"I'm more of an idea rat."
--Ratbert, Management Consultant ("The Dilbert Principle")
As a once and future consultant, it's a violation of our code of honor to say this, but most consultants aren't worth the cost of a catered lunch, let alone an hourly rate.
To be fair, some consultants are worth it, even at their exorbitant rates. When your organization lacks domain expertise, contacts, or esoteric skills, it makes sense to bring in the gunslingers. For example, many companies use naming consultants to come up with company and product names. These consultants bring a structured, disciplined process to the problem of naming. Even if some on your marketing team are unhappy with the results, they can at least respect the fact that their input has been heard. If the scope of work is specific, the deliverables are tangible, and the consultants are accountable, it also makes sense to look for outside help. A classic example is Sapient, a technology consultancy that has thrived by offering fixed-price, fixed-deadline project pricing and paying penalties for late delivery.
On the other hand, this type of necessary, carefully defined contract is far more rare than the opposite: the vague request for help that's basically a blank check for the lucky consultant that wins the contract.
The problem with consulting is simple. A consultant's incentives are seldom aligned with yours. Most consultants charge an hourly rate. Like lawyers, their incentive is to bill as many hours as possible. In contrast, your marketing budget would be better off if any consultants brought in bill as few hours as possible. Most consultants also get paid in cash. This means that the success or failure of your marketing campaign, or even your company as a whole, means little unless you represent repeat business.
The symptoms of a worthless consultant are fairly easy to detect: long meetings, colorful PowerPoint slides, buzzwords, and a dearth of clear roles, responsibilities, and action items. If these symptoms sound familiar, you could have Consultivitis. Here's how you recognize the warning signs and, better yet, nip them in the bud.
Note from the author: Thanks for sending in your feedback. It's great to hear from you and to know that I'm striking a chord with you, whether you agree or disagree. Since this column is really for your benefit, I'd love to find out what topics you'd like me to write about in the future. Feel free to drop me a line with your suggestions, and I'll credit the readers whose topics are chosen.
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Chris and his work have been featured in Fortune, the Financial Times, and the New York Times. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School.
March 19, 2014