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Are consulting firms missing the new mark with their thought leadership?

The factors clients take into account when deciding which firm to hire have shifted radically in the last year. As we’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, expertise, which pre-pandemic was taken for granted—it was assumed that every major firm could do everything—now plays a pivotal role. Clients seeing consultants afresh via Teams and Zoom, have found it easier to identify who the real specialists are. While factors that are harder to appreciate remotely (culture, global reach) have become less important, those that give comfort and assurance from afar (brand) now sit alongside expertise in terms of importance.

At the same time this shift was happening, the thought leadership produced by consulting and other professional services firms was, our research showed, becoming more important to clients. In June 2021, for example, we found that 70% of clients said that they were most likely to consume thought leadership when a major business change was being planned—and, clearly, organisations were taking a lot of important decisions during the crisis. When we explored this finding further, it became obvious that thought leadership was playing a critical role in helping align senior stakeholders around those big decisions. We also found significant sharing of insightful thought leadership between executive teams—an ROI that is neither visible to nor measurable by the publishing firm. Much as strategy consultants might have done had they been able to be in the room at the time, it offered the expert opinion and reassurance that built consensus.

But, if we look at our most recent client perceptions data, where we ask clients about the relative importance of different factors when considering which firm to hire, thought leadership has dropped from being the third most influential factor in 2021 to the 7th this year. In part, this change may reflect the extent to which thought leadership replaced the opportunities for in-person dialogue during the pandemic, and that executives had more time and/or flexibility in their day to engage with content. But that’s leading us to wonder if professional services firms are now missing a trick, that they’re not producing the kind of material clients want and need.

What’s missing? Certainly not expertise. Thought leadership is a critical means by which a firm can communicate the range of depth of its knowledge in a way that conventional, brand-led marketing can’t. But it’s what the experts say that matters. A major lesson during the early days of the pandemic is that, faced with an unprecedented crisis, people with practical, real-world experience could decide and act very quickly. They didn’t need to wait for the data to be gathered because, on balance, they knew what the answer would be. Their track record spoke volumes, meaning that they didn’t feel the pressure to waste time justifying their decisions when clear and simple explanations were sufficient. Above all, these people didn’t need to hide from the problem: Indeed, they were hired because of their ability to anticipate, confront, and resolve them.

And it seems likely that that is what’s missing here. Less experts and more experience, delivered in face-to-face meetings is what’s needed to hit the new mark with their thought leadership. If you’re fighting a war, Napoleon said, you run towards the sound of gunfire.