The AI Hype in Consulting: Cutting Through the Fluff to Find True Value

"We reinvent your company with AI", "Unlocking AI's potential in your business", and "Navigating the enterprise AI landscape" – I see this type of messaging from consultancies (both small and large) at an alarmingly increasing rate.

While many solutions claimed to be “AI-enabled” for years now, it was really around the beginning of 2023 when tools like ChatGPT seemed to make great strides in advancing the technology. And so the hype around AI and its capabilities commenced.

Google Trends (see below, April 2024) offers a neat representation of just how massive the hype around AI and AI tools has become. These search terms suddenly got 10X/20X/100X the attention of users around the world. The Collins Dictionary even named AI a “Word of the Year” in 2023!

AI searches

While AI tools have brought with them amazing opportunities – efficiency gains, writing assistance, etc. – this tech is still in its early stages, which means there are still many pitfalls and risks associated with it. 

Unfortunately, more boutique consultancies are feeling the pressure to integrate ‘AI’ into their messaging to prospects. Many are taking it a step further, centering their entire value proposition around this buzzword.

And I’m here to plead with these consultancies to stop! 

The AI hype, fatigue, and pitfalls

I get it. AI tools often come in handy. I personally use ChatGPT if I’m struggling with getting started on an article. I jot down a few ideas in the chat bar and ask to summarize them in 1-2 sentences. The resulting sentence or two is enough to get my writing brain fired up. 

I know many professionals who use AI-enabled tools to help them refine their content for SEO best practices. And who hasn’t tried letting their creativity run wild and creating images with Dall-E?

AI-enabled tools are great. I’m a big fan. But here’s the thing: they are exactly that – tools. They are not a replacement for deep expertise. They lack the ability to solve the types of business problems that keep C-levels up at night. While I may use an AI-enabled tool to create a quick summary of the many ideas I collected on a specific subject, my expertise allows me to diagnose business problems in struggling boutique consultancies. 

It’s my experience working with dozens of firms and talking to hundreds of consultancy leaders that allows me to spot patterns and design effective roadmaps for my clients. 

Yet, I see many boutique consultancies succumbing to the pressure of integrating AI into their offerings.

“We transform your business with AI” type of value proposition is not just a meaningless tired line. It makes potential clients yawn. A wave of AI fatigue is washing over the business world, and the bombardment of AI-centered messages from consultancies is contributing to it. 

As John Giordani, a technology risk manager at The United Nations Federal Credit Union, explains in his article that I recently came across, “The constant exposure to exaggerated claims and unrealistic expectations has led to a sense of disillusionment and fatigue among many.” 

The heart of the matter?

These AI promises are all fluff. "Reinventing your company with AI"? Please. There's zero credibility in that claim. No one's shown real, tangible proof that such a reinvention is feasible.

Not to mention the legal risks and data concerns that clients have when it comes to providing AI access or using AI tools – we have yet, as an industry, to meaningfully address those. Source, in its podcast The Future of the Firm, features an episode where James Byles, Partner & UK AI Service Delivery Transformation Leader at Deloitte, and Emma Carroll, Source’s Head of Content, discuss the role of AI in the service industry. They, too, point out some of the main reasons behind clients’ hesitation to fully embrace AI tools – risk mitigation and data being the main ones.

So, I’d like to make this clear: AI is not a magical solution. It's a tool, a means to an end. Impactful value propositions should centre around problems that consultancies can help their clients solve rather than what tools they will use to do so.

Furthermore, boutique consultancies relying on AI to attract clients only contribute to the commodification of their services. It blurs the distinction between boutique consultancies and tech companies. It leaves little room for the value of human expertise – deep knowledge and understanding of a subject and the ability to devise a strategy that would deliver transformational outcomes!

The value of an expertise-based value proposition

More than ever, clients want deep subject matter expertise. They are looking for consultancies that can address important business problems. If they thought a piece of software (be it AI-enabled or a regular one) could solve their pain points, they would’ve purchased it already.

That’s why instead of jumping on the bandwagon and shouting AI-centered messages, I recommend that boutique consultancies build trust with their target audience through authenticity. 

And that starts by revisiting and, if needed, redesigning their value propositions.

In my article on value proposition design, I explain the eight elements of a value proposition canvas:

  1. Clients come to us because…
  2. They usually struggle with…
  3. They typically are…
  4. What they can achieve with us…
  5. Here’s how we help…
  6. Trigger point(s) to call us...
  7. Our entry service...
  8. Thought leadership pillar themes...

AI tools are typically just a small part of Element #5 – “here’s how we help”. And even then, strong value propositions do not list every tool that’s used to optimize efficiency and processes. Rather, it’s a quick summary of the methodology.

I invite boutique consultancy owners and leaders to ask themselves: “What 'end' is my consultancy working towards? What problems am I solving, for whom, and how will AI as a tool help achieve these goals better, faster, or less expensive?” 

Prospects want to know these questions. They want to understand how a consulting partner will use their expertise to solve very real, very urgent problems.

Of course, there is a place for AI in conversations with clients. For example, consultancies that specialize in services along the lines of:

  • Cutting manufacturing costs
  • Enhancing supply chain efficiency
  • Minimizing sales forecast errors
  • Trimming inventory levels
  • Improving customer experience
  • Accelerating product release cycles
  • Streamlining post-merger ERP integrations

These types of boutique consultancies can talk about how AI helps them enhance the value they deliver to clients. But even then, it’s not the main selling point. Deep expertise, a proven track record of success stories for similar clients, and transparency in the lessons learned from past mistakes and successes are what make a boutique consultancy stand out.

Recommended reading: How Consultancies Can Get Started With Value Proposition Design

The role of AI in consultancy services

Having said all of that, there is certainly a place for AI in consultancy services. In fact, I strongly recommend that boutique consultancies that haven’t experimented with AI tools start doing it. Efficiency gains that can be achieved through process automation and optimizations matter greatly. 

In my post on 10 consulting trends for 2024, I explore the role of AI in the consulting industry. I argue that AI will continue to push consultancies with superficial expertise out of the market – all the more reason for boutique consultancies to rethink their value proposition and narrow down their focus. However, I also discuss the great advantages AI tools can offer consultancies when it comes to improving productivity: they can significantly reduce the amount of time spent on repetitive processes, maximizing the efficiency of consultancies and freeing up more time for value-driven client work.

AI can certainly be integrated into a service offering. As mentioned earlier, it can be part of the HOW in the value proposition. What I would encourage boutique consultancies to be wary of is integrating AI into service offerings in a way that actually adds value—not simply pandering to what they think clients want.

In conclusion

The allure of AI in consultancy messaging has reached a fever pitch, with promises of “revolutionary transformations” and “unparalleled solutions”. 

However, beneath the gloss of this hype lies a stark reality: AI, while undoubtedly a powerful tech, is not a panacea for all business problems. In fact, AI fatigue seems to be settling in.

Instead of prioritizing AI in their messaging, I encourage boutique consultancies to recenter their value proposition around their core expertise and problem-solving abilities. Clients are seeking partners who can offer deep subject matter expertise. While AI can certainly enhance these efforts, it should serve as a supportive tool rather than the focal point.

It's essential that boutique consultancies are able to articulate how their expertise translates into tangible solutions for real-world problems rather than relying on buzzwords and empty promises.

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