If you are a fellow consultant you may have experienced a blowback of our industry operating too much like “Big Pharma.”   Although a client may have not used the term “Big Pharma”, they hesitated to engage your serves out of a concern over excessive fees and little resolution of the initial problem.

Detractors of the pharmaceutical industry claim the drug manufacturers are more interested in creating a dependency on their products rather than on healing the patient. Similarly, a client may view a consultant as being more interested in embedding themselves into client organizations rather than completing their contracted scope. Like a virus that must spread throughout the host organism to survive, a consultant must spread his or her influence to be more profitable.

How did we get this reputation?  We can reasonably conclude the perception originated with a sector of business leaders who were dissatisfied because the consultant did not perform or deliver according to expectations.

The number of reasons why a consultant can fail to meet a client’s expectations are as varied as their personnel.  We did not set out to empirically or statistically prove the origin of the reputation.  Instead, we contemplated how unmet expectations contributed to the breakdown of the client / consultant relationship.

All relationships, regardless of their nature, are built upon a foundation of trust.  Whenever trust is compromised it is very difficult for those in the relationship to view their relationship, or the nature of a conflict, clearly.  Both parties view the circumstances through lenses clouded by disappointment or hurt.  We pondered whether it was possible that the consulting business model was the result of broken relationships.

While not perfectly analogous,  we compared the client / consultant relationship to that between a patient and a doctor.  Prior to the Affordable Care Act, for many individuals and families, the doctor / patient relationship was personal.  Patients often found doctors by seeking the opinion of trusted friends, family members, and co-workers and made their decision based primarily upon relationship.

Consider a doctor who, because of the severity and urgency of a patient’s condition, prescribes an immediate change in diet, lifestyle, or medication.  In cases when the patient cannot (or will not) recognize their behavior as harmful, family members sometimes step in to manage the individual’s health.  Often patients in this circumstance resist the change to their lifestyle, resent their doctor, and resent the interference of their family members.

Conceivably, the loading of consultant resources on an account may be their attempt to “manage” their patient (the client). This may seem farfetched, but our reflecting upon our business model versus the model of other consulting firms led us to ponder which model had more merit.

We (7i Operations Group) recently learned a very valuable lesson. Our clients are most satisfied, and our projects are the most successful, when there is a clear understanding of why we are hired. Like most consultants, we are deliberate about defining the scope, schedule, budget, deliverables, and conditions for acceptance. “Why” we are hired can at times differ significantly from the task or scope of the project.

Clients sometimes engage us when they want to save overhead costs (they do not want to hire a FTE but need a skilled resource), they need our operational expertise, or a project requires our skill set. Continuing with the medical analogy, we operate more like a naturopath doctor than a traditional physician. Our model is designed to identify the root causes of an illness and educate the patient how his or her body can heal itself with changes to diet, lifestyle, and environment. Most naturopaths have little interest in managing an illness or symptoms by prescribing medication. Their model, like our own, is to heal the patient (client operations) and walk away.

Most business leaders would conclude that the naturopath model is idealistically superior because the motivation is client centric. We propose that both models are client centric. The naturopath approach, our business model, only works if the patient recognizes the real issues, is willing to change their lifestyle and diet, and has the discipline to be healthier.

There are times when the patient knows they “feel bad” but are unable to make the changes to address the core issues. We submit the consulting industry may have developed the ill reputed business model to improve the probability of success in these circumstances. While it is unrealistic to discount the financial impetus, it may be equally unrealistic, or inequitable, to assume the motivation is solely greed.

If, after a failed engagement, a consultant concludes that the failure was attributable to client personnel (clouded lenses), then their response to mitigate the risk of future failure may be to load an account with additional resources. We are not advocating this approach.  In fact, if this hypothesis is true, we believe this approach may have contributed to the “Big Pharma” stigma.

We propose that our clients, and the industry, may be better served if we (consultants) focused more upon relationships and understanding our “patient” types than force fitting a business model.  Consultants, and clients, should diligently protect the three pillars of their relationships: trust, communication, and respect.  When both parties take the time to understand expectations, evaluate their compatibility, and can communicate respectfully, then they can make the right decision whether to move forward after an initial study.

In summary, the consulting industry would go a long way towards erasing this stigma, if we rightly discerned the type of doctor the patient needs and willingly referred them to the right kind of physician instead of trying to win the account.