What are the characteristics of an effective Business Improvement Consultancy, asks John Wellwood, and how can you validate them during the buying process?

It’s never easy to find the right Consultancy for a project. Most of the time you only ever meet the Partners or the Senior Consultants and they won’t be doing the actual work. Add to that the fact that every Consultancy approaches things differently and the questions mount. You don’t want to take any risks in case you get it wrong, but at the same time, you’re looking for something different. Time isn’t normally on your side either. When Business Improvement needs arise, people want action and they want it fast, so you can’t draw out the process. That’s why it’s important to get a feel for the market in advance. We all agree that price alone isn’t a good measure of quality, but what is?

“You might get the A Team in the pitch, but will you get them in the trenches?”

The characteristics of a 100% Effective Consultancy:

Philosophy: The best Consultancies always want to pass on their knowledge asap and help the business elsewhere. They don’t have a rigid model or a singular way of doing business, they adapt to the client’s culture and way of working. They understand the risk-reward relationship and will put their money where their mouth is. They also won’t be afraid to tell you if they can’t do something. Honesty comes right at the start. History: It’s a given that they’ll have a great website that informs you all about the different industries they’ve worked in, their key people and the case studies they’re most proud of. But the truth is anyone can put together a great website, so you have to dig deeper. Will they let you meet their past clients? Can they demonstrate the sustainability of their solutions? Have they ever operated in a similar culture to yours? And what about their people? Are they employed from a diverse range of backgrounds or are they all company clones?

Influencing Skills: This is one of the biggest differentiators. A 100% effective Consultancy must have fantastic people skills and an ability to build confidence and rapport at all levels of your organisation. Business Improvement projects require a change of behaviours and people need to believe that those changes are for the better. So don’t be afraid to ask yourself the very human question ‘Do I get on with them?’ because if you don’t, the chances are no one else will either.

Technical Ability: The nuts and bolts – can they run different methodologies and if they can, will they be sustainable? Do they really understand your issues and your culture? Have they got war stories?

Character: All projects involve teamwork, so are they actively looking to learn from your internal clients? Will they challenge their assumptions and draw the best out of them. It’s vital that they do because being open and honest is the quickest way to build effective teams.

Validating the Consultants: Not all Consultants are incredibly clever, so don’t always believe them when they say they’re qualified Black Belts or experts in Kaizen. It’s also a good idea to ask about their last 3 assignments, their recruitment policy, their utilisation figures and it’s imperative that you find out exactly who will be delivering the programme. You might get the ‘A Team’ in the pitch, but will you get them in the trenches? If not, make sure you meet or talk to the people you will get.

Validating the Consultancy: One of the most interesting questions here is whether or not they use their approach to Business Improvement in their own business – and if not, why not? How do they measure successful outcomes for a programme and are they prepared to open up about past programmes that didn’t hit their targets and explain where and why things went wrong? It’s all about risk-reward, so what guarantees are they prepared to offer that what they say will work will work? There’s no magic wand in any of this, it takes time, effort and a gut instinct. You have to look beyond the showmen and see the real people. Effective consultants are experts, coaches and trainers.