A lesson about success from one terrible and one great consultant

by Ivan Mazour

iStock-good-bad-424x250I normally approach any situation as one that I am in control of, and when things don’t go to plan I blame myself for not having been smart enough to guide it to a successful conclusion. If you think like this, you may be disappointed on occasion, but each of those occasions will turn into an opportunity for self-reflection – an opportunity to learn and improve yourself. I recently had an experience that ended as a disappointment, no matter what I tried, and I’ve been analysing why that was, and what I can learn from it.

The situation I’m talking about was my team receiving a few days of consultancy. Now, as a whole, consultants tend to be right up there with bankers and lawyers when it comes to people’s attitude towards them. There is a very clear reason why that is so, and this particular experience reaffirmed my understanding of this. We dislike these professions because they get paid, independently of who “wins”. The lawyers still get paid if you lose – after all, they put the time in. The consultants still get paid if things don’t work out. And the bankers – well, they used to be the most respected members of society, and then they made fortunes while causing the recession and destroying the economic situation of everyone else around them.

This particular consultancy engagement came out of the fact that my company needed some high-level advice from people with much more experience of the market we were entering. We needed strategic advice that was based on their full understanding of the market, and their experience of the customers that we were targeting. A price was agreed from the start, based on a number of goals, and a number of man-days of time to achieve these – time that would be spent preparing, and time that would be spent in meetings with us.

Things went wrong from the start, when it became clear that one of the people who was supposed to participate was not going to do so for very long, that one of the others had not done any preparation, and that in fact only the most junior person had taken the job seriously. On top of this, no structure had been prepared for the delivery of the work – there was no plan to ensure that our goals would be achieved in the time. We spent a day just talking randomly, and then on the second day I tried to take over the structure and specifically guide them towards our goals but, ridiculously, the day ended early with them giving an excuse and cutting it short.

Although I was disappointed, the overriding emotion was actually confusion. I simply couldn’t understand how anybody could think that this was acceptable. I’ve had two service businesses – a lettings agency, and an education consultancy – so I understand how certain clients get prioritised over others, and get a better service. But theirs was an attitude that clearly didn’t take into consideration any potential damage to a long-term relationship, even though this was something that they were after. It didn’t make sense, and I couldn’t get over my feeling of this being unacceptable.

I have a friend who is an excellent consultant – Sebastian Marshall (check out his site, it’s a fascinating read and one of the few blogs I read on a regular basis). He recently wrote about this same problem but from the point of view of having to work with bad clients – “Working with painful people is painful. Working with discourteous people leads to frustration. Working with unserious people leads to getting screwed around with. I only work with people I really like and admire, who can get a lot out of my services, and where I’ll get a lot out of the assignment too… Become the best at what you do, make your value overwhelmingly crazily amazingly good, and work on terms that leave you with peace of mind and a great attitude towards your clients.”

And here is the point. Successful people are long-term thinkers. They actually don’t want to be paid if they haven’t delivered something that is worth it. They don’t want success if it is given to them on a plate, or if they haven’t earned it. They know that if they get something they didn’t earn, there will be a hidden cost that will affect their future success – whether that is through a lost relationship, or a negatively affected reputation. They start with delivering a great service, with doing an amazing job, with generally being the best. They build a reputation based on this. And once they’ve done that, they set high expectations from everyone around them as well, and refuse to work with people who don’t match them.

Consultants who take this approach with their work can ask for high fees, paid upfront – and get no pushback, negotiation or negative emotion from their clients. And people who take this approach to life can demand, and get, the absolute best from others around them. So next time you find yourself frustrated with a professional relationship, have a long think about whether you’re delivering your very best – and if you can honestly say that you are, then the people you are working with need to go!


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darijus August 5, 2013 - 9:39 am

Well, the consulting contract was cost-based (i.e. forecasted use of time). I always prefer KPI-based agreements (result-oriented), when payments are triggered by achieved KPIs. These contracts typically have a payment rate tied to costs. What about considering value-added compensation, where a consulting agency would be paid based on how much value their solution brings – that the future!

Ivan Mazour August 5, 2013 - 9:44 am

Yes, I agree Darijus, it would have been much better if the costs could be driven by KPIs. After all the point of the consulting is to increase the profits of the person paying for it – not the other way around. Of course it is usually very difficult to measure this. It’s something we face with the Ometria software – the tool is very helpful at increasing profitability, but it is not always possible to separate its impact from the impact of everything else that the online retailer has been doing, and so we cannot specifically state the exact increase in revenue or profit that has been achieved through using it.


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