The role of thought leadership in the client-consultant relationship cycle

Not the pithiest of titles, we grant you, but bear with us.

Research we did a couple of years ago with marketers in consulting firms and the partners they worked with highlighted two areas of agreement between these groups. One was that thought leadership matters, the other that almost no other marketing activity does. But why does it matter? And more specifically, when does it matter? The client-consultant relationship isn’t a stable, let alone static, environment: If we’re to understand how best to invest, then we need to understand precisely what we should focus on.

Other research we’ve done suggests that there are five distinct stages in the client-consultant relationship, three of which lead up to a decision about which firm to use (the sales cycle), and two of which cover the time beyond this (the account management cycle). In the earliest stage, clients are trying to prioritise: Bombarded with a wide array of things they could do, they must decide what exactly to do. But this invest/don’t invest decision is a theoretical one—they don’t really know what “it” is, so the next step is to conceptualise the work involved, part of which involves deciding whether they have the in-house capacity/capability to do the work, or whether they need to turn to external support. If they decide on the latter, then they need to choose which firm to work with. Once the project has started, clients expect to benefit from the presence of consultants—attention shifts to delivery. Once the project has finished, the gears change again, with clients looking to leverage not only the work but the relationship they’ve established with the consulting team and possibly the wider firm.

Each of these five stages puts different demands on the consulting firm, but for the current purposes I want to focus specifically on the role of thought leadership.

The conversations we have with clients suggests that thought leadership has a critical role to play in each of these stages. At the outset, its role is to persuade clients that this is a subject worth considering, perhaps because it’s simply important, or perhaps because organisations are already starting to do so, meaning there’s a danger of being left behind. Thought leadership can play a critical role in helping picture to clients what a project in a given space might look like by providing examples of projects, and by highlighting critical success factors and potential pitfalls. Interviews with been-there-and-done-that senior executives are central to this: Clients need to see how theory converts into practice—and how sometimes it doesn’t. As clients try to work out which firm they want to work with—a choice they find increasingly hard to make—the quality of a firm’s thought leadership can help prove its credentials.

That’s usually the point at which we think the role of thought leadership ends but, increasingly, we talk to clients who see it as part of what firms deliver. The rise of multidisciplinary projects has created challenges for consulting firms that their organisational structures are not well-equipped to respond to, with the boundaries between practice areas being obstacles to collaboration in practice. In this context, thought leadership doesn’t just come to embody the best of a firm’s thinking but effectively becomes part of the consulting team, helping power their input and ideas, bringing the best of the firm to bear on the complex problems that consultants are typically asked to solve. And thought leadership has an important after-life, once the consulting work has been completed, helping clients and consultants stay in touch—partner—with each other over something more meaningful than the proverbial cup of coffee.

As always where consulting is concerned, success lies in not taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Thought leadership is capable of doing far more than most firms realise, but only if we’re clear about the role we expect it to play.