The Arrogance of Consultants

Oct 14, 2002

It seems to me that the mega management consultants have gotten their comeuppance recently. Read your local business pages or The Wall Street Journal. Many of these firms are hurting as evidenced by revenue reductions, layoffs, and depressed stock prices. I hate to see anyone do poorly, but their arrogance was pretty incredible. In fact, the whole premise of their business in many cases is amazing. Just what gives these expensive-school MBAs the idea that they are so much smarter than the clients they serve? I don’t know! We’re in the consulting business, and I can tell you that unless you work with the same types of clients day-in and day-out and constantly conduct research on those same organizations and the clients they work for, you couldn’t do it. I think there are lessons for all of us in the design and environmental consulting business. Here are some of them: Just because you are with a big firm doesn’t necessarily make you better. I have seen many arrogant consultants come from the larger firms in our industry. Because they are with the company that’s the brand name in the market some of these people get the idea that they are infallible. All they have is their degrees and their institutional name to fall back on. The arrogant ones will step on their subconsultants, hog the limelight, and many times do less than they are being paid to do because they can get away with it. For a while, that is. You have to know the industry your clients work in. Being big and being an expert in a particular type of technology may allow an arrogant consultant to do fine when there is not enough supply to meet demand. But when things go the other way, these people often wonder why their business evaporates. They think they did all the right things in terms of positioning but find out it was only a case of demand exceeding supply that allowed them to be successful. The only way I know to really know what you are talking about is to work for the same types of clients over a period of years. That takes specialization and a passion for the clients you serve. There’s plenty of fruit in smaller markets. The arrogant companies almost always have a business model that goes something like this: “Get the top 20 clients in that industry (or client group) and screw the rest of them.” For most of us that just isn’t realistic. It takes too long. Besides, my own experience tells me that the largest clients in any market aren’t necessarily the best, and many times, the worst. They know they have their checkbooks to wag at you and can get other firms that do what you do to jump through hoops. I see nothing wrong with many small- and mid-sized clients who will pay good fees and value an ongoing relationship with their consultants, and I would encourage our clients to think long and hard before dropping everyone below a certain size and pursuing only mega clients. As you get bigger, you become an easier target for your competitors. Everyone loves to see the arrogant one fall flat on his face. The same thing applies to firms and the people who work in them that get too cocky. Beating you can be the rallying cry of your competitors. Why give them the motivation? Be nice to everyone. Make everyone like you. Then they will all want you to succeed. Watch the cues you send out. Even if you are the nicest guy or gal in the world, some people will hate you just because you drive a Mercedes or Lexus, or because you have too much jewelry, or because your spouse is younger than you are, or because you wear blue shirts with white collars. These prejudiced people maylabel you arrogant even if you are the most self-deprecating person alive. Watch the non-verbal cues you send out, or people could get the wrong idea about what kind of person you are or firm you work for. Originally published 10/14/2002.

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