“The consulting firm,” said a senior executive we were chatting to, “is like a public library, packed to the rafters with the best books on the planet, but it’s often hard to find exactly what you’re looking for.”

A library’s business model is founded on access. Catalogues allow readers to see if a specific book is held; classification and coding systems allow them to browse shelves of similar books. But all of that infrastructure still depends on something else, knowledgeable people on the front desk. The internet gives us unprecedented search range, and the algorithms that govern search results allow us to browse, but much of the internet’s technological and commercial development has been focused on finding ways to replace the librarian: We have millions of recommendations and reviews at our fingertips, but we still, if we can, turn to friends when we want a good restaurant, an interesting holiday itinerary, a decent decorator.

And so it is with consulting firms. There’s been a huge investment in showcasing services and thought leadership, but clients are still just as likely to turn to a colleague or someone they know in a different organisation for a recommendation. They may also be increasingly likely to turn to the account managers of firms they work with. For the last couple of years, we’ve been tracking the attributes clients think about when they’re deciding which firm to choose for a given piece of work, and account management is the fourth most important attribute that clients point to (after innovative approach, the ability to implement and the quality of thought leadership).

It’s also one of the areas where the gap between what clients want, and what firms deliver, is widest. Our senior executive knew exactly why: “When I ask the partner I know whether they—the firm—can help in another area neither he nor I are familiar with, his instant reaction is to be incredibly helpful. He’s always sure they can do something; he doesn’t want to let me down or leave me in the lurch, as he sees it.” In fact, the partner—like most partners, we suspect—wants to help there and then. He’s a bit like the librarian on the front desk who, when asked for a book about something, starts talking about books they’ve read, even though they’re not experts in a specific field. Helpfulness, they believe, trumps depth of knowledge. Well it doesn’t, at least not in the minds of most clients: They want the librarian to know where to find the right books, not to have read all of them themselves. Similarly, the clients of consulting firms want their partners or account managers to identify the best and brightest of the firm and put them in contact with the client. They should be conduits, not gurus.