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Consulting Fail, or How to Get Removed from my Address Book

Here’s some things that consultants do that annoy me.

Some consultants brag about who is backing their company or whom they claim as their customers. I’ve never figured that rich people are any smarter than poor people so I’m not impressed by consultants who brag about who is backing them or who founded their company. Recent ponzi and hedge fund implosions confirm my thinking. And it seems like the really smart people who invented technology 1.0 and made a billion are not reliably repeating their success with technology 2.0. It happens, but not predictably, so mentioning that [insert famous web 1.0 person here] founded or is backing your company is a waste of a slide IMHO.

I’m also not impressed by consultants who list [insert Fortune 500 here] as their clients. Perhaps [insert Fortune 500 here] has a world class IT operation and the consultant was instrumental in making them world class. Perhaps not. I have no way of knowing. It’s possible that some tiny corner of [insert Fortune 500 here] hired them to do [insert tiny project here] and they screwed it up, but that’s all they needed to brag about how they have [insert Fortune 500 here] as their customer and add another logo to their power point.

I’m really unimpressed when consultants tell me that they are the only ones who are competent enough to solve my problems or that I’m not competent enough to solve my own problems. One consulting house tried that on me years ago, claiming that firewalling fifty campuses was beyond the capability of ordinary mortals, and that If we did it ourselves, we’d botch it up. That got them a lifetime ban from my address book. They didn’t know that we had already ACL’d fifty campuses, and that inserting a firewall in line with a router was a trivial network problem, and that converting the router ACL’s to firewall rules was scriptable, and that I already written the script.

I’ve also had consultants ‘accidently’ show me ‘secret’ topologies for the security perimeters of [insert fortune 500 here] on their conference room white board. Either they are incompetent for disclosing customer information to a third party, or they drew up a bogus whiteboard to try to impress me. Either way I’m not impressed. Another lifetime ban.

Consultants who attempt to implement technology or projects or processes that the organization can’t support or maintain is another annoyance. I’ve see people come in and try to implement processes or technologies that although they might be what the book says or what every one else is doing, aren’t going to fit the organization, for whatever reason. If the organization can’t manage the project, application or technology after the consultant leaves, a perceptive consultant will steer the client towards a solution that is manageable and maintainable. In some cases, the consultant obtained the necessary perception only after significant effort on my part with the verbal equivalent of a blunt object.

Recent experiences with a SaaS vendor annoyed me pretty badly when they insisted on pointing out how great their whole suite of products integrate, even after I repeatedly and clearly told them I was only interested in one small product, and they were on site to tell me about that product, and nothing else. “I want to integrate your CMDB with MY existing management infrastructure, not YOUR whole suite. Next slide please. <dammit!>”. Then it went down hill. I asked them what protocols they use to integrate their product with other products in their suite. The reply: a VPN. Technically they weren’t consultants though. They were pre-sales.

That’s not to say that I’m anti consultant. I’ve seen many very competent consultants who have done an excellent job. At times I’ve been extremely impressed.

Obviously I’ve also been disappointed.


  1. Michael I can tell from your last string of posts you've had some 'good' experiences as of recent.

    Working for a small business I often see two scenarios. First the incredibly over engineered solution with no consideration to the company's size, business goals, or financial means. Or a solution that would work well for a 10 node office. It's a rare occurrence that even after spending much time describing the business and technical environment, that a well suited solution is provided.

    I invest a healthy amount of effort keeping a broad amount of technical knowledge for spotting business benefiting technologies, possibly implementing them, and fending off those like you mention in your post.

    Your Mime In A Box post couldn't be more dead on. I think Sales and Pre Sales engineers need to be the folks with wide system technical knowledge that can grasp the customer environment and how their solution will fit - while the single technology specialists stay in the background. Anytime I hear "It can do that" in the initial sales pitch I cringe.

    On the flip side, what gets a consultant into your address book?

  2. This is an awesome post! You should read the recent hate mail I got from our IBM/Cognos consultant! It's amazing.

  3. "Don't insult the client" should be high on any competent consultant's list. Telling a client he needs you because he's too dumb to do something on his own is not bright. Sure, the consultant wants to be needed, but there's an important distinction between "We can help you do this faster, and maybe help you catch some gotchas you otherwise wouldn't have noticed until it was too late," and "You're too dumb, let us do it."

