What do Consultants bring to the Table?

What do consultants bring to the table?

This is a question often asked by management & staff.

How can they charge so much? Do they really offer value?

Well let’s consider first of all the Aslan phenomenon which was first mentioned by Dr. Roger von Oech in the ground-breaking book on creativity – ‘A Whack on the side of the head’. Von Oech writes that where all men think alike no one thinks.

This is interesting as it links on to study results by Deloitte that indicates that patterns of decision making can result in reputation risk.

Now you may immediately question this assumption by saying that you are a free thinker – especially in meetings. However, subtly and often subconsciously you are being manipulated by the corporate immune response – the corporate culture.

From the first day with an organization you soon learn what is necessary to fit in, to manage perceptions and expectations and to get on with your manager. This acculturation is part of the immune response.

This is why we frown upon those with novel and new ideas. We call them helicopter pilots, we call them rocket scientists. In fact, at one stage of my career, I was told by the then HR Director to stick to my knitting – which was to be a trainer.

We frown upon whistle blowers (look at the furore of Wikileaks), we frown upon people who do not conform. In fact, armed forces around the world actually operate on that principle – using discipline to ensure execution of military strategy.

j0422803So, what do consultants bring to the table?

1. They bring a different frame of reference. A different set of knowledge, skills and attitude set. They have worked in many industries and that is what they bring to bear upon your problem or issue.

2. They bring an expanded knowledge management capability. They have read the books, white papers and reports that you have not seen nor had time to read. They often belong to networks and institutes and associations that give them access to connections and access to resources you don’t have.

3. They bring 3rd party, objective insight – an ability to ‘see the woods from the trees’. They have seen the signs of war and have dealt with casualties in many trenches. They bring this unique insight to the table.

It’s a similar example of the difference between doctors who work in 1st world countries and those who have worked in both 1st world and impoverished countries where the same level of medical and hospital care do not exist. Their skill sets are vastly different.

Unfortunately this knowledge and ability does not come cheap. You cannot equate a daily rate with the amount of investment & time that it has taken to develop that skill set.

Let me illustrate:

Years ago there was a factory in Northwest America that would for some unknown reason; go into shutdown mode at the most inopportune times.

Eventually a group of consultants was called in and they resolved only part of the problem at a cost of about 40,000 USD. Although the incidences dropped, the problem persisted.

One day at a brainstorm meeting, someone remembered that there was an old- timer who used to work at the plant, and that he had a way to get the system up and running instantly.

So, they decided to bring him back as a consultant. One day he arrived with a small black suitcase. Inside this suitcase, was a small silver aluminium hammer. As the plant went down in shutdown mode, he opened his case, went up to one of the pipes, smacked it with his small aluminium hammer, and the system restarted instantly.

Very happy, his customer asked him to bill them. Which he did, only for the bean counters to return the invoice asking for how the bill of 1043 dollars was made up.

This was the answer they got.

43 dollars for hitting the pipe, a 1000 dollars for knowing where to look.

It’s that ‘look’ that costs so much. And, that is what consultants bring to the table.


  1. sohini

    Agreed! Especially #1 and #3, which I’ve variously prefaced to clients in the following terms: “I have no skin in this game/I get to be the agnostic/I get to be the skunk at the garden party and just let ‘er rip.”

    There’s always a shocked, stunned, or uncomfortable silence. Followed by the resigned realization that if they didn’t need that bluntness, I wouldn’t be needed in the room. Particularly because much of the time, they already have the answers, or already know who needs to hear those answers, but for a variety of reasons – tunnel vision, personalities, politics, fatigue – need the outsider to present the information.

    I’d also add that sometimes you really have to sit down and do a cost-benefit analysis of what the consultant actually does and your needs and limitations. I told many a client that there is not one thing I do that they couldn’t do themselves. Question is, do they have the time, and sometimes the money, to learn and excel at what I do. If they can, they don’t need me. Heck, if they want me to show them how so they can handle the problem themselves, I’m up for that too!

