meaningless reports and glossy publications.

Yet the international consultancy market is supposedly worth billions of pounds each year. Within our own insurance and claims communities, consultants are used on a daily basis. Why is it then, that the most often heard complaint is one of broken promises and failure to deliver – yet the consultancy industry continues to thrive?

Partially, the reason must lie in a perception that is not based on reality. Most successful consultancies will be working “behind the scenes” and numerous projects are successfully concluded with little fuss. Only the disasters become the folklore of public knowledge and these relatively rare events serve to fuel the fires of dissatisfaction.

The second reason why there is a misconception is due to abuse of the English language. To me, consultants who arrive with a ready-made and off-the-shelf solution (perhaps an IT, marketing or human resources application) are not actually consultants at all. They are merely sales people intent upon making the problem fit the solution.

There is nothing wrong with sales people. Consultants are as entitled as any other company to promote their wares. However, to suggest that an organisation can somehow be objective and have independent experts, whilst simultaneously having ready-made “solutions” available to order, is surely a contradiction and a conflict of interest.

For me, the role of consultant requires that problems and opportunities be examined with open eyes, open minds and no hidden agendas. The so-called consultancy that is really a front for pre-designed products and services does no one any favours, least of all the consultants themselves.

The real consultancy market is substantially smaller than is often quoted. The remainder is made up of vast expenditure on (usually) IT products and services that are no more independent than those of the used-car salesman. That is not a criticism, but simply a statement of fact. Pre-packaged product-based selling organisations should not be hiding behind the cloak of independence and objectivity.

The primary role of the real management consultant must be to bring not only expertise in the given subject, but an ability to be “constructively critical”. In other words, the client will need to accept that a consultant will be seeking the real and underlying reasons for problems and recommending solutions that may not always be palatable or easy to implement.

Indeed, there is a new school of thought in the consultancy world that suggests that their role does not lie in recommending solutions at all. Instead, the consultant acts as facilitator to change the way in which the client company works and thinks, enabling it to find its own solutions.

The “process re-engineering” mania of the 1980s and early 1990s undoubtedly did the consultancy image little good, as consultancy became synonymous with wholesale and, in retrospect, sometimes unnecessary changes. Once again, though, the reality was rather different, with the new focus on process management being a useful addition to the manager's armoury.

However, it has to be said, the traditional mistake of consultant and client alike is to assume that a single theory or “management fad” can provide all the answers to multifaceted problems that inevitably involve that most complex of subjects – human beings.

Consultancy should certainly bring expertise and, perhaps, experience of the particular industry or problem area. But for the client to expect instant or easy solutions is to expect too much – after all, if it was that easy then why would you need a consultant?

Then there is the thorny issue of actually implementing the agreed recommendations. We often hear of how it is impossible to get rid of consultants once they have their foot in the door. Relatively small projects soon become vast areas of apparently uncontrollable expenditure.

Successful implementation is surely the watchword of success in any consultancy project. Yet it is sadly true to say that many reports and recommendations do end up gathering dust as companies fail to act upon the recommendations.

If the in-house expertise does not exist to drive and expertly implement the changes that are deemed necessary, then it would be remiss of any professional consultancy not to offer to help. If, as is inevitable, this incurs further expenditure by the client, then the secret is to recognise this at the beginning of the project and not half-way through.

While it is true that management consultancies have been known to shoot themselves in the foot and deliver disappointing results, it is equally true that client expectations can often be unrealistic and ill-defined.

The true scope of the project is not always agreed in advance, insufficient time and money is given to the necessary preparatory stages, and every consultancy should be offering a simple guarantee of quality – no results, no fee.

In our own specialist field of motor claims and accident repair we see countless problems and opportunities which, if successfully addressed, would lead to improvements in cost control, better customer service, leading to greater client retention, hugely improved supply chain management, and improvements in the bottom line.

Consultants can help to find the answers and even help with the implementation. But they are not the source of the real solution. That will always lie within the people and structures of the client company. Departmental turf wars can be more damaging to real progress than any supposed failings on the part of the adviser.

  • Eddie Longworth is managing director of Norton Consulting

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