Are consultants a help or a hindrance?
When it comes to finding answers to marketing and business problems, there is rarely only one solution. The question is, not whether one marketing policy or action is the right one, but rather in the given circumstances, is it the best one? When managing marketing strategies, plans and actions, there is generally an advantage in submitting them to peers' review by a knowledgeable third party, to test the theories and principles. For many reasons, alternative views and ideas are often sought from outside the business from specialist consultants.
The responsibility for generating the profitable revenue for any business is that of the commercial manager, in charge of all those activities which are directly or indirectly involved in anticipating and satisfying customer demand. But in assessing the performance of their marketing activities, every chief commercial manager or marketing executive may at some time develop a tendency to “tunnel vision,” restricting their ability to identify and appreciate new threats and opportunities.
Outside consultants provide the advantages of coming to the problem without the baggage of “company history” and prejudice and being independent, they provide no risk in terms of company politics. Consultants provide a dispassionate answer with a different perspective as “the onlooker, who sees most of the game.” Generally consultants are either analysts who investigate problems, or developers, providing solutions to requirements, but they can combine both attributes.
It is often said of consultants that when asked the time, they borrow their client’s watch, tell the client the time and return the watch with an invoice for a fat fee. But if the consultant has told the client what the client already knew or could have found out for themselves ,the question is, why did the client not act themselves?
When a professionally qualified consultant, properly briefed provides an answer to a problem, it should be based on their dispassionate analysis of facts coupled with their experience and expertise. How that answer is received by the client depends largely on why the client asked the question in the first place. Usually, the client is seeking confirmation for their own actions, or for alternative and new answers to their own.
From time to time consultants will make unsolicited approaches to businesses and commercial managers. In most cases they will seek to present themselves and their business to demonstrate their capabilities and to invite enquiries. However, sometimes consultants will offer to demonstrate how they can be of potential benefit to a business, based on detailed research which may have identified some problems in which they specialize. For the commercial manager with an open mind to new ideas and results, the opportunity of a meeting to explore the ideas of informed consultants can prove very beneficial. Alternatively, the commercial manager who rejects such opportunities may be accused of having a closed mind to anything “Not invented here” and afraid of peer group scrutiny. The attitude of “we know all there is to know” by some chief executive officers and commercial managers, is not helpful to the company as it tends to fossilize productive management thinking and practice. Such attitudes can damage the image of the business in the eyes of both customers and investors, as they can rarely remain hidden for long and soon become apparent in the public domain.
When considering using outside consultants, commercial managers and chief executives need to be clear what they wish to know. Do they seek;
Additional expertise that they currently don’t have?
A dispassionate third party view to provide answers for perceived problems?
Confirm management thinking.
Provide excuse for responsibility
It should be remembered that consultants are not experts but only specialists in particular areas of study or experience.
Experience and knowledge may not be directly transferable, despite reputation. In the 1990s the BBC’s programme “The Expert” put a well know recently retired chairman of an international firm as the expert consultant to advise a number of companies. While his analysis of company problems was generally good, his recommended solutions often proved unsuitable. A small profitable family firm was advised to sell out to a larger company, which they did, only to buy back the then failing business and make it again a great success. A specialist car manufacturer was advised to automate its production to reduce costs; an idea rejected by the company which retained its handmade production and increased its world market and profits.
Robert Townsend, former Chairman of Avis Rent-a –car, was of the opinion that small consultancies or individuals were better value than large consultant companies. His logic was that small consultancies and individual consultants did the work themselves, whereas much of the work done by large consultants was done by juniors with limited experience.
Assuming they have been selected for their competency and experience, consultants can make a major contribution to the success of the marketing organization by providing specialist expertise, independent analysis, and objectivity. Consultants do not claim to provide the perfect answer to every marketing or management problem, neither do they claim to be always right, but whether or not their answers are acceptable will largely depend on how well they were briefed, and the prevailing culture of the business.
Marketing performance should be measured by results. However, whatever advice, proposals or answers are given by consultants, the ultimate responsibility for marketing performance lies with the commercial manager, not the consultants, who remain useful contributors to marketing success, but do not share executive responsibility.
No one knows more about your business than you, but a suitable consultant may help in understanding it differently, outlining its strengths weaknesses opportunities and threats.