Consultants: Love ‘em or Hate ‘em

At some point in your career you may have to work with consultants. You or the company is likely to pay them a good sum of money for their services. The last thing you want to do is place a consultant’s recommendations on the shelf to gather dust. Yet, in my current position, this is what I have seen happen with the majority of reports. Why bother hiring consultants, if no strategic thinking or actionable items result? Why waste such an investment of time and money?

I am currently struggling with how to best work with consultants from the corporation side. Recently, my company hired consultants to evaluate our overall corporate branding and standards. A 30-day first impression report was issued last week. Prior to the report being released, the consultants spoke to my team Chief for a total of 20 minutes…that generated two pages of bullet points in the report.

I applaud my company for taking the necessary steps to build a consistent corporate image and voice; however, the limited information provided to the consultants for their preliminary review is disappointing and incomplete. We were excited about the constructive feedback we had hoped to receive form the consultants after they understood our social media strategy and place within the community. Many of the points in the preliminary report do not account for the restrictions we face within our space or any of our strategic plans, objectives and up-to-date analysis.

Needless to day, my team and I were frustrated with the results at first blush. So, I asked my peers on Twitter, what is the best way to work with consultants? Should consultants be integrated with the team? How do you get best results?

Of all the consultants, I have worked with, there are only a handful I would work with again or recommend. I am eager to learn how to work with consultants better from an in-house position. Also, I would like to know what are the best practices from the consultant perspective (next post topic). After all, I will be in that position soon…

So, here is the feedback I received via Twitter:

  • adamcohen @vargasl having been a cons my career, the best client relationships are where teams are integrated w/out regard for badge to focus on goals
  • adamcohen @vargasl also best results are achieved when the team gets real – no team is perfect. It’s not whether issues exist its how team handles em
  • adamcohen @vargasl much is based on establishing right relationship up front, understanding culture, ptrship based on mutual goals. Not easy to start
  • adamcohen @vargasl often the consultant wld request, but need a willing partner. Helps if client has a cons background too, they’ve lived it.
  • KellyeCrane @vargasl Hi! Consultants get to choose who to work with. That said, once on with a client, adjusting to their work style is part of the job.
  • KellyeCrane @vargasl Being an integrated part of the team is highly beneficial, but often not possible due to budget constraints. Am I answering your Q?
  • DebInDenver @KellyeCrane @vargasl how do budget constraints keep you from bein an integrates part of team? And is there an advantage to that?
  • KellyeCrane @DebInDenver @vargasl A client’s budget may limit them to give you 1 tactic of a campaign (for ex), and need you to handle autonomously.
  • KellyeCrane @DebInDenver @vargasl Consultants are not always involved in the strategy/planning. You can opt not to take these jobs, but they’re there.
  • DebInDenver @KellyeCrane @vargasl I think that is a huge mistake on the cos part, they miss out on the pros expertise.

Now, currently I am not in the position where I have the authority to interview the consultants before hire, but am more interested in how to work with them after contract has been established. The consultants I would hire again or recommend all took the integrated approach and adjusted to the work style and culture of our team. Does this interfere with the practical disengagement needed for end-results?

I consider a healthy consultant-client relationship to include:

  • Active listening: Does the consultant pay attention to what you’re saying and respond appropriately – or does the consultant only talk about his own accomplishments?
  • Disengagement: Does it seem that this candidate will be able to provide the objectivity you need in an outside expert?
  • Adaptation: Does the consultant have a grasp of mission and organizational style? Has the consultant bothered to learn anything about your group prior to the interview?
  • Honesty/Integrity: Throughout the relationship, you must be consistently forthcoming about the problems that face your team/organization and vice versa about relationship the consultant has with team/company or about obtaining needed information.
  • Follow-through: Over time, your team will probably agree to undertake a number of tasks related to the consultant’s intervention, such as conducting research or writing reports, that may prove demanding and time-consuming. Do not make these commitments unless you can keep them. The consulting relationship is a collaboration. You must hold up your end.
  • Communication: Determine early on how much and what kinds of information needs to be shared with the consultant and vice versa.
  • Relevant experience: How can you incorporate the consultant’s best insights and techniques into your own organizational practice, so you may be able to handle problems on your own next time around.
  • Evolution: The consultant’s work will often conclude with a multitude of constructive criticism and recommendations. Do you and organization have the energy, flexibility, and courage to take the necessary next steps. Be honest and don’t just be after a tick in the box.
  • Letting go: Do you have the ability to end an unproductive relationship? Whatever the reason, you have a responsibility to end the relationship as soon as you’re convinced that it will fail.

What would you change or add to this list?

What is the best way you work with consultants? Should consultants be integrated with the team? How do you get best results?

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  • Kristen Turley, APR

    Great post, Lauren. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with consultants in my career. Integration to the corporate culture is important but I have to wonder if that can also taint the results. If you are working on a brand audit, then the key is to understand both the internal and external perspective of your organization. In my opinion, the more important focus should be externally. I have found that consultants who are intimately integrated with your team will water down the results instead of giving you the honest feedback your organization needs.

  • Kellye Crane

    Lauren- Sounds like you had a very disappointing experience – quite a shame. Now that I have this background, I have some additional thoughts and examples from my personal experience.
    First, I think the word “integration” may mean different things to different people. I worked for years in a truly integrated fashion with one Fortune 100 company — behind their firewall, listed in their company directory, considered a full team member, etc. That level of integration isn’t necessary in many cases. However, a consultant certainly must always communicate with the internal team for more than 20 minutes!
    An example of a tactic-only project (referred to in my tweets) would be a case study program. For several clients, I have handled all aspects of producing a series of case studies, without serving directly in my typical role as a big picture campaign strategist. Even though the program was given to me standalone, my work was based on their marketing and PR plans, existing messaging, etc. It was part of my job to educate myself on these materials, ask clarifying questions, and report my status on a regular basis.
    I think the key takeaway is that a consultant cannot be successful working in a vacuum. Both parties should take steps to prevent this, or the final product is likely to show the disconnect (as was your unfortunate experience).

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