Premise: The key to success is sticking to your own menu, not providing a custom dish for each client.
Pleasing a client can lead to wrecking your business. A consultant knows his or her strengths and weaknesses and provides services that match the profile. Clients on the other hand do not know where the consultant’s strengths and weaknesses lie and therefore attempt to stretch the consultant’s services in new directions. Sometimes a consultant manages to accomplish this successfully, but more often it spells disaster for both parties.
A marketing consultant that provides superior strategic advice and planning but has little experience in social marketing may be tempted to add that element into the service mix to satisfy client requirements. This not only puts the client at risk; it threatens the consultant’s business as the chances that he or she will fail are overwhelming. The proper way of handling this type of situation is to bridge the gap by calling in external – or secondary – consultants that are strong in areas where you are weak That way, the client receives a superior service throughout and it also defends you against unexpected hiccups. This is called establishing a core competency chain (and just like any other chain, the weakest link will break it).
I deal almost exclusively with the strategic end of the marketing spectrum but am frequently asked to build webs, create ads, or engage in social marketing. Although I can do all of these to a certain extent, there are others that are far more proficient in doing so (e.g. Chris Tompkins of the Go! Agency). When it comes to determining whether a solution fits within the market research realm, my first stop is with Lenny Murphy of Gen2Advisors. Working closely with consultants that are very strong in specific areas greatly reduces workload on this end which expedites getting things done (i.e. shortens delivery time which increases client satisfaction). It is very tempting to try doing everything the client asks, but experienced consultants understand the value of leveraging skills through delegation. Unfortunately, many learn that the hard way.
Working with external consultants means that contractual arrangements have to be in place where roles and responsibilities are clearly outlined. In ‘The purpose of a contract‘, I stressed the importance of entering into a contractual arrangement with a client before engaging in actual work. The same applies when working with colleagues and other service providers. There may be a brief period of assessment during which no contract is necessary, but before approaching the client with a proposal, a contract between the primary consultant and secondary – supporting – consultants must be in place. If it is not, the latter are likely to perform under par as a business relationship has not been established. Working with other consultants without a contract that binds them weakens the entire service offering which reflects back on the primary consultant and usually does so negatively.
The consultant’s main weapons are his or her skills and reputation. The skills are what is on the menu. Straying too far from the menu exposes the consultant’s weaknesses and may damage his or her reputation. I have done that but was fortunate enough to be able to salvage the situation by calling in secondary consultants before real damage was done. That experience taught me a valuable lesson: stick to your own menu. Since consultants often work on highly sensitive projects and can neither share who they have worked for or on what, word of mouth is critically important. After social networks emerged, that word spreads fast and far in seconds. A serious mistake or a demonstration of incompetence can literally end a consultant’s otherwise successful career in a matter of days (e.g. Arthur Andersen and Enron). For clients, LinkedIn provides the means to weed out the rotten apples; just check the consultant and his or her network and find whether he or she has received recommendations from business management, industry leaders or high-profile consultants. For consultants, that same resource is recommended to identify the strongest external consultants for your own projects.
The bottom line is that a consultant that sticks how is or her own menu is unlikely to make mistakes whereas one that does not is taking extreme risks. I have a clear menu in place from which I will not stray. I deal with business and marketing strategy, financial and economic analysis, SaaS and business intelligence solutions, but have experts on standby that can deliver superior results whenever client requests fall outside that scope. I think of my services as menu items and the services of external consultants as ambiance (e.g. wine, music, decor, cutlery). Together, we deliver a great experience but alone, our five-star restaurant becomes a fast food joint. A decrease in quality causes a decrease in consultant fees and no consultant wants that to happen. Comments and feedback welcomed.