    Of course, it helps if there actually are gotchas the consultant can help with. Consultants also look like idiots when they try to sell the simple as if it were complex. It raises two possibilities: (1) the consultant is trying to overcharge by making the job look harder than it is, or (2) the consultant isn't competent enough to recognize a simple job. Neither option is good for the client.

    Finally, as someone who has worked at several consulting companies, I never understood why they all wanted big name clients whose logos they could flash on PowerPoint slides. I don't think it's (usually) the consultant claiming it was instrumental in making the organization world-class. It's probably a combination of implying that the consultant can handle big projects (the client isn't supposed to wonder if large corporations have small projects), and showing that big important clients trust the consultant.

    The real lesson when you see a big name on a PowerPoint is almost always that you're hearing a pitch by a consultant who will give up in anything in exchange for having a big name to reference. If you happen to be a big name too, this is to your advantage. As soon as you see the slide full o' Fortune 50 names, discount the consulting rate you'll pay by at least 10%, and make a mental list of all the menial tasks you'd like the consultants to do for you, because there's little the consulting firm won't do if it will let them add your name to that slide.

  4. @Jim -

    Great quote:

    "If you happen to be a big name too, this is to your advantage. As soon as you see the slide full o' Fortune 50 names, discount the consulting rate you'll pay by at least 10%, and make a mental list of all the menial tasks you'd like the consultants to do for you, because there's little the consulting firm won't do if it will let them add your name to that slide."

  5. @Jeff - I must be in a crabby mood. My last bunch of posts have been pretty negative. ;-)

    I can empathize with you. I was a one person IT department for a college with a hundred employees and a thousand students for quite a while. In a spot like that, you really need to understand a broad swath of technology to keep things moving in the right direction, and you get a real understanding of budget/financial pressures.

    We have problems with vendors selling our small campuses over-engineered solutions that simply don't fit or can't be maintained by a small group of overworked people. That's not good, because the time and money they spent trying to make the ill-fitting technology work is lost, and can't ever be recovered.

    As far as what gets a consultant on my good list, I'd have to say that they need to demonstrate competency pretty quickly, and they need to be perceptive enough to understand our environment, both our strengths and weaknesses.

    I'll think about that though. I should be able to come up with something better..... :-)

  6. I just wanted to say you have made it into my address book (Google Reader) and I really enjoy your posts.

    It sounds like all of those consultants were horrible at sales. Well I say sales but it is actually his inability to recognize your personality type which would lead to a sale or at least not getting deleted from your address book :D

    Personality types and marketing were brought up in a conversation that I had with a friend. Since he has a sales background and I'm kinda anti-sales (I don't like when sales people leave out important details and I don't like being sold something I don't need) and his personality type is the same as mine I wondered how he did it. It is rather simple but it was something that I didn't pay much attention to before.

    My guess to get into your address book I would try the following.

    • Executive approach, wants to bring about order.
    • Orientated towards facts, the more the merrier.
    • Curious, soaks up information, fascinated by analysis, very precise.
    • Focus on details not the relationship.
    • Loves gadgets, intricate details, needs all the facts to give opinion.
    • Thinks options through.
    • DECISIONS made SLOWLY based on FACTS.
    • Consider telling them what the product won't do . they will respect you for it, and they will have spotted the deficiencies anyway.
    • Discuss reasons and ask why? questions.
    • Become less responsive and less assertive yourself.

  7. Jason -

    Very good. ;)

    Except I do value the relationship with a consultant or vendor, but in the context of a long term professional relationship, not in the context of a short term sale. I know that in many cases, our paths will cross again, and the next time, either they or I might be in a different situation, and the long term relationship will help make the right thing happen.

    You are probably right, in that the cases that I wrote about, the consultant or vendor misread me pretty badly.

    I'm wondering how consultants who appear to me to do so badly can still make a living. Do they sync up with other IT managers often enough to keep food on the table? If so, what does that say about those other managers?


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