Are You a Real or an Imitation Consultant?

A consulting client of mine has a well earned excellent reputation as a consultant within her industry. She was intrigued by the number of emails she received every week from up-and-coming competitors who “want to work with her” and “do what [she] does.” My growth strategy consulting firm analyzed her business and concluded that her firm could indeed establish a national franchise. They have unique expertise and a clear process that can be replicated. They consistently generate a solid net profit. They have an established brand. Their national marketing program is well underway. She is an excellent trainer and believes in people, and her presence within various geographic locations would attract more business and facilitate serving customers.

As we got further into the process, she was shocked by the number of people who refer to themselves as “consultants” who:

  • expect business to just be handed to them,
  • lack higher education in the topical expertise of their industry,
  • think that they can learn enough content from a few seminars,
  • do not walk the talk (apply the approach they are recommending/teaching),
  • do not want to read any books, do any research, or attend major conferences,
  • had never learned techniques to objectively analyze a client’s situation & needs,
  • lack facilitation and project management skills,
  • had never learned how to provide advice,
  • lack credibility and have not demonstrated success,
  • lack depth and breadth of experience

She will need to be very selective in her recruitment of franchisees so that the reputation of her firm isn’t diluted by “imitation consultants.”

What is a “consultant” anyway?

These days when a manager gets laid off from a corporate position he/she is not “unemployed.” He/she just sits at a computer and prints out several hundred business cards with the title “consultant” on them.

A software engineer I know likes to work from home. His largest project is for his former employer. He is proud of the fact that he writes millions of lines of code each year as a “consultant.”

Recently, I asked a taxi cab driver for his telephone number, so I could get a ride back to the airport later. He proudly gave me his business card with the title “transportation consultant” on it.

Perhaps you know a person who just does the same training program over and over again at the various branches of one corporation, but his/her business card includes the title “consultant.”

My strategic consulting firm recently affiliated with a consortium of consultants who all specialize in business strategy and organizational development for rapidly growing companies. Each of us has advanced degrees, has demonstrated success in business, and proven consulting experience. Yet, we each receive phone calls and emails from people who think they have appropriate skills and credentials to carry a territory within our organization. One recent inquiry was from an organizer who helps people get rid of piles.

The word “consultant” seems to apply to everything. Whatever happened to the words “freelancer,” “contractor,” “outsourced service,” “telecommuter,” or “job applicant”?

Where Did the Misimpression That We Are All “Consultants” Come From?

Perhaps the people who have expressed an interest in affiliating with my client, the unemployed manager, the computer programmer, the cab driver, the corporate trainer, and the organizer have been victims of the same thing that happens to people who attend many NSA events.

“Don’t just sell a single speech,” shrieks the guest speaker at your chapter meeting. “You MUST create products to sell in the back of the room,” declares a long time NSA member in the hallway between breakout sessions at a winter workshop. “We have no choice. We ALL have to become experts at e-commerce,” says a recent inductee to the Speaker Hall of Fame in a very matter of fact tone. “Remember that you are an author not just a speaker or trainer,” the marketing experts remind us. “Become a coach and definitely get into consulting because if you want to survive in this business you must have multiple streams of income.”

Unfortunately, one result of these harangues on our members is that too many people are simply adding titles like “coach” and “consultant” onto their business cards without being prepared to deliver on the promise conveyed by those words.

Real consulting is not about DOING the same kind of WORK that people inside an organization could do.

A real consultant is expected to bring appropriate credentials which results in expanded information and knowledge to their situation. Your clients will undoubtedly have access to the World Wide Web too, so as a consultant, you will need to go beyond just surfing the Internet. What books do you read? What journal subscriptions do you maintain? What research have you reviewed? Which high content conferences do you attend on a regular basis?

Completing an MBA or similar degree from an accredited institution provides important content than many consultants are expected to have. An advanced degree can definitely expand your knowledge and perspective especially if you have only worked in lower management level positions or been employed by one company. Since a great deal of business-related consulting revolves around a specific area of expertise, advanced degrees in subjects like information technology, finance, marketing, etc. are also a good idea. Many of us want to provide consulting services to individuals rather than organizations, so it helpful for them to earn advanced degrees in subject areas like nutrition.

It would be great if mainstream universities all offered advanced degrees in the art and science of consulting. Prior to selecting the University of Pennsylvania, I evaluated a number of graduate level programs and found programs in organizational development, industrial psychology, business administration, etc. My nephew recently conducted some research of graduate level programs that could lead to a career in consulting, and surprisingly, the situation hasn’t changed very much in 30 years. Even if you can’t find a masters degree program in consulting, it is possible to combine lines of study and tailor a program for yourself

If you read Stephen Tweed’s excellent article in the January 2005 issue of SPEAKER magazine, you know that many real consultants conduct research studies within their niche. As a reminder, it is important for today’s consultant to learn the difference between qualitative and quantitative research and be able to demonstrate that your research findings are statistically reliable and valid.

Experience as an entrepreneur or executive can also be the basis for consulting, but it will be important to demonstrate your success in those roles. Why should a client trust your advice if your experience as an entrepreneur only resulted in a dissolved or bankrupt business? Were/are you a recognized industry leader? Have you won prestigious awards? Have you created an innovative product?

