In an episode of the old TV series M*A*S*H, the commanding officer’s neophyte clerk, Radar, is coached on wooing a sophisticated nurse, a lady who appreciates classical music. Upon any reference to such music, he is told to nod his head knowingly, waggle his hand in a kind of papal wave, and utter, “Ah…Bach.”
The joke, of course, is that Radar doesn't know beans about Bach, Mozart, or any other classical composer. But such reverential tones often come to mind when folks talk about consulting and the “gold standard” enjoyed by some premier firms. One can imagine the hushed conference room, executives hunched over the disastrous remnants of next year’s corporate plan. The need for outside counsel is apparent as eyes move about the room: “Ah…McKinsey.”
Such hyperbole is not unfounded, since consulting is basically an idea business. Its product will always be the people who generate ideas.
E-business as the driving force behind consulting changes that notion. Ideas are still important, but results rule. And rather than link success to names that evoke mahogany-paneled executive dining rooms, today’s e-consulting firms opt for snazzy monikers on par with rock bands and techno-thrillers.
Consultants love to use Coca-Cola as a classic case study on the power of branding: It’s not the tastiness of their sugar water so much as it is leveraging the Coke name that has made the company so successful. It’s ironic that consultants, often called in to help companies battle for brand recognition, are themselves facing a fight for clarity in the minds of their customers.
The consulting industry has moved far away from the white-gloves approach of 20 years ago. The pure-play consulting companies realized from the start that perceived snootiness wouldn’t play in the ‘Net age. So those companies (Scient, et al) offered up a personality-free face to the market.
Perhaps the pendulum swung a bit too far. Names that equate to heritage lend a sense of permanence to a sometimes soulless industry. And there’s a certain nostalgia that probably both helps and hinders the business. Evidence? I was chatting with the CFO of a major PC/software distributor and explaining to him my job of analyzing consulting firms (including the big CPA firms where he used to work). And he said: “Oh, you mean like Ernst & Whinney?”
Note to Cap Gemini Ernst & Young: Some things take more time than others.
Heard on the street
The last vestiges of the Price Waterhouse/Coopers & Lybrand integration were reportedly at the heart of PwC cutting loose 100 partners in the United Kingdom. You typically slice senior consultants based on one of two reasons: Partners need to bring in a certain amount of business to warrant the high compensation, or redundant bosses hurt the bottom line. The move comes on the heels of PwC’s recent trimming of roughly 400 people last month.
Inside Consulting is written by Tom Rodenhauser as a free weekly supplement to The Rodenhauser Report. The report informs senior advisors and business executives of consulting trends and best practices. Subscription cost is $295 per year for 10 issues. Copyright 2001, Consulting Information Services, LLC. Reproduction is prohibited. Quotation with attribution is encouraged.