Lead with your expertise, not with your consulting services
I regularly post content on social media about what I call ‘the consulting service delusion’: an exorbitant focus on services instead of on expertise. I got several reactions and questions from a post on social media a few weeks ago, so I decided to explain the service delusion in consulting a little deeper in this article.
When I meet with a consulting firm or a consultant, I always ask: "What is the expertise of your consulting firm?" In 99% of the cases, they immediately start explaining their services: “Here’s what we do”. They explain me the actions, the activities, the output, the deliverables they provide and the steps they take, without considering the ultimate outcome of their work: the transformation of their clients.
Outcomes instead of output. Services instead of problem-resolution and transformation.
Are you a service provider or an expert? SERVICE providing consultancies offer downstream ‘availability’ at low rates. They see their biggest challenge as getting people to deliver for them. They want to get the job done & get paid for it. EXPERT consultancies sell expertise. They see their biggest challenge as having a transformational impact. They want to make a difference, add tremendous value & be rewarded for it.
We live in the era of expertise. Deep expertise will always win: strong reputation and visibility in the market, power in the sale, premium pricing, tremendous project efficiency, hiring clarity (yes, candidate fit), and many more awesome outcomes I learned to enjoy.
What is the big and ugly service delusion in consulting?
An exorbitant focus on services instead of on expertise is ‘THE BIG UGLY SERVICE DELUSION.’ I see it over and over again – a long list of all the "premier", "expert" and "unique" services that consultancies and consultants offer. Each one has its own page, offering paragraphs after paragraphs of details and a list of services within a service. Yes, this often translated into appalling websites.
Indeed, consultancies often make a big mistake in striving for a healthy pipeline.
They are making the mistake of focusing on 'PROVIDING MULTIPLE SERVICES', and they feel good about it. They become OUTPUT-ORIENTED and this results in offering a laundry list of services, a bottleneck to creating demand and a reliable pipeline.
Output and service-orientation also mean more competition, more commoditization, activity-driven, order-taker profile, and lower rates. A service-oriented consultancy will always leave a lot of money on the table in the long run.
In mature markets, it's almost impossible to win by having a so-called unique service. Don’t fool yourself. All your consulting competitors have pretty much similar service capabilities.
Recommended reading: Why You Should Reverse-Engineer Your Consulting Service Offering
Consultants need to move to an outcome-oriented offering
Instead, it’s much more efficient to move to an OUTCOME-ORIENTED way (instead of output) of consulting, expertise-focused instead of service-focused. It's easier for everybody in the team to focus on the 'OVERARCHING EXPERTISE' of a consultancy instead of creating demand for a service laundry list (where the heck to start?).
After reading this, please, please, remember again: services are simply a means to an end; the vehicle to get a client from where they are now to where they want to be.
Clients care much more about the problem-solving expertise and the transformational OUTCOMES they can achieve than about a long list of services. And creating demand for the overarching problem-solving expertise is just much more effortless. This is something I have experienced (and had to learn) myself in the past decade.
An example: ‘Workforce Of The Future’
Here’s an example of an output-driven consulting topic in the HR consulting space: the almighty ‘Workforce of the future’ hype (WOF). All (HR) consultancies seem to be ‘WOF’ experts these days, but I am still waiting for the first one (feel free to let me know) who can explain the outcomes of a ‘WOF’ consulting intervention.
Do you know?
Here are a few BS service quotes I took from real - yes real - important consulting firm websites. Fasten your seatbelts!
- Our services help your company transition toward the future by adopting new traits and behaviors to thrive in the digital age.
- We provide expert services to unleash the power of your workforce.
- We boost your workforce of the future strategy with our entreprise-level capabilities and services.
These are just a few BS examples of many. The list is endless. And it's bad. Really bad.
Do you really understand what these consulting firms are talking about? Which one of these 3 would get your preference? Do you get what exactly the transformation is that they can achieve in your organisation? What do you think will be left behind when these consultants finish their WoF intervention? And why the heck do you need to boost your WoF strategy? And do you know how you can thrive in the digital age, and why? Euh...
And the most important question: what exactly is the problem these consultancies are solving? Do you wake up at night thinking your WoF should be improved? No you don't.
Honestly, I have no clue why I would need these WoF services.
Outcome-thinking forces you to think much deeper
It forces you to envision the value you can add and the impact you can have, making you less vulnerable in the crowded, competitive consulting market. And if you can combine the description of the impact with…
- a bold contextual point of view (I call this ‘the signature voice’, see more in Edition 47 of my newsletter);
- a clear description of your target audience and their prototypical challenges;
- a fundamentally unparalleled process to achieve a project home run;
- a supreme way of engaging all stakeholders in the client’s organization (to prepare for adoption success);
- an unmatched way of educating your audience on how to deal with their challenges…
…you’ll be the unbeatable hero in your market.
The business case for narrow focus in consulting?
Narrow focus is the path to repetition. Repetition of consulting projects will reduce variability in the process. Reduced variability in the process equals more predictable outcomes. More predictable outcomes create an unparalleled competitive advantage.
So, the business case for focus in consulting is where repetition meets outcomes meets competitive advantage.
Final advice: transform your service thinking
Most consultancy leaders suffer from service laundry list thinking. As I always say: you are not in the business of selling services but solving client problems. Transform your thinking and get over that big service delusion hump. Lead with expertise and not with services.
Here's my boldest possible point of view: a strong focus on 'delivering services' in consulting is for the amateurs!
Recommended reading: As A Consultant, You Always Attract What You Are, Not What You Want
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Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers, and I’m helping mid-sized consultancies become high-performing consulting firms. I have been in the consulting businesses for more than 20 years, in very different roles: as European CHRO in a global consultancy, as a founder of a mid-sized analytics consultancy, and as a leader in a 'Big 4' consultancy, post-acquisition of my consultancy. I had the privilege of achieving global visibility as a consulting leader, and I never had to sell, persuade, or negotiate as a result. I have now bundled all those experiences, expertise, know-how, research, reading, successes, struggles, and failures from managing and advising consultancies in the past years.