Oswald Letter

Why consultants give consultants a bad name

I consider myself reasonably open to new ideas and exploring new opportunities, but the other day when a financial consultant began questioning some things we have and have not done in our business I felt my temperature begin to rise.

I must admit it was my idea to take this consultant and his colleague to dinner after they’d spend the better part of the day reviewing our financial results. It seemed like a good idea to spend some time outside the office getting to know the people who were reviewing our finances. What I didn’t expect was for this guy to be an expert in our industry after spending all of about six hours reviewing our finances and without even stepping foot inside our company.

Here’s a guy who has never spent a day – not one – working in a company in our field. In fact, he’s never worked anywhere that he wasn’t in a consultative role. He’s had 20 years of telling other people how to run their businesses without ever having done it himself. I must admit, that flies all over me.

I spent my time over dinner explaining to him what we’ve done and not done – and why. I gave him details on the results of tests we’ve run and the reasons we’ve made certain strategic decisions. He’d launch into a “You should…” and I’d spend my time explaining that we’d already done that and what the results were or why we couldn’t or shouldn’t do what he was telling me. It was frustrating to say the least. I couldn’t even finish my dinner and I’m a guy who enjoys a meal!

So why do I let guys like this get under my skin? In part, it’s because I’m annoyed by their certainty. They think they have it all figured out and I’m a guy who feels like he doesn’t have anything figured out. You’ve heard the saying, “The more I learn, the less I know.” That’s me. The more I learn about business, the less I know. Things were so much easier when I was in my 20s and had it all figured out.

I’ve spent, I hate to admit this, 24 years in the same industry. During that time, things haven’t gotten easier. They’ve become much more complicated. Every day I come to work and I learn something new. Every day I spend in this profession is another day in which I discover just how little I know. So, when a guy who’s never worked in our industry, hasn’t spent a day running a company, hasn’t even held down a job other than as a consultant, has all the answers, it pisses me off.

It reminds me of my favorite consultant joke about consultant brains:
In a village in darkest Africa a sign hung over a headhunter’s market stall:

  • Ordinary brains $10/lb
  • Engineer brains $8/lb
  • Doctor brains $7/lb
  • Accountant brains $15/lb
  • Consultant brains $114/lb

Asked to explain the relatively high cost of Consultant brains, the headhunter said “You don’t appreciate how many consultants we have to catch to get a pound of brains!”

It’s funny because it’s true!

OK, I know not all consultants are like this guy I recently encountered. I realize there are good consultants who have a wealth of relevant experience and can add real value. I’ve worked with a few and it was largely a positive experience. But to be perfectly honest, they’re rare.

You KNOW you have a bad consultant when he:

  • Walks in the door with all the answers and none of the experience
  • Pontificates on how you could better run your business without ever asking a question
  • Gives you 10 “new” ideas, all of which have been tried and failed

When you come across them, all I can tell you is to run! And oh, don’t listen to a word they say before you’re out of earshot.