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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Does Your Consultant Stack Up? Real Consultants vs. Wanna-Be's

David A. ZimmerPrint

The joke goes something like this: What's a Consultant? It's someone who can't get a real job and carries a briefcase!

Or, it's someone in transition, i.e., just laid off and in between jobs.
For those of us who are "real" consultants (and we will define that for you), the jokes are particularly bad because, as we endeavor to provide value-added services to our clients, our clients don't understand the difference between the Real McCoy and the Wannabe Clan.

As voting members of the Real McCoy’s, we will endeavor to de-mystify the differences and make it plain for those who are in search of an external expert.

The American Eagle Group has been an active member of the Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA) for over ten years. We have served as officers on the local Delaware Valley Chapter Board of Directors and served as the Vice President, President, Chairman, Treasurer, and now Secretary of the National Board of Directors in addition to serving as committee chairs and active participants in the discussion groups.

During our service to the ICCA, we have had frequent discussions - mostly heated - about the differences between a consultant, a contractor, and a wannabe. After all the hours of arguments and hot-air, we never really clearly defined the differences.

In a wonderfully written article written, "Are You a Real or Imitation Consultant," Aldonna Ambler, CMC, CSP of Hammonton, NJ which appeared in the Professional Speakers magazine from the National Speakers Association (NSA), dispersed the smoke around the wannabe consultant. She worked with a client who became shocked at the number of people who called themselves consultants, but were not. Ambler listed some characteristics of the Wannabe Clan (I list them here verbatim):

Characteristics of the Wannabe Clan
  • Expect business to just be handed to them;
  • Lack higher education in the topical expertise of their industry;
  • Think that they can learn enough content from a few seminars;
  • Do not walk the talk (apply the approach they are recommending / teaching)
  • Don't want to read any books, do any research or attend major conferences;
  • Had never learned techniques to objectively analyze a client's situation and needs;
  • Lack facilitation and project management skills;
  • Had never learned how to provide advice;
  • Lack creditability and have not demonstrated success; and
  • Lack depth and breadth of experience.

Is that a list or what? Does your "consultant" fit that list or the opposite list - the list that would describe a consultant? When evaluating a person's claim of being a consultant, do you have a list to measure them against or do you simply take their word for it?

So What Is A Consultant Anyway?
Certainly "consultant" has a certain air, panache, mystic, and finesse that contractor or wannabe do not. So of course, all of us who sell our services to clients want to be known as consultants. But that leaves you as the client in a lurch. How can you tell the difference between the Real McCoy and the Wannabe? If the Wannabe has no real consulting skills, they must have something that causes you to think they are a consultant. When we are hiring outside expertise, we want to get expertise and not a smoke-n-mirror show that leaves us drained of money, time, and emotion. We want return on our investment - true, tangible return.

In the article, Ambler answered with a list. We will add some ourselves (so we can't be accused of total plagiarism!). Ambler's list:

Characteristics of the Real Consultant
  • A real consultant is expected to bring appropriate credentials that result in expanded information and knowledge to their situation;
  • A real consultant is expected to bring objectivity to a situation;
  • A real consultant is expected to bring innovative thinking to a situation;
  • A real consultant is expected to bring facilitation skills to a situation; and
  • A real consultant is expected to adhere to a professional code of ethics.

Let's expand on these ideas so we understand what they really mean.

Credentials
The consultant should have appropriate credentials. Credentials come in different forms: educational, designations, research, practical knowledge and experience, and previous successes (and failures - a real consultant will learn more from failure than successes so you don't experience those failures).

Does the self-proclaimed consultant have an advanced degree? Lest you think we are snobs, we do realize that years of experience can equate to formal education. In advanced degrees, students are not taught just more in-depth information, but a way of thinking and research. We at American Eagle Group possess advanced degrees and practical experience. We believe the lessons learned in research and thought-process during our advanced learning aided us to gained as much from our practical experience as we did.

Again, we believe there are many very intelligent and bright people who don't have the advanced degrees that can run circles around us. The difference is, "How can you tell?" An advanced degree in the topic helps you qualify the veracity of the claimant’s claim. Anyone can talk a good game.

Playing a good game is another thing altogether. The advanced degree shows the player went beyond the expected and pressed further into his/her expertise.

Aside from the formal education, what further study or research has the consultant performed? Did their education stop when they received their diploma or did they continue through independent study? The continuing education helps keep the consultant’s information fresh and current. Otherwise, it becomes stale very quickly.

And finally, is the consultant’s advice based upon information found elsewhere so you know it has a foundational basis or is the information simply being designed on the fly?

In the case of American Eagle Group, we possess advanced degrees in Computer Science and Project Management. We have been named to several Who’s Who lists, elected to several boards of various non-profit associations, published numerous articles and whitepapers, and contributed to several anthology books. And we will continue with those types of activities because they keep our information fresh and expands our experience base.

