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Can’t agree on the way forward in the crisis?

How many of the following challenges does your consulting firm face? Please select all those that apply:

  • We’re designing new services and products that will appeal to clients in the current climate.
  • We’ve reorganised so that previously separate teams will work together more to deliver these.
  • There’s no consensus around new go-to-market strategies and messaging.

Consultants are good at adapting, but not at agreeing. And that’s a problem in times of rapid change.

Quite early on in the current crisis, it became apparent that the consulting firms that would perform best were those that had some combination of size (long projects and diverse portfolios), strong technology practices (because businesses need it more than ever), deep client relationships in the public sector (because governments are relying on consulting support), and the ability to adapt. Of these, we increasingly think that the fourth—adaptation—is the most important.

All our most recent research indicates that clients continue to have a strong underlying need for consulting help, but this is much less likely than in normal times to translate into hiring consultants. Consulting firms can help to counter the now significant internal barriers, such as the desire to do more work in-house and, of course, severely limited budgets, by designing new services better suited to clients’ new needs—the meteoric rise of workforce planning being a good example. But consulting firms face their own internal barriers: Organised around teams of experts, whose skills and thinking they now need to integrate, arguments arise. Who’s the client and who “owns” the most critical relationships? In a multidisciplinary environment, who takes the lead? What’s the best point of entry, the most effective key to unlocking client demand? At the heart of all such discussions is power, as partners try to establish where they sit in the new organisational pecking order. The first casualty is speed—decision-making grinds to a halt; the second is specificity—marketing messages designed to keep everyone happy rarely resonate.

The only thing that cuts through the resulting Gordian knots is client data. Consultants may not listen to each other, but they certainly listen to their clients. The problem is that partners listen to their own clients and hear what they want to hear (contrary to some perceptions, they’re only human). Those who shout loudest drive decisions, even though their lens on the market is narrow. So, when I say we need client data, I mean proper, robust information that doesn’t just come from the people you know.

And if we need proof of this, consultants need only turn to their clients. In our recent reports on key consulting sectors, we found that, when asked what they’d done to respond to the challenges of the current crisis, 23% said they had carried out research to understand how their market had changed. More importantly, 34% had found this to be a very effective way to respond, a higher proportion than for any other initiative taken by clients.

Decisions are rarely black and white: “Voice of the customer” research helps firms understand the complex shades of grey in a rapidly evolving market, and it reduces the risk of taking the wrong decision. And it always—in our experience—yields insights that amaze and engage, delivering better results than piecemeal conversations with a handful of clients.