Why does everyone hate consultants?

Written by Jim Shaver, President Two Harbors Consulting.

True story – a friend of mine was considering getting out of the corporate rat race and starting up his own management consulting company. Upon informing his parents of this decision, his dad asked in all seriousness, “you won’t have to do anything illegal or unethical will you?” What?

This sort of distrust of consultants – and management consultants in particular – seems almost instinctual, like cats vs dogs, PC vs Mac, or Yankees fans vs…well…everyone. Generally speaking, in the corporate world, consultants are viewed at best as a necessary evil, or at worst…just evil.

I recognize that, like all generalizations, this low view of consultants is not a universally held opinion, but it is common enough that there must be something to it, right? I certainly held that opinion for much of my time on the corporate side of that equation…but (full disclosure), now that I am a consultant (and of the dreaded “management” variety at that), I thought it might be wise to figure out what’s behind this disdain for my chosen profession.

So, why aren’t consultants feeling the love? Your mileage may vary, but here are some of the things I believed about consultants:

  1. Consultants are mercenaries. They show up, tell you a bunch of stuff you already know, and they’re gone. They have no skin in the game and you can’t trust them.
  2. Consultants are not motivated to solve your problem – if they solve your problem, you don’t need them anymore
  3. Consultants don’t understand my business – they are outsiders.
  4. Hiring a consultant is an admission of failure. Nobody likes to admit they can’t do it themselves.
  5. Consultants are a bunch of “know-it-alls” with egos like a rock star.
  6. Show me the money! Consultants are WAY too expensive. No way they are worth that much.

Sound familiar?

Do all consultants fit this profile? Absolutely not – in fact, most do not. But all it takes are a few “bad actors” to give the entire profession a bad name. Most of the consultants I know, many of whom I have hired in the past, are wonderful, highly-skilled people and I’d work with them again in a heartbeat. And then there are those who give you that “used car salesman” experience (apologies to used car salesmen everywhere).

Paradoxically, you can’t swing a stick these days without hitting a couple of consultants (in my home state of Georgia alone, there are over 38,000 companies with the words “consulting” or “consultants” in their name) – so they must have something going for them, right? They’ve got to be offering something pretty good to overcome this bias against them that many in the corporate world have.

Here’s my new (and hopefully improved) perspective on how the things I used to believe about consultants may not be as true as I once thought:

  1. Consultants are mercenaries and have no skin in the game. Oh, but they do have a ton of skin in the game. Repeat business and word of mouth are the lifeblood of consulting. It is their livelihood, and if they do not provide value for the money, they’ll be looking for other employment soon. On top of that, the good ones are very passionate about helping their customers succeed and truly want to be viewed as a partner, not as a hired gun. If that hasn’t been your experience, you might want to look elsewhere.
  2. Consultants are not motivated to solve your problem. It’s true, consultants are in business to make a profit. One of the best ways to do that is to get additional business from you – after all, they are already in your door. But, the best way for a consultant to get add-on business from you is to solve the first problem you hired them for – proving that they can deliver on their commitments. A well-constructed, fixed price contract/SOW with defined deliverables can eliminate this issue, but if you suspect a consultant is stringing you along with a series of excuses as to why they can’t seem to wrap it up, you might want to look elsewhere.
  3. Consultants are outsiders. Exactly – and that’s a good thing. They bring a fresh perspective that can be impossible to get inside the four walls of your company. True, they may not understand the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of your business, but there’s a great big world out there and they bring a lot of experience and expertise unavailable to you internally. There’s a good chance they know solutions to your problems that you’d never think of.
  4. Hiring a consultant is an admission of failure. Not really. You can’t always be THE expert on everything. A true leader knows when to ask for help. Sometimes it makes sense to hire the expertise to get you going in the right direction.
  5. Consultants are “know-it-alls”. Yes, there are some consultants out there of this type. The solution, however, is simple…don’t hire them. For every egomaniacal consultant you run across, there are many others just as qualified who won’t make you want to punch them in the face.
  6. Consultants are too expensive. As mentioned above, consultants are in business to make money (aren’t we all?) – that should not be surprising. Consulting is all about a value proposition – if you feel that the services being offered aren’t worth the asking price, shop around. There are plenty of consultants out there competing for your business. Just remember, you get what you pay for. If the problem you are trying to solve were an easy one, you wouldn’t be considering hiring a consultant in the first place.

The bottom line is this – consultants exist to solve problems. A good consultant can help you solve your unique problem. The best consultants can help you figure out what the problem is when you can’t seem to put your finger on it. How do you find one of those? That’s a topic for another day, but I’ll leave you with this – consultants come in many shapes and sizes – there’s one out there (probably many more than one) that can meet your needs for a fair price. Choose wisely, and you’ll be just fine.