Give them what they want – the consultant's dilemma.
It’s tough being a consultant. Clients employ you to advise and help them but as they are paying you there is always a question on how objective and effective the consultancy services will be. Like any business, consultants need to make a profit and clients feel as they are paying it is not unreasonable the consultant gives them what they want. But that’s where it can be difficult. Recently the Big Four accounting firms PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young were criticised by Financial Reporting Council for providing less than a professional service. They were criticised for using aggressive salesmanship and cost cutting to maximise profit at the cost of quality. They were then noted as too readily accepting company forecasts for future sales to presumably satisfy their client agendas.
I used to think an audit was something you couldn’t argue about and envied accountants who did not have to justify more emotionally judged services such as design and architecture. But now creative accountancy, it seems, should be up there with the rest of us providing potentially subjective services which can depend on the clients’ emotional rather than rational mind sets. Artists and composers have always balanced the need for patronage i.e. the need to eat as well as to satisfy their inner aspirations to create something that meets their own creative vision.
It is revealing when some organisations categorise consultants as ‘suppliers’. Traditionally a supplier delivers a requested product. The clients know what they want and have it supplied to meet their need. Unfortunately ‘supplying’ intellectual property, advice and potentially emotionally charged services moves into the more murky realm of professionals providing ‘consultancy’. Specialist knowledge, expertise, mentoring, strategy and concepts are not simple products.
The split between a supplier and consultant is now highly blurred with product manufacturers providing the added value veneer of
marketing ‘solutions’ to clients needs. Not surprisingly clients get confused as to the difference between supplier ‘services’ and consultants activities.But there is a potential distinction if a consultant professional is true to his or her calling. An architect is seen to be responsible to not only his client but to the community, society and personal conscience. Telling a client a development is too greedy, potentially ugly and a blot on the landscape is not easy when big fees and egos are involved.
All consultants must face the dilemma of satisfying their paymaster, maintaining their integrity and sometimes having to ignore their better judgement. Being told you will not be paid because the client does not like your design solution creates some interesting ethical issues. When you realise the chairman’s wife is going to be the final arbiter of taste and judgement life can be particularly challenging! Saying what you really think to a client who owes you outstanding fees or who can make your life hell is a true test of character or just a very bad business move!
I guess ideally all consultants should have private means so they can provide totally impartial advice and not depend on their clients goodwill. But back in the real world true professionalism must always be a careful juggling act.
Given their enormous revenues, the Big Four now need to try a bit of rebalancing to satisfy their clients finance directors as well as their own. Quality and quantity clearly make interesting bed fellows.>