A real consultant is expected to bring objectivity to a situation. I know a gentleman who worked at the Campbell Soup Corporation for over 30 years and then declared himself a consultant. If you want to learn “the Campbell Soup Way” of managing a business, maybe he’s your man. But he must be careful not to divulge any of that company’s proprietary information or trade secrets, so what does he really have to offer?

Most organizations do not want to copy exactly what has been done at one competing company. Naturally, it is helpful for a company to have someone involved who has participated in the creation and implementation of a proposed process, but an employee can be hired if only simple replication is involved. A real consultant is needed when an objective analysis of the specific situation, resources, process, people, strategic direction, etc. is involved.

A consultant’s objectivity, perspective, and analytical skills can be strengthened by working with mentors within an existing consulting firm. This helps a consultant gain exposure to a variety of companies, situations, and options prior to establishing his/her own consulting practice. Prior to establishing my strategic consulting firm in the 1970s, I had the good fortune to work as a consultant in two public sector positions, work for a brilliant mentor in a Consultation and Education Unit of a Community Mental Health Center and then serve in the Director role of a similar organization after that. It was very useful to have participated in hundreds of client projects before going out on my own. And frankly, the first few years in private practice were still tough. I have always wondered if it would have been wiser for me to work for one of the “Big 8” (Boy, does that phrase date me, huh?) firms for a few years. Maybe it is ironic that I later sold a division of one of my companies to one of the few firms that still exist from that group of 8.

If you are interested in being a real consultant, ask yourself why a client should trust your objectivity? What is the evidence of your expanded perspective?

A real consultant is expected to bring innovative thinking to a situation. I have found that my investment in learning analytical techniques has helped me as a consultant, put my clients at ease, and has often led to dramatically different recommendations than the ones reached by “imitation consultants.” It has paid off to learn about whole brain thinking, creativity, and adult learning theory.

Which books are you reading about creativity? What techniques are you practicing to open your mind, expand possibilities, and generate options for your clients? This goes way beyond being able to run a simple brainstorming session.

Achieving progress with and for our clients often depends on true innovation rather than simple replication of something that exists or making recommendations based on a handful of subjective interviews. For example, we were able to establish a totally new approach to roll ups (a method that combines several attributes elements of acquisitions, strategic alliances, and franchising) with a client because we did not rely on replicating someone else’s process.

A real consultant is expected to bring facilitation skills to a situation. A dichotomy had existed for a long time within the field of management consulting between the consultants who emphasized their content expertise and the consultants who emphasized their process or facilitating skills. There is a professional emphasis group within the Institute of Management Consultants for the participative process consultants (PPC). In my experience, clients are expecting today’s management consultants to bring both skill sets. Today, more and more IT (information technology) consultants are partnering with PPC consultants to deliver what the more complete service their client companies truly need, deserve, and now expect.

Universities and colleges around the country provide courses and seminars to improve your facilitation skills, understanding of process, and comfort in driving individual, group, and/or organizational change. One of the most important steps I took in preparing to be a professional consultant was to earn a masters degree in social work. It helped solidify my role as a catalyst for planned change.

It still amazes me how many people have not been exposed to the basic five step process of Problem/Opportunity Identification, Research, Design, Implementation, and Evaluation. We need to know how to prevent the problems associated with skipping steps–like many clients’ tendency to rush into implementation.

A real consultant is expected to adhere to a professional code of ethics, earn certifications and licenses, and carry appropriate insurance. Today, it is not enough to just have a business operating policy and workers comp insurance. Especially with the advent of Sarbanes Oxley, clients are demanding that consultants carry millions of dollars in professional liability and errors and omissions insurance. Unfortunately, one of the reasons clients must require real consultants to carry so much insurance is the damage being done by imitation consultants.

In the long run, all we have is our own sense of professionalism and our reputation. At a time when money was very tight for my fledgling consulting practice, I walked away from a lucrative client assignment when I learned that the President was tapping his competitor’s telephone lines so he could undercut their bids on large construction projects. He screamed at me as I walked out, called me naïve and claimed that everyone in his industry did such things. But I don’t have to help someone grow their business in such a dishonest way. Another consultant accepted the assignment. Only you can judge if you think he/she is an imitation or a real consultant.

Summary

One of the joys (and challenges) is for each of us to discover the mix of services and products that is right for us and our clients, but it doesn’t happen just because someone tells us that we must have multiple streams of income. In fact, it is a disservice to our clients, our profession, and our association when an NSA member assumes that he/she can provide a full range of services with equal ability without education and guided experience. I know that I am saying something that is not popular here, but I think it is important for us to obtain appropriate education and experience and not to just tack titles like “consultant” or “coach” onto our business cards without being prepared to deliver on the promise conveyed by those words.

(Originally appeared in SPEAKER magazine.)

Known as The Growth Strategist®, Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP helps rapidly growing midsized companies (typically $20 – 200 million/year) realize their goal of Achieving Accelerated Growth With Sustained Profitability® through opportunity/resource analysis, executive coaching, strategic working sessions, and her intermediary role regarding growth financing. Her clients are among the brightest, most ambitious business leaders whose names now appear on published lists of the fastest growing privately held corporations. The recipient of 23 prestigious awards for her success as an entrepreneur and industry leader, Ambler hosts a peer-to-peer Internet radio program, aptly called The Growth Strategist®, which features lively interviews with CEOs of midmarket companies who have successfully executed the growth strategy of the week. She can be reached toll free at 1-888-Aldonna (253-6662), by e-mail at Aldonna@AMBLER.com or online at www.ambler.com.

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