The four characters – what does a consultant really do?

How does a consultant help its clients? Sharan Ahluwalia from PA Consulting talks diagnosis, strategy and implementation

“What does a consultant’s day involve?”

“Why are consultants needed?”

“What do consultants do?”

These questions are often at the forefront of students’ minds when considering a career in management consulting. However, the standard reply doesn’t always offer much clarity:

“It depends on the situation…” 

While this may be true, it probably isn’t all that helpful a response. As a student a few years ago, I know that how frustrating this reply can be; how am I supposed to know that consulting is the career for me if I don’t even know what it involves?

It may bring more clarity on thinking about consultants as…

  1. The handy-man: fixing a problem or issue for a client
  2. The driver: delivering a defined requirement for the client
  3. The teacher: evaluating the client’s work
  4. The forecaster: predicting the future for the client

If you’re interested in a career in consulting, it’s worth thinking about which one of these roles interests you the most. Here is an overview of what each entails:

The handy-man 

Often a client will notice that something isn’t working within their organisation as it should be. Perhaps projects are being delivered over budget, or deadlines are being missed. 

The role of the consultant involves:

  1. Diagnosing the situation: The client won’t always know where the problem lies, so it’s up to the consultant to analyse the situation and offer a clear perspective.
  2. Designing the solution: Once the diagnosis is complete, the consultant must then work with the client to work out how to fix the problem. 
  3. Implementing the solution: Having made the diagnosis and designed a solution, it’s then left to the consultant to guide and support the client in fixing the issue. It’s important that the solution is sustainable enough to outlast the lifespan of the project.

A typical ‘handy-man’ assignment might be…

A software company finds itself losing market share to its competitors and is not quite sure why, though they expect it is linked to poor feedback on a recent product.

The consultant works to diagnose exactly what the issue is, and seeks to do this as objectively and sensitively as possible. Ultimately, they are helping the client to determine the products that are popular with customers and the ones that aren’t. 

Rather than offering a ‘quick fix’, the consultant then helps the client to hone its product development and to make sure these changes are delivered effectively for the long term, meeting the customer needs and the goals of the company.

The driver

In this scenario the consultant has a client who wants to get to point B from point A and is not sure how to connect the two. 

The consultant must understand where the organisation is right now and where it wants to be, before determining the best route between the two. 

The role of the consultant involves:

  1. Setting realistic expectations: It’s the consultant’s job to help their client realise that there may not be anything fundamentally ‘wrong’ within the organisation itself. Large-scale transformational changes may not necessarily be what’s required. The consultant must review the initial scope of the project, i.e where does the client want the consultant to help them get to, talk with the client as to whether their specified Point B is really the right direction for the client organisation, and agree any amendments with the client as soon as possible.
  2. Planning the approach: The consultant must provide the client with a clear view on how they will deliver on their proposal, including an estimate of costs and a realistic timescale for the project. This must then be agreed prior to delivering the solution.
  3. Delivering the work: The consultant ‘drives’ the client to point ‘B’. This will typically involve the consultant looking at the challenge from an internal perspective, integrating themselves within the organisation and working directly alongside its employees.

A typical assignment might be…

A healthcare organisation identifies the need to change the way care is delivered in a region; the population of the region is quite old and most people have quite serious health conditions to take care of. To address this, the organisation have decided to make care more accessible and specialised.

The job of the consultant is to map out a path for the transition and to consider the issues involved – ensuring care isn’t disrupted in the process of transition, as well as keeping the required deadlines. 

Having mapped out a route to overcome these hurdles, the consultant works closely with the organisation and the relevant stakeholders to gradually effect the transition over a series of months. 

The teacher

Sometimes, due to external pressures or internal reviewing, corporations require consultants to independently assess their performance or that of a specific unit or team.

This involves what are known as audit and assurance projects. An audit will usually consist of a review of a company’s financial accounts, while an assurance is a more general review of how the business is performing.

These assignments range from small, specific assurance checks carried out internally within a corporation, to a comprehensive, legal auditing of the entire organisation.

The role of the ‘teacher’ consultant involves:

  1. Interviewing the employees: Interviews with key stakeholders and employees on a more general level will quickly flag up the strengths and weaknesses of a particular team or unit. It’s the consultant’s role to put the client team at ease and to encourage them to participate willingly in the process.
  2. Gathering the data: Qualitative data from the interviews will normally be supported with quantitative data. A review of the firm’s financial results, for example, should provide a factually sound view of the situation to add to the earlier, more subjective input. 
  3. Compiling the report: All qualitative and quantitative information must then be presented in a report. Ideally the research will leave the client better informed, empowering them to make the decisions that will grow and enhance their business. The ‘teacher’ has given them the tools to be better at what they do.

A typical ‘teacher’ assignment might be….

A law firm has expanded over the years to include several different practices. The directors want to undertake an independent review to see which units are performing better than others and where the business could become more profitable.

The consultant spends time with the different practices, conducting a thorough review of each, and interviewing department heads and employees to determine how things are working.

From this investigation, the consultant spends time drawing up a detailed report; it suggests that the firm would be best served expanding its family law practice and streamlining its property and financial services divisions. 

The forecaster

An organisation will sometimes want a better understanding of the economic/business climate in which it is operating. 

The consultant can provide a clear picture of the key developments that the client should be aware of and be planning ahead for. This role is often performed by what are known as strategy consultants. 

The role of the consultant involves:

  1. Analysing the environment: The consultant will look to understand the ‘context’. This means the market the company operates in, and the challenges facing the industry and its customers. It’s also crucial to analyse competitors and policy makers to see what their behaviours are.
  2. Linking back to the client: Having created a clearer picture of the environment, the consultant will then begin to consider how the organisation is positioned going forward. This also means understanding the company’s structure and culture, as well as its vision.
  3. Designing the future: The consultant presents the client with a view of the future, demonstrating where the industry is headed and how the company must develop to remain ahead of its competitors. The consultant offers examples of similar corporations to help the client understand which practices it could be implementing in its own business.

A typical ‘forecaster’ assignment might be…

An airline company brings in a consultant to help direct the company’s five-year growth strategy. The client wants to understand where the aviation industry is headed and where it should be focusing its efforts going forward. 

The consultant undertakes a thorough evaluation of the industry’s prospects – they consider the macroeconomic environment, factor in potential movements in environmental policy, and assess how the behaviours of the customers of the aviation industry will evolve over time.

Based on these projections, the consultant will deliver a thorough strategy proposal document to the airline’s management team, describing how the client organisation can adopt a model fit for the future. 

All things to all people?

Quite often the consultant will take one or a number of these personas, as complex assignments can require the consultant to morph from one role into the next. 

For example, after carrying out an assurance, the consultant might look to implement the recommendations provided, which then changes the assurance assignment into a delivering a project.

However, in all roles, two aspects are crucial as the top-and-tail of the assignment: 

  • The consultant must agree the scope right in the beginning of the project to ensure that both they and the client have the same expectations of what the work is to involve. 
  • Once the work has been delivered, it’s crucial that the consultant effectively hands over to the client organisation to allow for sustainable change.

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