Why offering help is not enough

“I’ve got consultants contacting me every day” one senior executive told us recently. “People I had a meeting with five years ago are claiming they’re my friend and are here to help when I need them”. 

You’re probably expecting me to describe how irate he was, how too much of his precious time was being wasted by people who clearly had too much time on their hands—but that wasn’t the case. Unlike the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in the UK, when consulting firms quickly damaged their reputations by claiming to be able to help clients through Brexit at a time when no one actually knew what Brexit meant, clients at the moment appear to genuinely appreciate the expressions of concern and willingness to help. Yes, they’re completely aware that none of it is entirely disinterested, but where the right people have used the right tone of voice, clients have reacted positively. Still, it’s what our harried executive said next that’s important: “I really don’t know if consultants are going to make a huge amount of money out of this crisis, or nothing”. Again, he wasn’t being cynical or resentful, but was simply curious in a detached, nothing-to-do-with-me way. Which is interesting because of course it’s precisely to do with him and clients like him.

What you’d conclude from this is that the fortunes of the consulting industry are in the balance. Which begs the question: What would tip the scales in their favour?

We can probably say with confidence that concern and helpfulness, while important and appreciated, are unlikely to be enough. As client organisations move out of the initial phase of this crisis and start to plan how they’re going to operate through the next phase, they’ll want more than empathy. In the first place, they’ll need usable suggestions about what they should do. Consulting firms will need to choose which problems to focus on and give clear descriptions—unencumbered by chevrons and flowcharts—of what a client’s priorities should be and where the firm has specific experience, software tools, etc. that can help a client respond more effectively and more quickly. While clients may be interested to know what you think, they’re going to become obsessed with what you can do and what you can deliver. 

At the heart of all this is the issue of value. The value consultants add is a contentious and complex issue, which we’ve written about on this blog before. In normal times, value manifests itself as a clear sense, in the client’s mind, of what a consulting firm has done that the client couldn’t have done for themselves. That, in turn, lays the basis for strong personal relationships which can act as value multipliers. 

In a crisis, though, the model gets turned on its head: Consultants focus first on the value they can add by being helpful to the people they know and who trust them. But, as this crisis is starting to highlight, they need to move on quickly from that space. Be kind, of course. Show empathy. Put yourself at the service of your client. But don’t underestimate how quickly you need to be showing your client what you can do for them that they can’t do for themselves. That’s how you translate offers of help into opportunities to help.