In my last post on the Art of Consulting I compared a consultant to a waiter. My aim was to consider the balance of customer service (attempted compliance with the customer’s perceived agenda, at least) and honest advice.
- The first waiter is willing to provide whatever the customer wants.
- The second offers a menu but with no recommendations.
- The third recommends certain items from the menu.
- The fourth advises the customer to go elsewhere.
- The fifth tells the customer he doesn’t look well enough to eat.
Which of these behaves most like a good consultant?
My own view is that a consultant must always be:
- Demonstrably expert
- Demonstrably experienced
- Unequivocally honest
- Of good repute
- Impartial and independent (or declare his interests)
The first waiter sounds like he’s intent on the best possible customer service, though in reality I find it hard to believe that ‘anything is possible’ at short notice. (There’s a myth that Harrods in London will sell you anything you want as long as you can pay for it, but I find that hard t believe too!) But a consultant doesn’t just do anything the customer asks him to do. Rather, he advises.
The second waiter, who offers a choice from a menu, but without offering advice, sounds like a consultant I once employed in my company. He was one of the cleverest we ever had and could absorb the capabilities of a business software system simply by reading a manual from cover to cover (and even seemed to enjoy that experience). He was also eager to please. At the time I compared him favourably with another more plodding consultant whom I’d employed for far longer.
So I was somewhat surprised when a client begged me to send them the plodder rather than the clever one. ‘We can see that XXXXXX is clever, and that he knows his stuff,’ they told me, ‘and we do like him, but he won’t tell us what to do. He gives us at least four options to choose from, and, frankly, we don’t know which of the four options is the best one. YYYYYY on the other hand just offers us one option and we get on with it, and as far as we can tell, the options he recommended have all worked.’
Intellectual uncertainty, and rational self-doubt, however justified, are not what customers are looking for.
True, the third waiter also offers a choice, but the he also lays out the premise for each one – ‘If you like fish…’, or ‘If you like meat….’. This sounds more like a consultant to me.
But what about the fourth? The fourth is alarmingly honest, and the fifth is almost offensively honest.
Both act against their immediate interests – revenue (and tips). At least they appear to. And this lends credence to their advice. But what if the fourth waiter has a stake in the restaurant to which he sends the customer? This raises a point about independence and impartiality. Independence and impartiality must be both real and apparent. A consultant must always declare his interests, whether financial or merely psychological (such as friendship with a potential supplier).
Some consultants (for example, in the world of business software) are more closely allied with a particular product than with others, and have more experience of it. The customer must be made aware of this. It is not always possible to rid oneself of all influences.
In my early days in the business, working for Coopers & Lybrand in 1991 in Budapest, I had a small stake in a local company that was reselling the British financial system, SunSystems, which was already a popular choice for multinationals investing in former Communist Eastern Europe. I was asked by Coopers & Lybrand to advise Shell on systems. This clearly created a conflict of interests, but once I had declared my interest, and given that Shell were likely to choose SunSystems anyway, it was seen as an advantage by Shell that I knew the system and could help them with it.
In fact, I like both of the last two waiters. Honesty must sometimes trump business advantage. If, as consultants, we really don’t think that we can help a client (either because we don’t know enough or even because we’re not going to be available) then we should turn the business down. In the virtuous world we live in, this often redounds to our advantage at some later time.
The last level of honesty is difficult, and it’s only possible if the relationship is already strong. Remember, messengers sometimes get shot. So perhaps I would recommend the waiter who comes somewhere between number four and number five and is very sensitive to the situation.