Consultant or Order-Taker?

Mar 31, 1997

You know, it drives me crazy when I hear some whiner complaining that you can’t make any money in the A/E/P or environmental consulting business. Sure, most people aren’t all that successful. The average firm has 15 or 20 employees and the owners make less than six figures, but there are some companies that have owners and managers making $150,000, $250,000, $600,000, or even more every year. One thing that differentiates these people and the firms they work in from the rest is that they are not just order-takers for the clients they work for. They are consultants. And there really are some very important distinctions between the two. For instance: Consultants are not afraid to tell it like it is. Order-takers, on the other hand, are never straight with their clients. They are afraid they might alienate someone, and it would result in a loss of the client. The consultant knows that he or she has to tell the client what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear, because anything else is inherently dishonest. Withholding the truth (as you see it from your experienced perspective) is not providing the service the client is paying for. Consultants aren’t afraid of losing the client; they are afraid of hurting their long-term reputation by not being successful in their work for the client. This is closely related to point #1. That’s why consultants need to be willing to upset the status quo in their client organizations to get the client to think differently. The reason consultants can afford to do this and order-takers cannot is that consultants are successful and provide value to their clients; that’s why clients are clamoring to hire them. The order-taker only does what he or she is told to do. In their case, if the client who is less experienced than they are gives them the wrong instructions, and the results suffer, the order-taker’s reputation is not enhanced whatsoever. It’s hurt by their ineffectiveness borne out of a lack of confidence. Consultants know that they have to sell their thinking. You can’t just know what needs to be done and be straight in telling clients what they need to hear if you want to be an effective consultant. You have to sell— and sell all of the time. Consultants aren’t afraid to spend the necessary prep time on how they will get their ideas across. They realize that this may be more important than the ideas themselves. They sell, sell, sell, all the time. But effective consultants are not hard sellers; they are smart sellers. They know that often the best way to sell is to be aloof, to not appear hard-up, and to have the attitude that they are willing to walk away from a client relationship or project that they don’t think they can be successful with. The order-taker oversells and then under-delivers. Consultants don’t use doublespeak. Consultants can communicate effectively with plain language that their clients understand. They realize that is part of their job. Order-takers like to hide behind technical terminology and jargon, and then use their client’s ignorance of the meanings of their words as an excuse for a lack of performance. Order-takers say things such as: “The client is dumb. He doesn’t understand what a rebostatic oscillating fan coil heat pump recirculating chiller cooling tower could do for him. How can I be blamed for him being too cheap to put in the right system?” Consultants explain all options to the client and then suggest which one they should follow, and why. Consultants get paid for what they know. Order-takers get paid for what they do. There’s a big difference. When you get paid only for what you do, you aren’t making the best use of your brain. Other people will probably be able to do it as well or better than you can, or at least do it cheaper. When you get paid for what you know, you aren’t just selling time by the hour. There really is no limit on what you can charge. And there’s a heck of a lot less competition, because no one else knows exactly what you do, or can communicate it as effectively. Consultants always assume responsibility for the success of the project. Order-takers, on the other hand, are quick to throw up their hands and blame anyone they can find for why the project fails. The consultant sees it as his or her role to convince the client what they need to do. They will overcome any opposition in the client organization. They want (and demand) that the right thing be done and work hard to make that happen. They don’t just eat up a man-hour budget and then point to their utilization rate with pride as justification for their existence. Consultants are concerned about appearances. They realize just how quickly clients and others judge them. They pay attention to all aspects of their appearance and make sure that they are appropriate for the audience they are meeting with. They keep a clean car, a clean office, act like they care how the phone is answered, get disturbed about typos, don’t seal sloppy drawings, read the specs before they go out, and are generally detail-oriented while not losing sight of the big picture. An order-taker, on the other hand, assumes that the only important thing is how well he or she follows the client’s orders, and treats the rest of this stuff as B.S. Let me tell you folks, our industry still holds loads of promise for smart people who want to be consultants. Let the order-takers fight with each other over the scraps that fall from the table. The consultants, meanwhile, will be dining first class because they understand the real business that we are all in— providing good advice that helps their clients be more successful in whatever they do. Originally published 3/31/1997

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