    Again, great post!

  2. Lief

    Excellent article. Well thought through and succinct. Corporate and political history is littered with the corpses of those who were killed by deadly creeping group insanity and loss of vision. This article puts clearly why sometimes an outside view is vital for survival.

  3. Ned Barnett

    As a consultant myself, I’ve seen consulting from all sides:

    1. As a “client” hiring and managing consultants

    2. As an in-house consultant for a couple of major corporations

    3. As an independent and agency for-hire consultant

    I found Deon’s assessments to be right on target. However, in making his case, he glossed over a key point or two. Most companies can’t afford in-house consultants – one reason, why consultants have a high hourly or day rate, they are only there when you need them … with no overhead, no benefits, no ongoing costs. This is a huge benefit of consultants – they’re there when you need them, but when you don’t need them, they cost you nothing.

    Beyond that, there’s the question of value pricing. What was the value of Deon’s “Maxwell,” who knew just where to bang his silver hammer? The plant was shut down, and with one bang, he had it working again.

    Here’s a real example: Some years ago, as an in-house consultant for a billion-dollar hospital company, I was charged with gaining all necessary approvals to build a multi-million dollar hospital in Miami. A local opposition cropped up, getting a powerful Cuban-American politician to block our project. With millions riding on it, I found a Cuban-American former Congressman and hired him to help me overcome this problem.

    While I sat in his office, just marveling at his abilities, he made one call and found out who was really blocking our project, then with one other call he set up a face-to-face meeting that allowed me to resolve the problem and put the project back on track. I paid retired Congressman Cardenas $25,000 for two phone calls and something less than 20 minutes – and it was the best consulting investment I ever made.

    Consultants are valuable to business, and Deon makes that case very well.

  4. Valentino Martinez

    Deon–I like your examples…good stuff.

    I’m assuming you mean “outside consultant” rather than an internal employee with “consultant” in their title? I mention this because external consultants bring an independent view not typically hampered by internal politics. For fear of possible repercussions employees tend to be careful about shooting down “how things are done at ACME, Inc., if they happen work there. External consultants, not so much.

    I define “consultant” as a person with experience and expertise above and often beyond what a client currently has on a particular subject/problem. External consultants bring new eyes, but familiar eyes to a particular problem solving challenge. Key to the dynamic of a consultant is that they have “scar tissue” –meaning they’ve been there and done that to a degree that they can recognize a combination of factors that play into a problem. Their problems solving skills are honed by the experience of recognizing the terrain around them and can set out to immediately problem solve.

    The downside of bringing in the wrong consultant is testing their depth and breadth of knowledge concerning the problem at hand. If they’ve never been down the dirt road you’re on relative to your problem you have the wrong consultant.

    Finally, beware of those consultants who actually give the same advice to everyone they serve. The same advice verbatim on how to correct their problem(s). Without naming names, a nationally recognized HR consultant was dinged by a customer who was comparing notes with an industry partner on how this particular consultant gave them extensive advice on how to address their operational problems. This customer discovered that their partner in industry receive the exact same advice, to the letter…and was charged over $100K+ for the effort. They went on to discover that many other industry competitors received the exact same advice, to the letter…same charge. When the consultant was confronted about the redundancy of their “consulting work”—the consultant defended their recommendations by saying that each company mentioned had the “exact same problems…thus the exact same advice.”

  5. Mitch

    To me, what a good consultant brings to the table is the ability to tell the truth without consequences and the ability to get the job done without the restrictions of worrying about hurting feelings long term. This doesn’t mean one goes in and is brutally honest to the point where no one will work with you. It does mean that you do a fair evaluation, figure out what’s wrong, tell whomever brought you in what the problems were even if you know they don’t want to hear it, and if you’re allowed fix the issues don’t dance around it just get it done, using your authority as the change maker while still trying to build relationships with those still there to get it all done properly and expediently.

    Otherwise, a consultant is just a “yes” person with no real purpose for being there.