Objectivity
Is the consultant’s information biased? Do they recommend one solution over another because of their favorable experience or are they receiving financial restitution for recommending it? Is this the only product they represent? You, as a customer, want unbiased, non-directed information. You want information that helps you make informed decisions, ones that align with your goals and objectives, not the consultant’s. The consultant should be void of any allegiance to a particular vendor or supplier. The consultant should walk into a client’s site with a clear slate as to any products or services that would fit the customer’s needs.

This does not mean that the consultant should know or understand the values of various competing products or services. They should clearly know the available set of solutions for the client’s situation. But it is the needs analysis derived from discovery that should drive the consultant’s recommendation. While the consultant might have his/her favorite solution, he/she should willingly set that favoritism aside to recommend the solution best fit for the client’s needs.

If the consultant should receive any type of compensation if the client purchases the consultant’s recommendation, the consultant should clearly designate that such compensation may occur. Again, the consultant must not let the potential compensation mar or influence his/her recommendation.

In most cases, we have not recommended a solution to a client prior to completing the needs discovery process. Recently, though, the client had requested a proposal for project management consulting and training. In our proposal, we did recommend a specific solution and substantiated that solution with reasons. We clearly stated that we do not receive any type of remuneration for the purchase of the proposed solution and we carefully stated that the recommendation was based upon market factors and future direction, and not because of any bias toward that particular solution. During our meeting with the client, we re-iterated that point and the client supported our recommendation and was appreciative of the rationale behind the recommendation. They were also glad to know our recommendation was not based upon any financial gain to us.

Facilitation Skills
Facilitation is a fancy word for “make easy,” “make possible,” and “smooth the progress of.” We are not trying to diminish this important skill, but rather to help you understand a real consultant isn’t just technically savvy in his/her expertise, but knows other skills to get the job done. More importantly, they know how to put the ownership of the project back into the hands of the customer and not keep it to himself/herself so the client is always at his/her mercy.

We just got off the phone with a colleague who is trying to get a client back online with their small business server. The situation is dire because the server is not working properly due to multiple Trojan viruses, worms, and other viruses. And those are the simple problems.

The real problems are a result of the “high powered consultant” (and we are using those terms very loosely here) who originally configured the machine. The consultant used improperly licensed software (a.k.a., illegal) to create the server, illegally hosted websites on the server at the client’s expense and the consultant’s gain, registered the company’s domain address in such a way so only the consultant has the ability to configure the domain records, established several back door accounts with secret passwords in the event the client were to change the main password and a slew of other major and unethical offenses. Who knows what other data and information the consultant used to his advantage. Fortunately, the consultant has move onto other ground and has left the client in a lurch.

To top all this off, the client is really upset the machine is no longer functioning properly. The client is blaming my colleague for the malfunctioning even though the machine was not working properly before he came on-board (which is why the client called for a new consultant in the first place!) Yet the client stands firmly behind the expertise of the schlock consultant.

Facilitation requires we follow a five-step methodology: Problem/Opportunity Identification, Research, Design, Implementation, and Evaluation (presumably, the evaluation may identify something that requires another iteration of this process for continued improvement). A Real McCoy consultant will know how to manage this process and move you forward with tangible deliverables and results. A Wannabe won’t. And they may end up holding your family jewels as in the example above.

Professional Code of Ethics
As the Real McCoy, we hold ourselves to a higher standard than the Wannabe. We subscribe to acting in the best interest of our clients, providing service that is top quality and ethical. We do not meddle with unscrupulous behavior and walk away for improper, illegal, or unethical practices, even when there is money on the table to be had. Our reputation is more important that any amount of money and we protect our integrity above all else. Not everyone has their price – some are priceless.

As real consultants, we carry the insurances, accreditation, certifications and licenses necessary to ply our trade. No longer do we simply have a business license and workman’s comp, we go beyond that minimum. We continue to grow our knowledge through formal education providing our clients with the latest information.

Currently, American Eagle Group belongs to two groups that hold us to a higher level of ethical code. We have been members of the Independent Computer Consultants Association (www.icca.org) since 1993. Before we can become members, we must read and agree to the Code of Ethics. Violations to that code could result in expulsion from the organization. The expulsion would severely damage our reputation and impact our business.

As professional speakers, we are members of the National Speakers Association. Again, we must read and abide by the Code of Ethics. Violation of this Code can result in expulsion. Again, it would damage our reputation, impact our speaking engagements which would impact our consulting business. Violation of either Code of Ethics would severely damage our business.

We put our clients first. Pure and simple.

To some, this may sound idealistic, but not realistic. The fact of the matter, there are many consultants that hold to these values. Sadly, there are many more that do not. Your job, Mr./Ms. Client, is to determine who is the Real McCoy and who is the Wannabe.

Conclusion
We hope we have given you some food for thought. The next time you hire a consultant, poke beyond their flattery and boisterous claims. “Where’s the beef!” as the TV ad many years ago proclaimed. Not everyone is as they seem to be. See what certifications, ongoing studies and other pedigrees exist to support their claims.

You’ll find them if you want to.