Constructive Criticism for Consultants

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Before any more consultants call, e-mail or stop me at conferences to complain, I wasn't gunning for consultants in February ("Acting on Bad Advice," page 30). But I appreciate your comments.

If I really wanted to launch that argument, I could have used the comment that many consultants come to the table with their own agenda. That quote goes something like, "If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

We have all heard of consultants who parade their one-trick pony before the various management teams who will give them face time and try to convince each prospective client company that your problem fits their solution. (Their argument actually sounds like it is being made the other way around, but the net effect is they have one management model or a piece of software they want to peddle.)

To avoid becoming the victim of a hard sell on the latest must-have solution, it is important to have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish.

At the risk of overworking an already threadbare phrase, you need to be able to communicate clear expectations to the company you are hiring—and that applies whether it is a business consultant, a third-party logistics company or a transportation service provider.

Another critical factor is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your own organization—not just your core competencies, which can be the things you need to do better—but also those things you do well. You'll have to take a hard look in the mirror, so be prepared not to like everything you see.

After all this introspection, you should have a good idea of what you will need from the company you are hiring. Don't just hire in your organization's own image, look for the strengths that correspond to your weaknesses. The harder task will be identifying the prospective supplier's weaknesses.

In a short dialogue that came out of my February column, Art Van Bodegraven from the The Progress Group (www.theprogressgroup.com) introduced the concept of "compensating resources." His point was that most of us understand the need to hire a supplier whose strengths fit our need, but we must realize that we will have to provide a "compensating resource" that offsets the supplier's weaknesses. The goal is balance.

If I'm looking for a third party to manage my increasingly global supply chain, it's easy to focus on the need for more skills in international logistics and customs brokerage and to overlook the fact that the third party's domestic logistics capabilities aren't at the same level as its international expertise. Using Art's argument, I would need to provide that capability in my own organization or supplement with another service provider.

The successful relationship will require some honesty that may not be easy to find or comfortable to face. And while you're looking for the right mix of resources, you may have to step on a few toes.

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