We have all heard the saying that a consultant merely tells you the time using your own watch whilst charging a tidy sum for doing it.
We would like to offer a contrary view – that often consultants are the oil that greases the gears that move a project forward. They support their clients in defining challenges, making decisions, selecting, and implementing “answers” to those challenges in such a way that they add value to the business.
It is at times simply staggering how suppliers view and interact with consultants. When a deal is won, it is all down to the genius of the supplier’s sales team, nothing at all to do with the consultant’s clear definition of requirements, knowledge of the market, skills in determining and running the process and ability to guide both parties through contractual negotiations. It is rare that consultants are acknowledged in any form of publicity that the winning suppliers push out. When a client or new business is lost, it is all to do with the consultant’s agenda, nothing to do with the poor service provided during the contract duration or the client having outgrown the supplier’s offering.
With apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan, there are times that I feel the “lot” of a consultant is “not a happy one” and the value that consultants bring is often unrecognised or undervalued by the supplier community.
There are, of course, times where consultants are engaged to give validation to pre-determined internal views or to add a governance wrapper to a firm’s plans but, more often than not, they are used to help frame the situation, identify options, develop strategies, procure solutions and implement change.
During the pandemic we have seen more firms engaging external consultants to support them in this way. The increase in business is often driven by disappointment in how suppliers or systems have coped during the pandemic OR because the firm has realised that it can do so much more than it could have imagined pre-2020.
It is often the case that consultants are appointed at a time when their client stakeholders have reached the point of no return with one of their key suppliers or solutions. In this scenario they turn to consultants to extract them from an undesirable position; as a result consultants are often seen as the “hired gun”. However, if the supplier were truthful to themselves, they would recognise that if good service had been provided, the firm would not have felt the need to invoke consultancy help in the first place.
The very nature of consultancy engagements often puts the consultant in an awkward position of being the bearer of bad news or an agent to address concerns a client has with its suppliers.
Ironically, this is often a two-way street. In our retained advisor positions or whilst overseeing implementation projects vendors are too ‘frit’ to tell their customers bad news, rather looking to the consultant to manage the delivery of challenging news such as project delay or complications.
To achieve successful outcomes for all parties the consultant must therefore continually manage two, or at times three, opposing forces.
- Their clients
As an ‘outsider’ to their client (regardless of how good the relationship, a consultant will always be an outsider), they are reliant on their interactions with stakeholders to represent the firm’s needs, cultures and expectations.
The consultant needs to manage the various stakeholder groups who often have differing requirements, priorities and expectations.
- The incumbent supplier
The incumbent supplier often feels hard-done by in having a consultant brought in to review the situation. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise this is because there is a disconnect between their service delivery (or product functionality) and their client’s expectations.
- The wider supplier community
As an honest broker to the supplier community, consultants are aften responsible for feeding back negative news, long listing and shortlisting based on their knowledge of the market and the firm’s requirements and relationship management needs.
Most suppliers would move heaven and earth not to have consultants involved in a ‘situation resolution’ or procurement exercise as they know they will be held more accountable for their promises and actions.
We have on several occasions found that prior to our engagement suppliers have made promises about functionality which does not exist in their system but row back from these promises when we get involved. Equally, we are aware of challenges which suppliers are reticent to disclose to their potential clients unless a consultant draws them out.
It is integral to the role of a consultant to have good working relationships with as many suppliers in the market as they can and to facilitate good communication and expectation setting. Equally, a good vendor will look to engage with a consultant in a proactive way.
During our procurement processes we actively encourage vendors to ask questions, seek clarification meetings and challenge our assumptions or suggested approaches. It never ceases to amaze us how many do not engage with the process and simply expect to deliver a completed proposal at 23:55 on the submission day.
There have been times when clients have told us to put it in the bin – if a vendor cannot engage during a sales process, just imagine the service they will provide. I personally struggle with the “1 minute to go” approach, when we normally give a month for RTT submissions. Like a student throwing in an assignment at the last second, I know this submission is rushed, has a lack of consideration and is an indicator of a disorganised and risky supplier.
Should a supplier lose a client or not win a procurement process that they thought was in the bag, they should look to learn from the experience. However, sadly over the last year or so the market has seen the number of incidents of suppliers acting in an aggressive or unethical way increase dramatically.
We have seen this first-hand with well-known suppliers to the legal industry and have experiences of:
- Incumbent suppliers threatening to or actually withdrawing service should a client inform them of service concerns or that they are undertaking a review.
- Incumbent suppliers making false accusations against other suppliers involved in the selection process or against the consultants running the process.
- Incumbent suppliers seeking to charge ridiculous costs for extracting data or making it awkward for the incoming vendor to access systems to extract data.
- Incoming vendors committing to deliverables during the RTT and contract process which they have no intention, or ability, to deliver.
Perhaps this behaviour is driven by the increased pressure that suppliers have in keeping their own business profitable, especially those which are VC or PE backed which may drive a numbers game culture rather than a true client focused approach.
Whatever the reason, it is extremely short-sighted as the legal community is a very small place and law firms speak very openly with each other about their experience of various suppliers. In the world of outsourcing there are now more conversations about behaviour during the bad times than during run of the mill days.
Another challenge is that suppliers to the legal industry have themselves been selling like hot cakes – six PMS systems and four leading MSPs have recently changed ownership. In the last year we have had three occasions where the change of ownership was announced a few weeks (and in one case, days) after contracts were signed. On one occasion the first and second placed vendors were both purchased on the same day.
Despite requirements to disclose, under NDA, any change of ownership plans or negotiations in the selection process these things are never disclosed, and we have had to calm down clients who are furious about the ‘deception’ of the supplier. It can have a catastrophic impact on the trust between suppliers and their client.
So, what’s the purpose of this article? Is it just David having a rant? Well maybe to some extent but my main motivation is to:
- Highlight the challenges we all face in doing the best for our clients
- Suggest that if used properly, consultants can add value and protection for supplier and client alike
- Point out that supplier behaviour is noticed, is talked about and does influence future outcomes: unethical behaviour on losing a client will be extremely detrimental to your business long-term.
So please consider the impact of your behaviour on your client or potential client and please don’t blame the consultant for everything. Occasionally we might get it wrong too, but your conduct is in your own hands and clients want suppliers that they can trust. That means delivering on promises, being open and honest, and having the client’s best interests – and not the supplier’s – to the fore at all times.