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The trusted adviser in a remote world

It may have been published 20 years ago, but David Maister’s seminal book, The Trusted Advisor, has never fallen out of favour with consultants. Its deceptively simple formula—highlighting the importance of expertise and reliability, for example, while reminding them of the dangers of self-interest—neatly encapsulated the essence of consulting. But how relevant is it in the current crisis?

Almost overnight, the vast majority of consulting activity has moved from clients’ offices to consultants’ homes. The industry scarcely missed a beat: Consultants, accustomed to travelling, simply went home and worked there. True, some clients were less comfortable with the switch, especially where projects involved difficult, far-reaching decisions that are better handled face to face. But most were prepared to reverse demands they’d consistently made over the last decade—that consultants shouldn’t be sequestered in their own offices but need to work side by side with their clients. Many consultants have enjoyed not having to travel as much, and—so far—most have been able to pass on to cash-strapped clients the money saved rather than discount their fees. It seems unlikely that, even when the current restrictions on travel are relaxed, we’ll go back to where we were.

What, then, are the longer-term consequences?

One of the most important facets of the trusted adviser, as Maister defined it, is expertise. If anything, the crisis has magnified this. Clients who need consultants to generate immediate results don’t have the patience to work with junior people who need more guidance, and they’re certainly not prepared to pay for it. At the same time, expertise has become more accessible: Because people don’t have to waste time travelling, they’ve got more time to speak to clients no matter where they are in the world. Establishing your expert credentials with people who don’t know you is harder, but probably boils down to a tougher “interview” when you first talk online. But there are some aspects of expertise that are much harder to gauge: Prospective clients may recognise that you know your subject, but how can they tell if you’re good at persuading people to engage and act? It seems likely that the crisis will push consultants even further into the analytical space, relying more on data and research than on personal chemistry. Clients we’ve spoken to recognise this, and for some it’s a welcome change: “A world in which almost all business is done remotely makes it easier for me to decide which firm to use based on objective criteria,” one remarked. “I’m more interested in their approach to a project, and less likely to be swayed by personal chemistry.”

Some consultants may be cynical about that (the personal always has some impact); others may be concerned about the extent to which this downplays softer skills. But perhaps they should be more worried about the way in which lack of face time changes their own behaviour. It’s well-recognised that people are prepared to be more rude to people online than they would be in person: The fact that they’re not in the same room as the person they’re trolling allows them to troll. One client we spoke to recently said that she’d been shocked by the extent to which consulting firms were overtly challenging her decisions around which firm to use: “They said they had a strong relationship with our group chief executive, and that they were going to appeal to him directly.” That’s not new behaviour—consultants often try to find champions for their cause—but the brazenness of it is. Not being in the room, exacerbated by a difficult market in which every sale counts, may be tempting individuals into behaving in ways that wouldn’t have been judged acceptable in the pre-crisis world.

Maister’s warnings about the perils of self-interest are just as relevant today as they ever were.