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CX consultancy use on the rise, in spite of 'The Big Con'


Whilst the most recent MyCustomer research has highlighted an upward trend in the use of consultants in providing support for customer experience programmes, will the criticisms of the consultancy sector discussed in ‘The Big Con’ make CX leaders think twice?

11th May 2023

MyCustomer’s latest research has revealed a sharp increase in the number of customer experience leaders looking to consultants to help support their CX programmes – but will this remain the case following the less-than-complimentary words of Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington in their bombshell of a book, ‘The Big Con’.

Published in collaboration with the European Customer Experience Organization (ECXO), the research report surveyed a selection of established and respected CX leaders from around the globe, so as to ascertain the major problems and difficulties that they believe will hinder the success of their CX programmes in the next 18 months.

In discussing the areas in which they will be investing in order to maximise the impact of their programmes, a third (33%) of CX leaders revealed that they are employing a consultant in 2023.

This marks a substantial rebound for the consultancy sector, with 2022 seeing a considerable drop from the previous year, down from 31% of leaders saying that they used a consultant in 2020 to only 19% in 2022.

But what has sparked such a strong consultancy comeback, and what benefits do they provide to customer experience programmes?

Consultancy benefits

For Shaun Smith, founder of Smith+Co, one of the key benefits of using consultants is the impartiality and independence that they bring: “A big part of the value we (consultants) provide to our clients is to provide insight on what is most important to customers, facilitate the design of the experience to deliver this, and help focus the organisation on the priority actions that will implement it.

“This requires a level of independence and influence at board level in order to cut through competing agendas and a proliferation of initiatives. This may be hard for internal executives to achieve unless they report directly to the CEO and even then their viewpoint is coloured by organisational politics.

“This becomes even more difficult if their role is also operational because they have their own departmental agendas to deal with.”

Martin Hill-Wilson, founder of Brainfood Consulting, also discusses the importance of the independent, outsider viewpoint that consultants are able to adopt: “Consultants can help in a number of ways. They provide external perspective and credibility which is key when CX leaders need to validate strategy and investment with their peers.

Consultants provide external perspective and credibility which is key when CX leaders need to validate strategy and investment.

“They bring insight into what other organisations are doing and clarity on best practice. They offer new connections via their networks to directly learn about other initiatives.

“Finally, they offer temporary additional headcount to get things done faster typically around introducing new working practices and capabilities.”

Vincent Placer, Managing Director of Teletech, and one of the ECXO Ambassadors for France, believes the trade off of the minimal effort required to onboard external consultants, versus the work that goes into conducting a successful CX programme is well worth it.

Placer argues that the upside to using consultants can be broken down to the following three main benefits:

Speed: Many internal players are partially dedicated to the CX programme with other operational tasks to conduct. Dedicated consultants ensure that you have enough manpower to deliver all the expected deliverables in due time.

Framework and processes: External consultants will generally provide to the CX programme management team, project management processes and off-the-shelf frameworks that will help internal resources to focus on value-added tasks within the project.

Benchmark and insights: Although they will never understand the company as intimately as internal people, external consultants will leverage on their experience of the company's industry, provide relevant benchmarks from other geographies and can bring return of experience of similar initiatives in other contexts. It provides useful material to challenge internal ideas.”

In discussing consultants from a customer success perspective, Sue Nabeth Moore – customer success consultant and French ambassador at the ECXO – has her own list of reasons that she believes are responsible for the increase in consultancy usage:

“Companies are hiring external consultants for the following reasons: to learn from evolving industry best practices; to implement CS strategies and operations more quickly, thereby saving time and money; the provision of proven frameworks, methodologies and playbooks; and the alignment of CS team objectives and metrics with company-wide KPIs.

“There are many CS leaders who are new to CS and external consultants give them guidance and the confidence to help prove their impact and ROI internally.”

The sheer range of benefits and responsibilities that Moore outlines chimes with the words of Raymond Gerber, product XM scientist at Qualtrics: “I think that the role of CX team members are broader than before, i.e being more aware of new technologies driven by AI, customer journey orchestration, etc.

“It is difficult to find people with all those skills so it is better to bring them in in a consultative manner to educate full time team members.”

Whilst it is unsurprising to see that the experts we spoke to were generally very positive about the impact of consultants – given that several of them work in the consultancy sector – the combination of their insights and the results of the MyCustomer research suggest that there is undoubted merits to CX consultants.

However, in spite of this, the recent publication of ‘The Big Con’ has placed consultancy under the spotlight like never before.

So what is ‘The Big Con’? And what are the issues that it believes are caused by consultants?

The Big Con

Written by Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington, ‘The Big Con’ was released earlier this year and discusses the relationship between businesses and governments, and consultancy firms.

Mazzucato and Collington argue that the over-reliance on consultants has resulted in a  weakening of businesses and is actively warping our economies. Moreover, the pair also ‘debunk the myth’ that consultancies always add value to the economy.

At the crux of their argument is the belief that consultants have reached a position of power that is now detrimental to businesses and their employees: “It (the big con) is possible because of the unique power that big consultancies wield through extensive contracts and networks – as advisors, legitimators and outsourcers – and the illusion that they are objective sources of expertise and capacity.

“To make matters worse, our best and brightest graduates are often redirected away from public service into consulting.”

The suggestion that internal employees may be better placed to fulfil roles than consultants, is something that was actually touched upon by Shaun Smith: “The need for consultants is increasing but this is changing; because CX teams are larger and they have much more experience now, the processes for journey mapping, measurement etc are being conducted internally and does not require external support.”

However, whilst Smith does admit that certain roles and tasks are better suited to internal employees, he still believes that consultants can add value to an organisation: “The need for an independent voice and a holistic view of the initiative along with specialist research and design is best met by external consultants.”

The Big Con is possible due to the power that big consultancies wield and the illusion that they are objective sources of expertise and capacity.

This is a sentiment that Nicholas Watkis, principal consultant at Contract Marketing Service, also appears to share.

In discussing ‘The Big Con’, whilst Watkis does appear to concede that the relationship between the large consulting companies, and public and private companies and governments may be problematic, he still believes there are definite benefits for commerce and industry organisations

“Consultants come in many forms of speciality and experience including engineering, IT, manufacturing, and logistics – and of course management. For the commercial manager, responsible for producing profitable income by satisfying customer demand, consultants can be a useful additional resource.

“Assuming they have been selected for their competency and experience, consultants can make a major contribution to the success of the marketing organisation by providing specialist expertise, independent analysis, and objectivity.

“It should be remembered that consultants are not experts, but only specialists in particular areas of study or experience. Consultants do not claim to provide the perfect answer to every marketing or management question, 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, the prevailing culture of the business, and the real purpose of their engagement.”

Whether or not the publication of ‘The Big Con’ will have an adverse effect on the CX consultancy sector is impossible to predict.

The book undoubtedly raises some interesting arguments about the over-reliance of consultants and the detrimental effect this is having on the development of the existing employees, as well as clearly ruffling a few feathers along the way.

Yet the authors’ main ire seems to be reserved for the super consultancy firms – particularly those which are doing business with risk-averse governments.

With regards to the customer experience sector, whilst some of the principles discussed in the book are relevant and worth considering, it is undeniable that consultants can still provide major benefits for CX leaders and their programmes.

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