The factors that distinguish good consulting probably have not changed since the early 1980s, when the era of the independent adviser gave way to that of the large-scale, complex projects that dominate today's skyline. That these factors have not changed is certainly a testimony to their fundamental importance to the consulting process, and may also indicate that - even 20 years on - clients continue to be frustrated by the number of projects that fall short of this standard.
Clients want consultants to play by the rules. Once a project has been agreed, clients want consultants to do what they have said they would, when they have said they would do it. They also want to be charged an agreed amount of money, not write a blank cheque. When consultants step outside the parameters of a project, they can erode the benefits of a project perhaps to a point where the costs exceed the return, and embarrass a client internally (who has to defend the choice and management of the consulting team). Above all else, consultants who ride roughshod over their client's expectations are guilty of failing to respect their client's constraints. Good project management starts before the contract has been signed: ‘You need a good scoping document,' said one client. ‘How a project starts is not necessarily how it finishes.' As another client put it: ‘If you are very clear about your project objectives and the role you want the consultants to play, it will hugely improve your chances of success.'
No client wants to waste time familiarizing a consultant with the issues faced by a particular sector. Thus, when it comes to hiring consultants, clients consistently rate the consultants' understanding of a sector or other specialist know-how far higher than factors such as an existing relationship, the geographical coverage of a firm, the size of a firm, and even price. The best consultants, they believe, bring a wealth of experience of issues they, as clients, may only encounter occasionally. According to one client: ‘The days are gone when a consultant borrows the client's watch to tell him the time.'
Specialist knowledge and practical experience provide the platform on which consultants build their credibility. But good consultants do not stop there: they use that credibility as a justification for having unambiguous, authoritative opinions. This is good news for clients, who have often found it difficult to pin consultants down to making definitive statements. Concerned to protect their liability, consultants can be too wary about making commitments, leaving clients themselves unsure what to do. Good consulting involves having the courage of your convictions; it means standing up to be counted.
This is - or should be - the bottom line of consulting. Clients hire consultants because there are skills they need, but lack. They could take the option of hiring a full-time employee to plug a particular gap, but consulting firms offer clients economies of knowledge. Consulting firms not only have systems and processes to help consultants learn rapidly, but they can also spread the cost of training over several clients. While consulting fees may seem high, they are still lower than if a client were to develop the skills they want in isolation. But the economics of consulting start to fall apart if the consulting firm leaves a client no better equipped than when it arrived. Unless consultants can improve management capability, they run the risk of creating a dependency culture, in which a client returns repeatedly to the same firm for the same work. Small wonder, then, that skills transfer is one of the most important success criteria from a client perspective. Of course, importance does not necessarily translate into ease. One of the reasons why skills transfer still appears among the attributes of good consulting is that it is hard to achieve in practice. Much work still needs to be done in order to analyse how know-how can be passed from consultant to client more effectively - it is a process that neither side fully understands at present and to which each side has been only half-heartedly committed in the past. Consultants have tended to see it as a nice-to-have: in an era when much consulting work is measured in terms of output delivered, skills transfer often appears to be a distraction. Clients, too, have paid lip-service to the idea and have been reluctant to make the additional investment almost certainly required. This is changing, as the cases in this book illustrate. Edengene's work with BT, for example, depended upon BT's staff becoming as familiar with the techniques for generating new ideas as Edengene's own consultants. Skills transfer is an important factor in almost every project, but it remains something much harder to achieve in practice than it appears on paper.