The FT’s consulting firm rankings don’t let clients tell it like it is

Consultants are supposed to tell clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. If a client wants to grow into a new market, but isn’t investing enough in its infrastructure there to succeed, the role of the consultant is to make that clear. Likewise, if a client thinks a flashy new digital system will solve all his woes when it actually won’t, the consultant who puts her clients’ interests first tells him to stop. Trusted advisors tell it like it is.

It seems only fair, then, that when clients are asked for feedback about the work of consultants they should be able to do the same. The absence of this option in the FT’s ranking of consulting firms in the UK published this week is one reason why it’s a limited measure of client satisfaction and brand impact.

We don’t dispute that clients in the UK see many of the winners in the FT as excellent providers across a wide range of services. In fact, our data about clients’ views about the quality of work provided by many of the biggest brands backs up the FT’s findings. That remains the same whether we look at the views of clients actively working with firms, or among firms’ prospects in the wider market. But there’s an awful lot that the question asked by the FT’s survey — which firm do you recommend for service x? — misses.

The first and most obvious limitation is that it doesn’t allow for anything other than positive responses. The only option is to select a firm to praise, so results will always be rose-tinted and won’t give a balanced view of the chances of things going well if you choose a specific firm. Our research not only shows there is often a small, but significant, minority of clients that are unimpressed with what a firm has delivered, but also that the proportion who do so can vary quite significantly from one firm to the next.

For example, the results from our latest client survey show that one of the firms most likely to be described as delivering “very high” quality work in the digital transformation space, is also the most likely to be described as delivering “low” or “very low” quality work. On the other hand, one firm looks distinctly mid-table for the quality of its strategy work, but has absolutely nobody speaking negatively about it. We think that’s important, and is lost when the people being asked are only allowed to respond positively.

The second limitation is about the nature of the question. Recommendations may seem like the most reliable measure of customer satisfaction, but there’s mounting evidence that they might not always be the whooping endorsement so many think they are. In fact, as I’ve written previously on these pages, in the context of large surveys, saying that you’d recommend a firm can amount to little more, in reality, than a shrug of the shoulders and a willingness to concede that “yes, that firm’s alright”.

In responding to our surveys, clients have shown that they’re consistently more willing to recommend a consulting firm than they are to say that the quality of work delivered by firms is above average, or that firms deliver more in value than they charge in fees. Consistently, about 90% of clients say they have, or would, recommend a firm, without much deviation regardless of the firm being talked about. In fact, we’ve stopped asking the question as it didn’t really tell us much about what clients really think about a firm.

So while I’m sure many of the winners in the FT’s survey are delighted to be publicly recognised for their work, it won’t take their understanding of their brand and client experience forward. It hasn’t allowed clients to tell it like it is.