The Cure for Clientitis

“Let’s see… unrealistic expectation, impossible deadlines, yep, better let the consultants take the fall.”
–countless pointy-headed bosses

I’ve gotten a lot of responses to my article about the value (or lack thereof) of consultants. Many of my fellow consultants asked me, for the sake of fairness, to look at the other side of the equation: the client.

Ultimately, a consulting relationship reflects the old saying, it takes two to tango. The client has to choose the consultant, and (even though we often overlook this fact) the consultant has to choose the client. It behooves both parties to make sure that the client has a fair and reasonable set of expectations from the outset, or even the most understanding of clients and the most honest of consultants might find themselves heading for a rocky breakup.

Just as Consultivitis has an easily recognizable set of symptoms, so does Clientitis. Whether you’re a consultant choosing a client or a client deciding on whether to bring in a consultant, make discretion the better part of valor at the first sign of ’em.

Vague Goals and Expectations

If a client can’t articulate its goals in less than one page (typed, double spaced, and in a 12-point font), take a pass. Or better yet, sign a consulting contract to deliver a clear set of goals and expectations. A client shouldn’t have to know how to get what she wants, but she should know what she wants. If a client doesn’t know what she wants, she needs a mind reader not a consultant. I’ve seen it happen in companies that are fat, dumb, and happy. Rather than taking the time to clearly think out their goals, managers ask consultants (or even worse, subordinates) to divine their intentions. After hundreds of hours of work, the boss then says, “Not exactly what I was looking for. Can you make it, oh, I don’t know, better?” Even if the pay seems good, trust me: It’s not worth suffering the brain damage this practice will inflict.

Unrealistic Goals and Expectations

It doesn’t do you any good if the client has clear but unrealistic goals. “Create a telesales organization that will quadruple sales in 30 days” may be clear, but it sure as heck isn’t realistic. If you can’t set reasonable expectations, it’s better to pass than to risk the wrath of a dissatisfied client — no matter how unjustified that wrath.

Inadequate Support From Management

Being a good consultant takes hard work on the part of both the consultant and the client. Every company is a complex machine, with the guts of the engine (hidden agendas and unwritten rules) concealed under the hood. To quote Elizabeth Harris of Beyond Consulting, figuring out how a company works and then acting as an agent for meaningful change is like “changing a tire while the car’s rolling down the road.” The client needs to get the consultant up to speed as quickly as possible and be totally and brutally honest about the strengths and weaknesses of the organization — and its people.

Lack of Commitment

Diamonds are forever, but consulting engagements are not. By definition — and according to Uncle Sam — consulting relationships are temporary, not permanent. That means that the client needs to stick with the changes the consultant helps bring about. Most of the ill-will that “fad” consultants have generated has come about because the clients that hired them didn’t make the commitment to pick one approach and stick to it. Instead, high on the fumes from their business magazines, managers brought in a merry-go-round of consultants, with a new approach coming in just as employees started to internalize the last new “new thing.” The client needs to have permanent staff who will work with the consultant to absorb her knowledge and make it persistent within the enterprise. Otherwise, the client will be unhappy about the lack of long-term benefits, and the consultant will be frustrated by the impermanence of her work.

A consulting relationship can be a beautiful thing — after all, I’m a consultant myself, so you know I see something positive about it — but it takes real work on both sides. Without clear and realistic goals and expectations, adequate support from management, and a long-term commitment from the client, consultants will find themselves in the unfortunate role of cannon fodder, the latest victims of Clientitis.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.