Solicited Advice Can Cost a Fortune. Are You Getting What You Paid for?

You can’t always solve everything in house. Sometimes you get so close to a situation that you develop a contextual myopia of sorts, unable to see the forest for the trees. And while you could muddle through like a frustrated Mr. Magoo, it’s often easier to call in some outside help.  

The virtues of calling in an unbiased third party are apparent to any functional adult. When we have personal problems, we turn to therapists. Relationship problems call for couples counseling. We call on coaches when we develop defects in our swings, personal trainers when we plateau in our workouts, and nutritionists when we’re having trouble losing our winter weight.

Sometimes businesses tie themselves into knots about seemingly intractable problems just like the rest of us. And much like a homeowner with a DIY project that’s gotten out of hand, they roll up their sleeves, square up their shoulders, and call for help.

Consultants come in all shapes, sizes, and specialties, but all of them fulfill more or less the same function: lending their expertise to their clients in exchange for a (hefty) fee. However, good consulting services aren’t limited to providing advice — popular media notwithstanding — and can go far beyond what most layfolk would imagine. 

The Hierarchy of Purposes

In 1982 a writer named Arthur Turner penned an article in the September–October issue of the Harvard Business Review Magazine called Consulting is More Than Giving Advice. Turner, evidently fed up with the nebulous and inefficient consulting industry, sought to clarify the purposes of management consulting so both consultants and clients could better understand the nature of the process. He identified eight fundamental objectives of consulting and laid them out in a hierarchy:

  1. Providing information to a client
  2. Solving a client’s problems
  3. Making a diagnosis, which may necessitate redefinition of the problem
  4. Making recommendations based on the diagnosis
  5. Assisting with implementation of recommended solutions
  6. Building a consensus and commitment around corrective action
  7. Teaching clients how to resolve similar problems in the future
  8. Permanently improving organizational effectiveness

Halting Ascension Up the Hierarchy: Who’s Responsible?

According to Turner and those who have expanded on his hierarchy, providing clients with actionable advice is hardly the full extent of what consultants can do for their clients. Granted, the article was written four decades ago, so the consulting industry has likely undergone significant changes in the intervening years. That said, many of Turner’s insights remain evergreen.

For instance, it’s hard to argue with the sentiment that “the lower-numbered purposes are better understood and practiced…Many consultants, however, aspire to a higher stage on the pyramid than most of their engagements achieve.” Consultants are often brought in to find solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems, after all, so why wouldn’t they want to do as much as they could to help (so long as they’re being paid)?

If consultants fail to ascend as far up the Hierarchy of Purposes as they’d like, chances are they aren’t the limiting factor in the consultant-client relationship. By process of elimination, we can safely assume that, in many cases, their progress is stymied by the clients themselves. For some reason, internal stakeholders like executives and other decision makers stop consultants short of transitioning from the advising phase to taking an active hand in implementing their solutions.

A 2015 report by Forbes Insights and North Highland called “Perception Versus Reality: Are You Getting Enough Value From Your Consultants?” suggests that no, many firms are not getting enough value from their consultants, and gives a few possible reasons why that may be.

Of the executives surveyed for the report, 92% reported that their most recent consulting project was successful. At the same time, however, only half of respondents used the same consulting firm for future projects.

A cynical reader would be forgiven for thinking that those executives told deliberate lies about the supposed success of their projects as a way to save face and maintain their images as canny businesspeople. Stranger things have happened. But perhaps there’s another, less malicious explanation.

For Purposes Unknown

The Forbes Insights and North Highland study asked more than just the two questions about successful consultations and repeat business. A closer look at the rest of the data brings the previous cynical conclusion into question, particularly when you see things like: “Just over half (58%) of executives worked with consulting firms on the project’s strategic direction before starting work,” and “Most companies (59%) prefer to pay without taking results into consideration.”

Another key finding, that only 37% of companies paying a flat fee say meeting potential objectives is a critical success factor, adds weight to another sinking suspicion. Rather than answering out of bad faith or in the interest of self-preservation, do the executives even know what the consulting projects in question entail?

Surveyed consultants listed “communicating with internal teams and management” as among the top five challenges for consulting firms. Many firms evidently prefer that consultants end their engagements by compiling PowerPoint decks of findings and suggested solutions, handing them over, and seeing themselves out, reaching stage 4 on the Hierarchy of Purposes at the very highest.

There are many possible reasons why a company might order expensive consulting services only to shoo away the consultants just before they have the chance to make a real impact. But rather than spending time trying to understand these odd decisions, let’s focus on something more productive: helping firms tap consultants for more value while helping consultants flex their expertise at higher levels of the Hierarchy.

Consulting Consultants on Changing Change Management

The core of every successful relationship — whether platonic, romantic, or professional — is open and honest communication. A lack of robust communication channels and institutional buy-in seem to be two of the biggest culprits behind why consulting projects aren’t as thorough or successful as they could be.

Much has been written about ways consulting firms can be more successful at creating the kind of impact they want and their clients need. Communication is always at the top of the list.  

Deltek (via suggests determining a set of milestones and measurement criteria before any work begins, and that consultants should provide consistent, concise updates on a regular schedule.

SG Business Advisory recommends following the Hierarchy of Purposes to build a strong foundation before moving toward more intensive involvement in client businesses. An emphasis on open communication and easy-to-understand deliverables can make clients more likely to trust consultants with more active roles.

McKinsey reports finding increased success by taking a more ground-level approach. Just-in-time feedback can help enforce desired changes. Hierarchy-agnostic communication can help consultants get better information from ground-level personnel and forge better connections. Providing progress reports to everyone can help provide visibility into common goals and help individuals understand their contributions.

The common theme is pretty clear: communication, communication, communication.

Consulting Is More Than Giving Advice

Consulting is more than just giving advice. It’s up to individual firms whether they want to maximize their consulting projects, but blank checks and vague expectations don’t help anyone. If firms want to get more value out of their projects, they need to spend more time working with consultants and setting clear goals from the get-go.