News focus: Rapport matters – at all levels

22 November 2010

23 November 2010 | Lindsay Clark

Hiring those who can quickly pick up your company’s goals and those of key stakeholders can be the key to consultancy buying, Lindsay Clark finds

How do you make sure you buy the best consultancy services? You could start by asking your receptionist.

This was one of the suggestions made at a Consultancy Purchasing Group (CPG) event in London earlier this month, designed to help buyers crack this difficult category.

The advice is timely, coming as MPs quizzed civil service chief Sir Gus O'Donnell over the £1.5 billion the UK government spent on consultants in 2009-2010.  The Cabinet Secretary admitted: “I can’t measure the impact of what consultants deliver.”

John Wellwood, managing director at 100% Effective Training & Consultancy, says the person at your company’s front desk could offer valuable insight into whether a consultancy is worth using.

He says this is because it is not the technical approach to business improvement that is most difficult in consultancy, it is selling that way of working to the employees who need to do it. Wellwood, whose work includes internal consultancy at automation technology company Invensys, says: “Coming up with the solution is easy, getting that person to change the process is the difficult bit. [Consultants] have to be brilliant at building rapport straight away, no matter what level of the organisation.

“When I used to buy professional services, I always used to ask my receptionist what she thought of the people when they arrived.”

The impression at the front desk was often revealingly different from those in the buyers’ meeting, he adds.

Early involvement in the process is essential for effective buying of consultants (SM, How to buy consultancy, 11 November 2010). But often procurement is seen as a barrier that does not add value, making it difficult to get traction in the first place, says Paul Vincent, managing director of Insight Sourcing Solutions, who spoke at the CPG event, ‘The knowledgeable buyer - what difference would it make?’

To solve this problem, timing is vital, he says. If you’re buying consultants to manage change in your organisation, you can make an intelligent guess about when that will be required, says Vincent, who is a former procurement director at BT.

“It’s likely that if someone is going to get sacked as a senior executive, it happens in quarter three. Quarter one you embark on a new challenge, at the end of that, someone says, ‘it’s not going very well’, quarter two you get a chance to demonstrate that’s not the case.”

If the project does not improve, the senior executive will go in quarter three, he says. “If it’s midway through the financial year... they’re going to need someone that can come in and help them quickly.”

It is also important for buyers to distinguish stakeholders who have inherited problems from those who have caused them, in order to buy the right kind of consultancy to help. “If I’ve caused a problem, the last thing I want is a firm that’s going to come in and shout from the rooftop about all the things that are wrong. I want someone who is going to play to my agenda, keep me defended but get me out of jail.

“If I’ve inherited a problem I’m going to tell the world how bad it is. Then I want to be seen as the one who has made a difference.”

Buyers at the event agreed procurement was improving in its approach to the category, but more work needed to be done. “The biggest challenge for procurement is around engaging stakeholders,” said Jonathan Self, buying manager, construction, at Tesco

While buying consultants can seem abstract, hidden in the language of “value add” and “stakeholder engagement”, the importance of the topic was not lost on the Committee of Public Accounts last week.

 It considered a report from the NAO that found government’s use consultants lacked the information, skills and strategies to manage them effectively during a time when savings are vital to reducing the public deficit.

Maybe civil servants should have asked the people on the front desk before signing up consultancy firms.  

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