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Interims Vs consultants: are the rumours true? By Sarah Fletcher

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Some supporters of interim managers claim consultants are more expensive, sell products the business doesn’t need and fail to implement practical, ‘hands on’ solutions. Do consultants agree? By Sarah Fletcher.


Many companies that supply interim executives to organisations provide detailed comparisons of the roles of consultant and interim, but although there are obvious similarities – for example both are temporary positions that focus on a particular business problem for the client – it seems misleading to present them as options that are directly in competition. Put simply, the business need will determine whether a consultant or an interim is suitable; an interim executive will provide a ‘hands on’ solution, whereas if the situation requires analysis and recommendations for change, an independent consultancy may be more appropriate.

“Unprofessional consultants sell solutions, magic bullets, snake oil… There are too many unprofessional consultants around.”

John Pope, management consultant, John Pope Associates

Although the job specifications of consultants and interims are different, many worry that the client often does not understand what service they need and so may employ a consultant where an interim would be more appropriate, and vice versa. This mistake can cause significant operational problems if the client provides an inaccurate brief, setting back the project completion time, making the consultant or interim seem more expensive because their services are required for longer and potentially suggesting the executive is at fault for not providing the ‘correct’ answer for the client. Stephen Walker, director of Motivation Matters, admits this is incredibly frustrating.

Of course, some consultants and interim executives can take advantage of a client’s naivety about its business needs, overselling or giving biased advice for personal gain. This is a significant concern in the industry, but it is difficult to determine how widespread these unscrupulous practices are.

Do consultants try to sell the organisation products it doesn’t need?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that overselling does occur and, whilst it’s difficult to verify the extent of the problem, it is a significant concern both for clients and for consultants. The profession has a reputation in the marketplace for overselling and according to management consultant John Pope this is not entirely undeserved:

“Real professionals tell prospective clients when what the client wants is not what the client needs. Unprofessional consultants sell solutions, magic bullets, snake oil… There are too many unprofessional consultants around.”

“Interims may produce solutions which are practical in the short term, but lack the vision or incentive to take account of the longer term.”

John Allan, director, Forevue International

This practice is encouraged because the consultant works for a consultancy rather than directly for the client – their loyalties lie with the firm that pays them. Chairman of the Institute of Interim Management Tony Evans says consultants “always have their consultancy’s interests at heart” which increases this “potential for duplicity”.

Many consultants argue this behaviour would not happen if the client did not allow it; by misunderstanding its business requirements the organisation buys services it doesn’t need. “There are also clients who make the mistake of wanting currently fashionable solutions and techniques, but fail to consider what is really needed. They then look for consultants to provide the techniques and expertise,” says Pope.

The consultant may sell the client ideas that are driven by pleasing their consultancy rather than producing the best value for the client, but interim executives can be equally as motivated by self-interest. As John Allan, director of Foreveu International, points out, “an interim manager, like a consultant, may have their own agenda which conflicts with that of the client.” Aiming to secure permanent employment with the client or prolongue their contract can make the interim act in their best interests over the client’s, adds Pope.

Do interims provide a ‘hands on’ solution rather than just offering ideas?

The website of interim management providers Executives Online claims interims outdo consultants in taking a project from theory to practical delivery, yet many consultants take issue with its statement that “unlike consultants, interim managers are implementers as well as being strategists, analysts and planners.”

Allan argues that interims “may produce solutions which are practical in the short term, but lack the vision or incentive to take account of the longer term” so the benefits to the client are actually less than it may initially seem. Pope agrees that interims may not be as good as they sound: “Consultants are not the only people who produce impractical solutions.”

“An interim manager, like a consultant, may have their own agenda which conflicts with that of the client.”

John Allan, director, Forevue International

Watson adds that the consultant may be just an ‘ideas’ man because of budget constraints, not because they aren’t capable of implementing the project: “Consultants are just as practical when required. Often, they are not engaged to do the actual content delivery because of the resource cost of the availability of an internal full time person who learns from the consultant.”

Passing responsibility to a junior colleague

A survey of HR directors by Ipsos MORI reveals many think larger consultancies sell their services using a senior consultant but then pass the project over to “inexperienced graduates”. Consultant Steve Watson admits this does sometimes happen but it is not typical practice; and Allan adds that selecting a junior consultant to provide the service can be a sound business decision:

“An interim executive is likely to succeed or fail on their own merit. However, they may achieve less than a consultant who is backed by more resources and experience on which to draw. And who is to say that a junior is less competent than a senior?”

Which is more cost-effective?

Although providers of interim managers regularly claim interims are more cost-effective than consultants, this is not the whole picture. Admittedly consultants tend to command higher rates per day than interims, yet their value for money must be measured according to what they achieve for the client – which is a less straightforward process than identifying the value added by an interim.

“It’s actually much easier to identify the value for money created by interims than consultants,” says Evans. The consultant provides the ideas that the client should implement whereas interims deliver the final product, making their input into the final business result much clearer. “The interim takes line responsibility for the goals and provides a practical set of deliverables [so] the material is linked directly to the performance of the business in some way,” he explains.

Evans notes that “the net bill to a large organisation [of using an external consultant] will be very significant so [to justify the use of the consultant] the company is going to have to show very significant savings.”

