Creative Leadership

How To Waste Money On A Consultant

Years ago, I had an interesting conversation with the late donor consultant Mary Hutchinson, and we starting talking about hiring consultants.   Recently, she’d had a major non-profit organization hire her and then not listen to anything she had to say.   When they asked if she could re-build a lapsed donor file, her response was an qualified “yes”.  Then she spelled out three steps that had to be taken for them to succeed.  Over the course of six months, they did only one of the steps of the three.  Then they ignored the findings of that one step, and launched into a major mailing with no regard for her begging: “Don’t do this!  You are headed off a financial cliff!”

Apparently, they lost over $150,000 going off that cliff.  Today they are no longer a client and don’t think much of Mary.   She mentioned that it was hardly the first time she’d seen this happen, but it is one of the most extreme cases.

So the question is – Why did they bring her in, pay her, and then ignore the advice?   Those are some questions I’ve asked from time to time myself.  And more important, how can an organization avoid wasting money on a consultant?

So I asked her.  Here’s Mary’s advice:

1)    Know what you are good at and what you are not. For you to shop and bring in a consultant for TV or mail or web, you are acknowledging that there are skills/experience that is needed to bring those areas to where you want it to be.  If your staff could have brought you there, they would have.  They want to please you.  They have skills; you are right to value them.  But something is missing.  Know what that is.

2)    Set the stage with your team for the consultant to succeed for you.  It is human nature for people to feel threatened when an outsider is brought it.  Affirm them; give them credit for all they have accomplished.  Make sure they know that you bringing in a consultant does not lessen their value to you.  In fact, they have an opportunity to learn and grow.

3)    Stay in communication with your consultant throughout the project.  If you have the consultant report to the very team member that is lacking the skills to reach your goals, you are shooting yourself in the proverbial foot.

4)    Give them what they need.  If you do not supply the needed resources the consultant outlines, they cannot do their job.

5)    Don’t rush the process.  A good consultant has a strategy and follows those steps.  No matter how important it is to hit your goal quickly, know that stepping steps will further delay, limit or even undermine your success.

6)    Expect the consultant to recommend something you don’t understand, have never tried, and was not part of what made your organization successful in the past.  That is their job.

7)    Finally: Don’t shoot the messenger.  Consultants often have to tell you what your staff was afraid to tell you.

Whether you’ve consulted or have hired consultants, I’d love to know your response to Mary’s points.  Let me know your experience…

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15 Comments

  1. I have seen this many times. If they only hired you to tell them what they want to hear than they shouldn’t of hired you at all, there is a reason why they hired a consultant, because they don’t know what there doing in this specific area and they need to bring in someone that dose to fix the problem. If they knew the answer than why did they bring a consultant in.

  2. When I was younger I hired a consultant that I treated like a magic wand. Get ’em in, throw some money at ’em and Voila! I’d hoped I was paying someone to make success easy for me. As a coach I run across a lot of potential clients who think that way, so I agree with Mary. Set realistic expectations.

    Another issue for both client and consultant is, how do we quantify the anticipated results? A lot of people have a difficult time justifying the benefit to cost ratio.

    Recently I had a conversation with a man seated next to me on a flight to Phoenix. We got on the topic of business and he was mesmerized by my suggestions and insight. He asked for my contact information and was very enthusiastic about working together. Until it came time to commit to a contract.

    Ecclesiastes 4:9. Two a better than one for they have a good return for their work. Or as my grandma used to say: Many hands make light work. When you pay someone to help you improve your status, it’s like hiring an extra set of eyes, ears, hands, heart and is the only way to multiply time. Not a waste as I see it.

  3. “Expect the consultant to recommend something you don’t understand, have never tried, and was not part of what made your organization successful in the past. That is their job.” AMEN!! This speaks VOLUMES about the position we’re in now. Churches, non profits, service organizations and charities are locked in nuanced layers of nostalgia – “beautifully prepared for a world that no longer exists.” Great points, Mary! Thanks for giving us something really useful!!

  4. Many times as a consultant…we point out the elephant in the room. The REAL reason for the problem…the trouble is…many really don’t want to deal with the problem because the problem is themselves!

    …and that simply can’t be!

  5. Here’s my problem with consultants. The people who hire the consultants are the ones causing the problems to begin with, which means, in essence, that the consultants have a vested interest in pinning our organization’s problems on someone else. Our marketing department is awful. But, they hire consultants who pin the blame on everyone else BUT the marketing department.

  6. Phil,

    At first off subject, then will go on subject:

    The radio station tower over your left shoulder on your home page was used many years ago by owners of a downtown L.A. amusement arcade center; hense the call letters KRKD (Arcade). If history is correctly remembered, they originally broadcast during the daytime and Aimee Semple McPherson broadcast on that shared radio frequency at night. I was on the station’s payroll in 1969/70 when the Fourquare Church sold KRKD-AM and kept the FM station which changed its call letters (back) to KFSG-FM. Shortly thereafter and under new ownership, KRKD-AM became KIIS-AM. An internet search of the original KRKD history will include hilites of some early Christian Radio history.

    Now to go on subject: Upon developing a project targeted to get the real deal message of faith in a package that the church world might not know how to create, and taking it as far as I could as an individual (not part of an organization), put me in a position to contact a respected consultant; one that you know well. I brought original content to the consultant team only to see my presentation disassembled, some components set aside for possible future reference, then the project completely rebuilt, rewritten and restructured.

    The consultant was chosen because of their successful history of expertise about major components within the project and because of their connections within Hollywood. Because the project is aimed where the church has not yet arrived, its development is an experiment in progress for both the consultant and me.

  7. Tried the same… They ask, they listen, want to do something. But act the same.. When the answer doesn’t suit them, they just continue down the bad and ugly road…

  8. Would also add that a good consultant understands that every client is different. There may be similarities, but each client has very different dynamics. So, as a client of a consultant look for them to respond to your needs in a very customized way and not in the exact way that worked for a particular other client. Good consultants know the foundation and framework of gaining response is the same, but the design is different for each client. Your church/ministry is unique, look at what other church/ministries do, but understand you are different!

  9. I know several ministries that want input, but once you leave, it is back to the same because the leadership is out of the “comfort zone” or the staff goes back to catering to make it “comfortable.”
    Change comes from the head down, consult away, but if the head cannot change, forget it. Many crazy stories out there Phil and Mary…new book collaboration?

  10. Some great stuff here Phil & Mary. We’ve at times lived the same story in many ways. And we’ve blogged about how to avoid it and how great it is when clients actually do what they’ve paid you to advise them on and then…OMG! It Works!!! What a revelation. Btw, miss yer face.

  11. I once had a potential client get upset that I was asking a bunch of questions about their RFP (request for proposal) before I submitted my project design and bid. Many things were woefully unclear or contradictory in the RFP, and I felt it would be unethical to respond without a full understanding of what they wanted, rather than just throwing a boilerplate approach at it. The client wanted to know why I wanted so much information when no one else asked any questions about the RFP.

    Needless to say, I didn’t get that project…and that’s probably a good thing…

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