Helping clients grow the top line: We need stories, not myths

Clients, faced with global economic uncertainty and political meltdown, know they can’t rely on cost cutting to survive. Yes, there’s always more that can be done, but most have spent decades doing so much that most future gains will be incremental. Yes, digital–and now robotics and artificial intelligence–promise more significant improvement, but depend on changing behaviours as much as systems. At the end of the day, surviving will depend on thriving, which in turn will depend on growth. According to our recent survey, 52% of clients say that the need for growth is driving their investment in digital transformation, compared to 47% who say that’s being triggered by the desire for productivity improvements.

Your average consultant probably feels unworried by this: Consultants, after all, are famous for doing well in any circumstances, so why should this shift in focus be any different? But exceptional consultants will know that there’s a world of difference between consulting that’s focused on the bottom line and that which generates top-line growth. You don’t get growth by encouraging your clients to adopt best practice from elsewhere, because an organisation only grows when it’s doing something no other organisation is doing or doing it better. Following the herd, however world-class your herd, can’t make you outrun it. Perhaps more controversially, I’d also argue that you don’t get(much)growth by changing your front-office processes and systems. Doing so can certainly help, but most projects of this type are aimed at clawing back lost sales not creating new ones; you do it because you think you’re losing old ground, not because you want to gain new ground. Sooner or later, consultants have to confront the fact that significant growth only comes from having the right products and/or services.

Again, your average consultant would probably shrug and say that’s not a problem. Need a new product? We can help you design one. Need to design a new service? Here’s one we prepared earlier. But it’s obviously not that simple. If it were, our airports would be filled with billboards from major firms talking about a new product they’ve helped create. We’d open our copy of The Economist and read about how Firm X helped Client X develop a new service. But we don’t. Even the ones that get close are really about the enabling systems or processes, not the actual product.

So here’s my point: Consultants tell themselves myths about how they’ve helped their clients grow. They’ve helped, yes, but more in the sense of nurturing something: it’s incredibly rare that they’re involved in actual R&D, actual product development. And what the consulting industry needs is for those scarce stories to be told. Where are the case studies that describe this type of work? I’ve asked that question of a few firms recently, only to be met with a deafening silence.