Propositions: The client perspective

Imagine you’re walking down the supermarket aisle looking for breakfast cereal. Bored with the one you’ve been eating all these years, you’re in the market for a change. You pick up the first one that catches your eye. “MEGAPOPS”, the package shouts in an unnecessarily lurid colour, “THE BEST WAY TO START YOUR DAY WITH A ZING!!!!” You look for the small print, some tentative indicator of what a zing is in this context—but there isn’t any. “SUNNYNUGGETS,” screams the next, “GOLDEN! DELICIOUS! FAST!” But is it healthy? Well, there’s nothing to tell you that. As consumers we wouldn’t—and don’t—put up with this. Decades of regulation and government intervention ensures that we’re in a position to make informed choices about our breakfast cereal. Sure: We can—and many of us do—choose to ignore them. Sure: There are still improvements to be made to the labelling. But on balance, as consumers, we’re the best-informed generation in the history of humanity.

If only that were true for consulting.

“I really wish that they could say what they do on the tin.” That’s the sound of a frustrated client. In fact, it’s the sound of thousands of them, because, if you’re someone who buys consulting services on a regular basis, there’s nothing more irritating than having to sift through marketing material and proposals that are far more beautifully presented than your average cereal packet, trying to work out what a firm does. Little surprise, then, that clients make some surprising choices. Hiring a strategy firm to help with the implementation of technology? Thinking that technology and innovation are synonymous? Believing that a big brand guarantees success? None of these choices are necessarily wrong, but they’re almost certainly uninformed. Why? Because consulting firms seem chronically and consistently awful at explaining what they do on the packet. “ABC ASSOCIATES! GREAT WITH HOT MILK AND SYRUP!!!”

The bigger questions this begs are why are they so bad at it, and how could they improve.

Money clearly isn’t the problem: If it were then the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into firms’ marketing functions in recent years would have at least improved the situation, but I don’t believe that the way consultants explain their propositions to clients is significantly better—by which I mean more comprehensible, transparent, and evidence-based—than it was a decade ago. I suspect part of the problem lies in the long-standing divisions between consultants and marketeers: The former want the latter to promote their services, but don’t have time to spend explaining to them what they do; the latter try to be helpful by finding even zanier ways to describe what their colleagues do in the hope that clients, distracted by the marketing glitz, don’t notice that it’s not saying anything (for the record, clients have spotted this). But the truth may be even more fundamental: Be careful how you whisper this in the corridors of consulting firms, but perhaps consultants don’t know what they do either. And perhaps that’s not surprising: How good would any of us be at explaining how we ride a bicycle, or drive a car? I’m often struck by how the very best sports people can sound banal when talking about their performance, and I remember struggling to explain how subtraction works to my son when he was small. They’re all things that we take for granted, that sink into deep muscle memory—and consulting is the same. Moreover, what one consultant has done on one project isn’t a proposition: Seeing the underlying pattern of what you’re doing and extrapolating that to different circumstances isn’t easy. There may, too, be a cultural aspect: Consulting has always been about the people, but, when you distil what you do into a proposition, it can feel as though you’re commoditising it, that the proposition can only ever be a simplistic distillation of something quite personal.

What to do? Successful proposition development has to start with what clients think, not with what consultants or marketeers want to say. In our experience, clients can be extraordinarily clear about what works, and doesn’t work, from their perspective. Ask them whether they like a particular message, and they’ll express their views in clear, compelling, and unequivocal language.

Want to know why clients think Firm X is better than you in a particular area? Look in the mirror and see yourself as others see you.