Vaccinate Yourself Against Consultivitis

“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.

  • Long meetings. As you fight off the siren song of sweet, sweet slumber, your consultant is thinking, “Yes, that’s another $250 in the bank.” Remember, you’re the client. Don’t be afraid to cut off your vendors. Force them to cut to the chase. 
  • Colorful PowerPoint slides. The U.S. Army recently banned the use of PowerPoint presentations for a reason. Conducting a briefing is tough enough without animated tanks and planes roaring across the screen. The problems are even worse in the civilian world. I’ve taught public speaking and presentations at Stanford University. I’ve worked with McKinsey & Co.’s top presentation experts. I’ve never found an animation or fade that was truly necessary — except to cloak the lack of actual content. Insist on plain bullet points and plain speaking. 
  • Buzzwords. We live in the Golden Age of the TLA (three-letter acronym). Business meetings sound like Department of Defense Briefings; vague, generally misunderstood terms such as CRM, ASP, OLE, WAP, and XML get tossed around like a Detroit Lions’ quarterback. You can’t really ban these terms, but you can darned well ask for a full definition and explanation every time that one comes up. If the consultant can’t explain what it means to your satisfaction, toss him (or her, or it) out the front door. 
  • Roles, responsibilities, and action items. Ultimately, if anything’s going to get done, someone has to tackle each task. As a mentor of mine is fond of saying, you get what you inspect, not what you expect. A consultant that doesn’t have or assign clear roles, responsibilities, and action items brings to mind an old Texas saying: “all hat, no cattle.” Make your consultants accountable, or send them to the unemployment office.

If you watch out for the symptoms of Consultivitis, bringing in hired guns can be an effective way to boost your marketing results. But remember, there’s a reason they’re called consultants. The buck ultimately stops with you.

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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