Should consultants make their clients’ lives easier?

It’s surely a no-brainer: Can you imagine a consulting firm going to market with the strapline, “We like to make our clients’ lives more difficult”? Yet we often hear grumblings that suggest this is precisely what’s happening. “I can only buy from a firm in the way it wants to sell to me,” said one executive we interviewed. “I have to translate my needs into their services. I might be looking for a creative solution to a problem that spans many parts of our organisation, but I’m forced to buy a ‘strategy’ project.”

Our recent research argues that, if we think of the value consultants add as the things they do that clients cannot do by themselves, then it’s a complicated, multifaceted concept. The main reason why clients bring in consultants is because they think the latter will be able to come up with a better solution than they—the client—could have done. But consultants are also seen to work faster, are perceived as being able to safeguard success more effectively, and can sometimes be cheaper than if clients were doing the same work themselves. They can also make their clients’ lives easier. In fact, after doing things better and delivering them faster, “easier” is the third most important dimension of value to clients. 

What does that mean in practice? Clients say that the most important ways in which consultants can help make things easier are by using methodologies that simplify project management and by providing a single point of accountability. 

Let’s start with simplicity. Consultants have built an entire industry on the back of complexity. They help clients respond to the most intractable questions they face, many of which stem from the increasingly complex environment in which they operate. Technology is supposed to make things easier but often doesn’t; getting people to change is never straightforward. But somewhere along the line consultants started to think that the proper response to complexity was more complexity: Difficult problems needed intricate methodologies. Further still down the line, consultants became overdependent on those methodologies, using them as a crutch rather than as a guiding principle. They allowed junior consultants to do the work of more experienced ones because they had a process they could follow and tools they could deploy. A methodology arms race has ensued in which no firm dares to unilaterally disarm. Clients have clearly had enough: They accept that there’s complexity but see the role of the consultant as being able to distil all of that down into a simple, compelling story that makes it easier—that crucial word—to act.

A single and accountable point? That this is important to clients is an indication of how the increasing size of professional services firms has made them difficult to deal with, but the issue is not simply one of scale. It’s about the willingness of a firm to put a human face on what it does, to make someone responsible for delivery and impact, to put a face and a name to the commitment of the firm. As more consulting work starts to involve a wider range of different disciplines and perspectives, this issue will probably get worse. 

Both aspects are important in their own right but I’d argue it’s the combination of the two together that will genuinely make clients’ lives easier. True accountability depends on simplicity. 

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