A tale of three consultants

April 2011

Projects I’m involved with often mean working with other consultants and indeed I sometimes initiate this for the benefit of the client. This typically comes about when a project has a strong element of trouble shooting, because if brand and marketing issues need sorting then chances are they won’t be the only ones a business has to tackle. I take this approach for two main reasons:

  • If I didn’t, then the value of my outputs couldn’t be maximised because I’d effectively be building a brand and marketing an offer which couldn’t be fully delivered
  • It adds value to the relationship with the client

I started one such project last year, a large visitor centre with retail offer and restaurant, and as my brand and marketing strategy became clearer so did the need to bring in expertise for the complete restaurant offer (e.g. operation, staffing, stock control, menu etc.) and to advise on product buying for the retail offer. The latter needed real expertise and incite in identifying the right products for a very diverse group of consumers (and diverse because they’re largely coming to the visitor centre for a single reason but not so the shop).

I was able to find consultants for both tasks and recommended them to the client, who agreed they were needed, took them on, and put both to work.

The costs, approach and outputs of each could hardly have been more different:

  • One charged £200 per day and the other £1,500
  • One was dynamic and the other somewhat lethargic
  • One started to deliver from day one and one never really did at all
  • One produced very good reports and the other documents more akin to school projects

And, as you’ll have guessed, it was the same person who got all the positives above and therefore the other who got all the negatives. And which way around on cost? Well no doubt your instinct tells you that it really should have been the £200 per day person not delivering and the £1,500 person doing the business, but then you’ll also be thinking that if that was the case then there’d be little point to this rather sad tale. So yes, it was the £200 per day person who seriously over-delivered, and the £1,500 per day merchant who, well, never really delivered a thing.

Was I just unlucky with this as a one-off or are there some broader lessons? I think the latter and this is why: I’ve been thinking about the many consultants I’ve worked with over the last few decades (so in the last 10 years in my own business and prior to that for Argos) and there is a bit of a pattern. Those that charge excessive sums rarely seem to fully deliver (though some unquestionably do) and I wonder if it’s for these reasons:

  1. Good consultants are generally very busy and charging a sensible price ensures they earn a very good living (not to mention ensuring a sensible price also drives plenty of work)
  2. Less good consultants are not so busy but still desire the same level of income as the good guys – so they charge more
  3. The less good consultants can also be somewhat delusional and, believing they’re even better than the good guys, decide to charge even more

For the exceptional ones which charge a lot but still deliver, there’s also the problem around perceived value. So if the person who recently failed me had in fact done a very good job, that probably wouldn’t have been enough to justify the £1,500 a day – for that I expected a fantastic job and with knobs on.

In fairness my £200 a day hero should have been charging more than twice that, but I should also say that they were carrying out the consultancy work in addition to having a near fulltime job. So something of a side line for the person, but that’s not the point – the fact is they did a fantastic job and the client is delighted (not so with my other recommendation…).

But isn’t this tale about three consultants? It is, and the third person is actually someone I’ve never met but have been exchanging emails with and enjoyed a phone call with. He’s a friend of a friend and asked me for some advice around setting up his fledgling consultancy business. What did I tell him? Well as much as I possibly could and was very happy to do so, but the salient points were largely around building long-term relationships with clients through charging a sensible price and consistently over-delivering. Let’s see how he gets on.

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