If the client is confused about the exact service they need and they brief the consultant inaccurately, weeks can be added to the programme schedule. This may give consultants a reputation for being expensive when it is due to a poor briefing from the client.

Is there any way to avoid unscrupulous dealings?

The organisation providing the consultant or interim manager will see its reputation suffer if the client claims they have supplied a poor performing individual. However, it seems that many in the industry believe this can be an excuse for weak decisions made by the client – Walker says consultants are useful “if you want someone to blame for a difficult decision.”

Ultimately, unscrupulous consultants and interims are encouraged by a client that doesn’t understand the services the business needs. If the client is prepared to buy unnecessary products, there are people who will sell them. Of course, if an organisation knew exactly the changes necessary to solve the business problem there would be no need for external advice in the first place; so there is no easy way of identifying whether the strategies proposed are entirely independent and really in the best interests of the company. Many people working in the profession are aware of this and this explains their insecurity that unethical colleagues – however many there are – damage the reputation of all.

5 Responses

  1. Consultants or Interim Manager? Whose choice?
    In supporting all that has been said – in my experience many excellent Interim Managers also work as p/t Consultants, not the least because they often feel they have to, given the financial uncertainty of such work.

    But very rarely do very successful f/t Consultants seem to. (Free-lance, dedicated consultants, who might most typically have this choice to make, seem rarely to choose interim work when they are established. Perhaps they don’t like the lower day-rates, although they might well much welcome the longish-term commitment from one particular client! But they most often report being particularly concerned about keeping their sales funnel full meanwhile – and quite rightly?)

    I think the prime skill sets of both are very similar for successful senior players in either field; although of course past, specific managerial experience may be far more critical for an Interim Manager in attracting work; while many successful Consultants may perhaps find their more specific professional methodologies and deeper generic insights are far more important in winning the sort of business they want longer-term, with a portfolio of clients that may be much more repeatable.

    As this is a free market, the players inevitably go where they perceive their greatest advantage. As a consumer, you may well think that given the appropiate skill set, such preferences are irrelevant if your candidate can do the job you want.

    But if you are a supplier, such choices may be far more critical to you, so think carefully about their consequences?

    I have no axe to grind – but I do often see both free-lance consultants who may perhaps be much better directed towards Interim Management, if they can find their market; and even more often, Interim Managers who would perhaps be much better advised to build their own Consultancy client-base founded on what they know they can offer. They need to find their market too, which may be even harder. And there is the rub for many Consultants: seeking Interim Management business may well only be a diversion from your core aims?

    The worst trap for a provider of either service may be to fall into not knowing what you really want, and what you can really deliver?

    Kind regards

    Jeremy

  2. Consultants or Interims – Present a Scope of Works
    I agree with all of the arguments presented. It would appear then that we are all of the same mind. Professionals need to get the job done in such a way as to increase confidence in themsleves and their business.
    If a “Project” is planned – it always begins with a “Scope of Works” document, derived from discussions with, in this case, “The Client” as to where they are now and where they need to be and by when, understanding the costs involved and the anticipated return on investment. The document sets out a list of maeasurable deliverables which can be referred back to at any time. Changes to the scope of works can be created and costed.
    If Consultants or Interims are working to Best Practise, and clients understand from the outset what they are buying and what is changing, why should there be a problem at all? By creating such a document, everyone learns. No one is perfect, situations do change. Setting and meeting, even exceeding client’s expectations is a fundamental part of our job. Are we saying this important document is NOT being created and agreed?

  3. Revenue Competition
    When strong competitors compete for the same revenue, there will always be rivalry. With rivalry there will be animosity, with animosity comes the argument who is best and who does what better!

    I would add that many interims actually work on an associate basis for consultancies to support the consultants clients.

  4. Accountibility and transparency are key
    Certainly the problems Sarah describes can be the case in larger organisations where there is often poor accountibility for briefing consultants who themselves are able to ‘hide behind’ their consultancy’s reputation and brand and avoid personal responsibility.

    One solution, particularly for smaller companies is to use independent consultancies where the owners/principals usually undertake the work themselves, often using associates. They have a huge vested interest in ensuring they deliver a good job in order to protect their reputation, gain repeat work and generate referrals.

    Of course, there are still ‘rogue traders’ amongst independents, but more often, problems occur because of lack of clarity at the outset between commissioning companies and consultants.

    Our organsiation provides an initial briefing note for prospective clients, ‘Choosing and using external consultants’ which helps remind them up front of standard good business practice e.g. put it in writing, appoint named decision makers, etc). It is this kind of transparency which we believe helps prevent problems across the board.

  5. Interims and consultants
    Having worked as both an interim and a consultant the service I provide is always of the highest standard otherwise this would compromise my reputation.

    Companies need to be clear about the objectives they are trying to achieve and the type of skills base they want to buy in. With clear role criteria both parties understand what is required.

    On the whole interims tend to be cheaper as they are drafted in for a longer period to achieve a project or piece of work. A rigorous recruitment process should take place as often interims can be recruited in a hurry with problems ensuing later.

    Consultants are more specialist and can command a higher rate where the skills base is thin on the ground eg with compensation and benefits.

    Good professional consultants do advise companies when their requirement can be delivered in a more cost and time effective way. Certainly there are some bad consultants out there that just take the client’s money without due regard to whether the solution fits the issue. It is these types of individual that bring honest hard working consultants into disrepute.

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