Thursday, January 22, 2015

Consulting With the Flavor of the Month

I've worked for several firms in my career and had the privilege of serving a large number of clients.Different consultants have different ways of serving their clients and different firms have different expectations of their consultants. Some of these practices generate what is to me a problem. Consultants bring their clients the flavor of the month, or worse yet, they bring them last month's flavor of the month.

What do I mean by that?

Suppose you or I are a consultant with a firm that tends to generate its ideas out of a centralized practice. As consultants in that practice, we find ourselves essentially required to talk to each of our clients and "check the box" saying that we had a conversation with them about January's flavor. I've been in that situation. And, while there are definitely right ways and wrong ways to do this, a consultant could easily find himself in a competing situation.

Consider that the January brainchild is a really cool and innovative idea around health plans. There will be companies that this idea is right for, but the idea is complex and therefore, probably a good idea only when a company's employees are particularly active participants in their own health outcomes and where they are financially savvy enough to know how to play the game, so to speak.

Because of this, I as a consultant working for one of those firms (I have, but I currently do not) may have competing goals leading to a conflict for me. Suppose I bring this idea to each of my clients as I am told. One of my clients, hypothetically, is a large chain of fast food restaurants that sits mostly along interstate highways in rural areas. The employees of this company, generally, earn minimum wage or just a little bit more, so they are not financially savvy. Additionally, most of what they eat is fried food and what I have learned over the years is that they really don't understand their own health.

My main contact, the Vice President of Human Resources absolutely loves my firm's idea. She took this position as a step up in her career after being a Benefits Manager at a large pharmaceutical company. There, the employees did take a role in their own health outcomes and the sophisticated group of scientists did have enough financial acumen to understand any pitfalls of this new design. I am left with competing interests:

  1. I can do right by my client and tell them that I just wanted to let them know what some other companies are doing, but that this idea might not be right for them and here's why; or
  2. I can sell the assignment because it will go a long way toward helping me to meet or exceed my goals.
I'd like to think that when faced with this conflict that I have always taken option 1. But, even if I have, I know people who have not.

There is something far worse than the flavor of the month consultant, however. Consider the consultant who pitches the flavor of last month, or even worse, the flavor of last year. This is the person who learns through the grapevine that the reason that his client base is gradually leaving him is that he didn't bring them any new ideas. So, he goes back to the handouts from meetings he attended earlier in the year and starts to pitch those ideas. He doesn't really understand them, but he is practicing (poorly, I might add) defensive client management. 

As an example, without going into great detail, Curtis O'Nsultant learned at the annual meeting of the Really Smart Consultants of America of a great new idea that works very well in a rising interest rate environment. Back in 2013, Curt lost a few clients because other companies marketed this idea to his clients. He wasn't aware of the idea then and he still doesn't understand it. But Curt knows that failing to bring the idea to his client base was costly, so he decided to bring it to his remaining clients in late 2014 to seemingly ensure that the rest of his client base would be safe. If he is lucky, or perhaps unlucky, enough to sell this idea to any of his clients, we know how that story will play out.

I'm thrilled to say that I don't have to deal with that now. I work with some really smart and creative people who come up with some great ideas. But, rather than telling me that I need to bring those ideas to my entire client base, I am asked to consider what an appropriate client would like and which of my clients fits that definition of appropriateness. Those are the clients that I will bring this new idea to.

Think about it.

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