Beware (my son) the Consultant – Part 2

So why do companies and organizations hire consultants? While intended as a rhetorical question, I can hear some readers repeat the question out loud and in earnest…”Really, why would you!”

Let’s deal with some of the well known tactical reasons for a engaging a consultant. In our experience the most common reason for hiring a call/contact center consultant is to gain knowledge or a skill set that is not present in the client organization. This is often related to sub sets of call/contact center knowledge.

Some centers require knowledge that can only be distilled through many years of operational expertise in call and contact center operations or simply by someone who has made far more mistakes than they have. Of course, not all engagements relate to esoteric knowledge, a number of organizations need help with the basics. In both scenarios the consultant is engaged to add a talent or skill.

Some centers have veteran call and contact center experts in place; the challenge for these organizations is not that they don’t have the skill or knowledge internally. But rather that the resources that possess the knowledge are tied up on critical projects until well into the next decade. In this scenario the consultant represents additional bandwidth or bench strength.

The second use of consultants is to drive change in an organization. All organizations develop constituencies that work well or not together. People and groups become wedded to ideas, concepts, solutions, processes and the method of thinking about problems they face. Consultants can bring fresh ideas, experiences and approaches to all sorts of challenges in and around the contact center. Astute managers employ consultants to create opportunities for change where before there was only inertia or stalemate.

Finally there is the “I’m a nice guy” engagement. This is where the consultant is retained solely to communicate or execute bad news. Beware the consultant who arrives with an axe, chainsaw or even a small paring knife. Their job is to cut and/or to recommend who should be cut. Often the client may already have their list, which they share with the consultant. All the while they plead that this is to be an objective process. Yes this is a bit distasteful, but it does happen. The use of the consultant in the ‘role of the call center chainsaw massacre’ distances and separates the executives from the decision.

Often consultants are employed just so the executive in charge has ‘plausible deniability’. Then they to can join with their subordinates in damning the consultants. If you blame the consultants, then ownership for the distasteful decision is defused to the collective “them” from the “us”. Of course this is not just true of cuts and headcount reduction, but in all areas. A fast way to test if an idea or concept has ‘legs’ is to have the consultant present the idea. Then wait for the reaction. If positive, then management can jump on board. If negative, you can join or listen to the chorus of ‘Boos’. This has been called the Pioneer Process as the consultant is the pioneer…and you can always tell who the pioneers are…the ones with arrows in their back. This approach protects a managers’ political capital within an organization allowing them to be the parent of good ideas or brilliant at firing consultants with poor ideas and approaches. Both ways management wins and heroes are created.

Before hiring any consultant look at your organization; plum the depth of your internal call/contact center knowledge. Do a serious assessment of the knowledge and experience your contact center organization possesses. For each critical role look at your incumbent and ask yourself this question…”if this was my $6 million dollar budget I would hand it to person X and feel…” Fill in the blanks. If your answer is: “Terrified, petrified, afraid, concerned or similar then give yourself 1 point. If you said you would be: “Confident, Comfortable, Eager and Excited (and the latter is not just the meds talking), give yourself 3 points. If you said “Confident, Comfortable, Eager and Excited (and it was the meds talking) give yourself 2 points. And lastly if you said “Confident, Comfortable, Eager and Excited”, but know that the initiative is doomed and you are only saying this because you have invested heavily in the competitors stock then give yourself 10 points, because you will make so much money you won’t need this job.

If you have no answer because you can’t identify anyone in a critical role in the contact center, then you are clearly well on the path to senior management and need not trifle with the little people in the contact center. But for the rest of us who have not just potentially incurred the wrath of the SEC, your answer will provide insight into the role a consultant could fulfill. Of course, the higher the score, the less you are likely to need an external consultant.

While I have written about and potentially offended and derided those consultants whose primary experience lies within a corporate captive center, and then those who came from the vendors’ world, there is a place for all three camps. Those with corporate, captive center experience can be very comfortable in larger bureaucratic organizations with decision cycles that are more deliberate. These consultants though may be unaccustomed to dealing with floor and line staff and issues where speed to decision is critical.

Similarly who better to deal with vendors, than someone who has been on their side of the table and know the parlour tricks and points of vulnerability? Who better to spot a ringer than a ringer? In the words of Pogo “I have met the enemy and he are we”.

How to go about hiring a “call center consultant”?
The internet is a great resource and a quick Google search can help you narrow down the field of candidates to 32,000,000. Bing with its highly touted ability to narrow searches with pin-point accuracy gives us a far more manageable count of 9,070,000 matches. While both of these searches are helpful, we may wish to drill down further. A search on LinkedIn identifies 423 results, but balloons to 132,000 with the quotes removed. In spite of these findings, you may also want to look at industry groups such as the ATA or CCNG. Regardless of how you build your candidate list, be sure you ask for referrals and check references. You also want to understand the potential ‘fit’. Have they done the same work before, in the same vertical, for a center of the same size and maturity?

Interview the consultants, not just the head of the firm but the folks you will actually be working with. Ask the tough questions…what you would do in this situation or that situation. Try to get some insight into their personality and ask yourself: Can I work with this person? Would I like to work with this person? All other things being equal; you want someone you will enjoy working with. For some it is important to have a sense of humor: (Because, of course, if you don’t have a sense of humor, it’s just not funny).

Regardless of credentials, some buyers will only purchase from large behemoth consulting firms. This is the “no one gets fired for buying IBM” mental model and while big might be comfortable you must remember that many are selling their pyramid. By this I mean you meet the senior staff until you buy. Then spend the majority of their assignment trying to figure out where they went and who all those twenty somethings IROC’s (Interchangeables Right Out of College) are and why they are embedding themselves in your organization. Often it is a critical element of their business model. This can be worse than the guest that won’t leave as the tentacles spread out from your contact center. Out, out damn spot.

You also need to understand how the consultant will price and quote your project. Time and Materials, can sound like a safe way to go, but combined with a vague Scope of Work and it can be a license to print money. Fixed price project costing is a better approach for most clients.

A fixed price combined with a robust Scope of Work, controls costs better and prevents you from finding call center consultants roaming the halls of your offices six months from now, muttering something about scope change and the fact that they need a new watch. The fixed price, fixed scope model also allows for easier calculation of the project ROI. This is one of the reasons that some firms like ours can offer an ROI guarantee.

When should you hire a call center consultant?
Only when you can identify what you need to get done- you should have a robust scope of work in mind, have confirmed that you cannot complete this task employing existing resources or don’t want to try to complete this with existing resources and get palpitations at the thought. You should also have the budget or be confident that you could get the project funded with an appropriate Return on Investment.

Consultants are people too, well at least most of us are. Regardless of where we came from we are all products of our experiences. Understanding your needs you are better equipped to select a consultant with the best chance of success. Good Luck!

One thought on “Beware (my son) the Consultant – Part 2

  1. Another IT Consultant says:

    One behavior I see over and over again is companies hiring consultants even when they have the skills in-house already.

    I was in this situation once as an employee. I had been saying x for several months. My manager’s manager hired a consultant, paid big bucks, and the consultant said x (maybe with a prettier PowerPoint). Suddenly x was all the rage. We had to do x and had to do it now. I was happy that we were finally moving ahead, but they could’ve given me the consultant’s fee instant as a nice bonus!

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