By Kasie Whitener and Jodie Cain Smith
There’s a great fable about the consultant charging a lot of money to hit a machine with a hammer. The client bemoans the fee saying he could have hit the machine himself. Consultants say the fee is for knowing where to strike.
It’s the knowing that the consultant sells. She sells it because she’s been there and done it before. She sells it because she has a proven method for doing this thing others want to do. But there are some things people don’t know about consulting. Some things that might make you rethink whether you’re actually qualified to be one.
Consultants do not transfer knowledge. They lead you to a solution.
Knowledge transfer means I am in possession of the knowledge and when our experience is over, you are in possession of it. A consultant’s knowledge is too deep, too wide, too analytical to be transferred. A good consultant will lead you to a solution, helping you recognize the mile markers along the way. You may be able to repeat her process in the future, but she does not teach you what she knows, she shows you how to solve a specific problem.
Consultants are not hourly employees nor should they be paid as such.
In the fable, the primary argument of the client is that the consultant’s solution didn’t take much time. But consultants are not hourly employees. Many problems they address take multiple hours to investigate and diagnose. Others not so much. Many projects they encounter require days, weeks, and months of work, but others don’t.
Consultants are engaged to solve an urgent, recognized problem. The number of hours it takes to render the solution is not directly proportional to the value of that solution. Therefore, the amount paid to the consultant should not be in any way dependent upon the hours spent on the solution.
A consultant is not always the right answer for a complicated problem.
One value consultants bring is an outsider’s viewpoint free of the politics and ambitions that sometimes weigh down internal teams. But that position of outsider also has challenges. For one, the consultant doesn’t have the same sense of loyalty to the firm or to the people in it. Engaging a consultant might end up costing the firm esprit de corps or employee trust.
Complicated problems are sometimes deeply rooted in circumstances outside of the consultant’s control. If those problems are not addressed by the project sponsor, the consultant’s work could be futile.
Finally, consultants cost money and that expense may result in telling the company something it doesn’t want to hear. In those cases, the consultant’s insight and professionalism don’t make up for the fact that the problem cannot be solved.
Choose a consultant only when the right fit is reached. A good consultant will tell you if she’s not the right fit. She might even hand you the hammer and tell you where to strike.