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Can consulting be designed, packaged and sold as a product?

As a consultant, the golden rule that I learnt was to clearly understand the customer’s requirement before assuming a solution; No customer’s requirement is the same; Use analytical reasoning to solve the problem. In fact, the solution will come as you go about detailing the requirements along with problems and operating landscape.

Then there is the dimension of technology related consulting where a tool assumes a pivotal rule and the consulting solution is designed around it. There are two layers to this kind of consulting often defined by the design of the tool. Firstly, there is basic architecture of the tool which will demand certain pre-requisites in the form of information on processes or needs as input, which is mostly defined. Consulting in this case is based on enabling the deployment of this tool. Secondly, these tools support some business requirement/process. The alignment of processes or requirements is first made with the strategic goals and then the tool is leveraged as a platform which enables or optimizes such processes. This essay has been limited to the aspects of technology related to consulting.

In the limited span I have been in the consulting domain, some peculiarities I noticed were;

  • Companies which develop and market these tools are progressively moving towards easy deployment. More like plug and play!
  • Consulting companies are still required to support the deployment of these tools as internal ITs are still unable to get a grip on the plug and play features.
  • Sales of either kind of companies are leveraging each other to achieve their sales targets. Some large consulting companies (deployment champions, as I would like to call them) have a deep rooted relationship with heavy mining. Smaller consulting companies (deployment experts) are aligning with large product companies to pile on to the pull of these products.
  • Consulting, going by the initial golden rule of mapping a solution with requirements, has now become very limited in scope. Almost like commoditization of consulting, both in terms of customer’s expectations and seller’s service offerings.
  • Then there are companies which are partly developing their own solution while servicing products from competing companies.
  • Relevance of best practices as a term used for marketing along with service delivery baseline as part of the offering has become a must have within your line-up.

Based on observation, an immediate glance would indicate that this part of consulting/product mixture business is maturing.  A sign of ideas which were new and susceptible 10-15 years back, have now reached a point of validation. This commoditization reflects the awareness around the service delivery mechanisms that customers carry an assumption of. One can easily infer that, packaging a service around the tool has a clear cut success formula and does not require much effort or inventions. This should be a good base for designing, packaging and selling a consulting offering just like a product, right?

I have a few a concerns, though.

Let me begin with challenging the success formula of packaging a consulting service. As I pointed out earlier, customers are aware of what to expect from a consulting service. This methodology still has to stand the trial of its realized benefits. As a consultant, I would like to make a case, about the great processes I helped in setting up, the successful deployments I helped to achieve. But, have these processes, benefited the customer? Is the customer educated enough to identify the actual benefit, in his business case?

Another defense mechanism that I have developed in my experience is to stay within the boundaries of best practices. These two words are used so beautifully as defense by most consultants.  In my opinion best practices are best used by research companies as a catch phrase to sound relevant. Even two similar companies may not subscribe to a single set of best practices assuming both of them are striving to achieve similar goals. It clearly goes against the basic tenets of entrepreneurship. Enterprise, as I know, exists in the market place to fill a certain unique gap. Practices certainly cannot be so generic if one goes by this definition of enterprise.

Moving to the companies which are offering such consulting services, it may seem reasonable for a deployment champion (read large consulting companies) to offer such business services, as their businesses revolve around account mining which also explains their business verticals. Offering a deployment here and there will only add to billing and ensure that a rival is kept out of this client’s ecosystem. In my opinion, the relevance of such services is not there to mainly gain expertise in solving some business problem but to get the cost advantage of experience. In any case, the revenue of this consulting firm is shared between its customers, so overall it brings efficiency in the cost linked with a specific expertise.

Smaller consulting firms (deployment experts) have a much harder bargain. Yes, a product company will need them to provide the deployment expertise in the overall sales cycle, but they also need a consulting firm to share the risk of overall project failure. How can you find fault with a product which is perceived to be working well for another company? Obviously, something must have gone wrong with the deployment. Another interesting observation is the diktat of sales organization within these smaller consulting firms. Sales functions are opportunistic but marketing has to define this opportunity. However, marketing in such firms is limited to lead qualification. Actually there is nothing wrong with this approach! I do have one concern here, which is based on my assumption that opportunity is more of a short sighted vision than long term agenda. Thus, a company operating in such a manner may have limited relevance and shall either fade away or be absorbed.

Truth is that there is no simple answer to whether one can package and sell consulting like a product.

Though, it has high relevance in smaller consulting firms as it can provide them with a key differentiator and help them define their existence. Yet it is very difficult to pinpoint the exact nature of service offering unless one is to learn from product companies themselves. Companies which have become successful in the last few years have positioned themselves as platform innovators. Look at this firm with a fruit’s name which gave us this sensational phone that we all either love or love to hate. Ask anyone who used their OS earlier in those awesome computers, or music software’s, would  point that all these were there much before the phone itself. The phone on its own is an innovation of the platform consisting of the device and its ecosystem. One of its major competitors has been banking just on the ecosystem and has created a sufficient pull for product companies to leverage this ecosystem.

Similarly, smaller consulting firms need to think beyond themselves by offering packaged consulting as part of a platform.  Such a solution needs to align itself with business goals of the customer, and not be constrained by the best practices (which should be limited to a rough benchmark). A consulting service of this sort will serve to find answers to what will work and what may not without actually trying to define goals beforehand. Tools should just be enablers which are deployed in any case, so an expertise around the deployment can only serve as a critical component but not the heart of the service delivery. In fact tools which are complex to deploy can also be complex to maintain. A while ago when consulting was getting initiated as a service, every company must have tried to come up with measuring models. I don’t see any reason why smaller consulting companies of today should not invest time on coming up with modern measuring scales which are more defined and accurate!

Marketing of these firms needs to invest heavily in identifying patterns of requirements which can be combined to offer a service which can uniquely sit in the market place. Some may do well and some may not but only few go on to be the game changers.

To sum it up, specific consulting services can be designed, packaged and sold as products, provided they are aligned with business goals of the customer and help them in transforming their businesses positively. Such innovations in consulting will only help to make their customers more innovative and ready to make a better tomorrow.

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