You’ve probably heard at least a few insulting consultant jokes by now. Here’s an example of a classic jab:

“What’s the definition of a consultant?”

“He’s the guy who borrows your watch—so he can tell you what time it is.”

Just like attorneys and used-car salesmen, consultants are viewed by some as shady hucksters. IT consultants who posted comments to a recent TechRepublic article about the problem said that combating animosity is a routine part of the job.

This follow-up article will provide highlights from the TechRepublic member discussion about the reasons why some IT consultants face hostility at client sites and what methods they use to overcome the problem.

Losing the popularity contest
The reasons that members gave as to why consultants are sometimes disliked were not entirely surprising, but TechRepublic members did bring to light some interesting new twists on the causes for bad blood. Here are the top reasons cited in the discussion for the uneasy relationships between consultants and clients:

  1. Internal politics make it difficult for a consultant to do his or her job.
  2. The client has had bad experiences with incompetent consultants in the past and so may be prejudiced against all consultants.
  3. It’s the nature of the profession that consultants will be disliked, because their success will make the in-house staff feel threatened.

What follows are some more in-depth explanations for these theories.

1. Dealing with client politics
TechRepublic member Bucky Kaufman wrote in with an example of how internal politics created a hostile working environment for him as a consultant at a marketing service in Manhattan.

“I was the fourth consultant they brought in to develop a Web site for their law-firm customer. The project was two weeks late on the day I started. The [client] company culture was such that the supervisors were abusive to the consultants, in order to look good [in front of] the employees,” wrote Kaufman.

Sometimes clients have a hidden agenda: One consultant said it’s not uncommon for the client to hire a consultant as the “fall guy.” In this case, the client brings in a consultant, blames him or her for a project’s failure, and then fires the consultant—all to protect internal staff from being held accountable for the project’s fatal flaws.

But most often, members described politics as a problem that begins among the employees at the client site.

Athaler explained how he found himself in the middle of a long-running disagreement between his client and the client’s staff.

“It has happened to me several times that people in different departments at the client [site] approached me enthusiastically with various problems that a consultant might solve for good… while the guy paying my bill was considerably less enthusiastic about those [issues],” he wrote.

2. Incompetence from the past
JimHM admits that he is someone who hates consultants.

“They come in—do an [inadequate] job with a product… then collect the money and run like hell and leave the maintenance and upgrade to the [client’s] IT staff. Oh, and documentation/knowledge transfer? Don’t even think about it…,” he wrote.

JimHM said that his experience with a major consulting firm was the cause of his negative attitude. Several other members also complained that they knew of projects where big-name firms provided poor service and charged too much for it—perpetuating the reputation that all consultants are overpaid.

Some members in the discussion were angry that incompetent IT consultants damage the industry’s reputation. An anonymous member wrote: “…The company I work for [matches] skills with positions and makes sure the work is done to the client’s satisfaction. Unfortunately, the ones without integrity make us all look bad, and we end up having to start each new job in a bit of damage-control mode to prove we are not all ‘hairballs.’”

Another member also voiced frustration with incompetent consultants.

“I have… seen consultants who spend months in meetings talking about what they are going to do without ever actually doing anything. No wonder permanent employees are so often hostile when a consultant comes in….”

3. The nature of the profession
Often, it is simply the way that consultants must perform their work that makes them prone to animosity from the client’s employees. First, consultants are often closest to management—that alone may not breed trust among staff members.

“When consultants come in, they gain favoritism by… finding faults with our IT areas…. I do think our executive management put too much ‘silver bullet’ emphasis on consulting talent,” wrote rathodr, an IT professional.

Ironically, consultants find that when they do their jobs really well, their success makes employees at the client site feel threatened. IT ConsultantJroysdon wrote, ”Am I an overachiever? No—even though it appears [to the client’s staff] that I am. Sometimes the solutions that I come up with are simple, sometimes not. If the IT staff were given the time to fully devote their attention to the problem, they too may have come up with it…. But that is also a luxury I have as a consultant.”

Kaufman was not so forgiving: “Self-confidence and professionalism are easily mistaken for arrogance by insecure, salaried employees who don’t rely on their productivity for their paycheck.”

Practical solutions
The comments left by TechRepublic members illustrate that while there may not always be a solution to this problem, there are a few things consultants can do that might alleviate it in some circumstances. Here is some of the members’ advice:

  1. Maintain a professional demeanor with the client and the client’s staff. Recognize that people often believe consultants are arrogant, so try to avoid any word, deed, situation, etc. that could be interpreted as such.
  2. Do your job well and document your results. Make good on your promises by fulfilling the deliverables that you agreed to at the outset.
  3. Bill your clients based on the results of the project. This may help build trust.

Here are some more specific comments and tips from members:

1. Be professional
TechRepublic members had several tips on professionalism with regard to clients and client staff. For example, some members recommended that a personal conversation, as opposed to an e-mail, was a good way to establish a rapport with clients and client staff, pointing out that an emphasis on documenting conversations through e-mail is adversarial and overdone.

To combat confusion and resentment over project responsibilities, Paul McKelvey recommends creating “dependency lists” that describe who is responsible for tasks and attaching a deadline for each task. He recommends that everyone responsible for a task should be made aware of the list and should be given the opportunity to discuss the deadlines. “If the timing or deliverable is not reasonable… then the issues can be raised ahead of time, before a crisis develops,“ wrote McKelvey.

Many members also addressed the concern that consultants are perceived as arrogant and recommended more humility.

Consultant Rick Freedman pointed out some common pitfalls of the job: “…We treat the IT staff like nitwits; we lack the basic project skills to deliver results; we turn consulting engagements into college-dorm-room debating societies instead of focusing on results. In short, we are often worthy of our clients’ worst opinion of us.”

Another member wrote, “If someone is reacting badly to your presence or is sabotaging your project, it’s probably because they feel… their opinion is being ignored. Diffuse the situation: Listen to them; hear what they have to say.”

2. Actions speak louder than words
The majority of members recommended that consultants build trust by keeping their promise to deliver results—and to be cautious not to promise too much.

Jvstover wrote, “If you are asked to take on additional responsibility, it’s critical that you not agree to take on more than you can handle in a reasonable amount of time and that you maintain a good working relationship with the permanent staff.”

3. Change your billing methods
Several members said that it takes more than just befriending adversaries to win over hostile people. These members suggested a few billing changes that might improve your relationship with clients:

“I recommend that consulting organizations bill for time on a per-day and not a per-hour basis. Billing per hour is asking for trouble if the bill-payer sees you talking about nonwork issues—even though this is helping the overall team building. It is possible to include an overtime clause if more than a maximum number of hours are worked,“ wrote davidkeech.

From the client perspective, JimHM described how a “performance contract” improved his level of trust with consultants. These contracts include milestones that must be reached at varying points along the project timeline in order for the consultant to be paid.

Winning friends and influencing people

What’s your best recommendation to help avoid the prejudice against consultants? Post a comment to this article or send us a letter.