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The many-headed client

The way that organisations buy consulting services has changed a great deal over the past year. Most obviously, the process has become a lot more “virtualised” than it used to be; in-person pitch meetings and scoping workshops have had to give way to Zoom sessions and phone calls.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to focus on one of the more subtle shifts that’s taken place just beneath the surface of clients’ procurement processes. Because at the same time as clients have changed how they buy services, there have been some significant knock-on effects when it comes to who is involved in that buying process.

Consultants we’ve spoken to have consistently reported that, in the course of landing a deal, they now have to interact with a much broader range of stakeholders within the client organisation than they used to. And data from clients themselves backs this up. In a recent survey of US-based procurement managers, 63% reported that the pandemic had had the effect of increasing the number of people involved in an average purchasing decision—while only 17% felt it had had the opposite effect.

Our research suggests that there are three key reasons underpinning this shift. First, there is the simple matter of convenience. If I, a client in New York, think I’d benefit from having Sophie from the West Coast office sit in on a proposal review session with a consulting firm, it’s a lot easier for me to make that happen when all it entails is sending her a Zoom link, rather than asking her to fly out and lose a whole day to travelling and preparation.

Then there is the matter of risk. The stakes of projects are higher than they’ve ever been right now, and the costs of making a bad bet have never been greater. Clients aren’t unwilling to spend money when they have to; our data suggests that in many markets, total consulting spend has rebounded to close to where it was before the pandemic. But they do want to take extra precautions to make sure they’re spending that money wisely. Often, that means spending more time seeking out the counsel of key stakeholders within the organisation. It doesn’t hurt either that every extra person you speak to gives you that much more plausible deniability should the project prove a flop.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, this trend is reflective of an underlying shift in the nature of the challenges clients are dealing with. Even before the pandemic, more and more buyers were talking about the importance of finding a firm who knew how to work in a “multidisciplinary” way. There was a sense that the business issues of today weren’t ones that could be dealt with by a single team acting unilaterally; instead, they required coordinated effort across business units and internal divides. If anything, COVID has accelerated this shift. Right now, clients are having to grapple with complex problems that sit right at the intersection of technology, human capital, finance, and risk. So it’s only natural that they’d want to bring a greater variety of stakeholders into each of their purchasing decisions.

So, what can firms do if they want to set themselves up for success in this new environment? If we had to make one recommendation, it would be to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Consultants should keep in mind that any piece of sales collateral they produce is more likely than ever to work its way through a client’s organisation—and to be read by a wide variety of important stakeholders across different verticals and horizontals. That means that it’s vital that firms focus on accessibility.

Focus on answering basic questions clearly—“What are we going to do? How are we going to do it? How will it create value?”—instead of taking the cheap road to credibility via technical jargon. That jargon might be understandable to Janice in Finance, but it will fall completely flat with Mo in Sales when she asks him to have a flick through your proposal.

Simplicity and accessibility have always been virtues when it comes to selling consulting services, but they’ve never been as important as they are right now.