It’s Not About the Answer
It’s about how you get there. Consulting firms, even the biggest, fanciest ones, do a lot of very unglamorous work. It pays the bills. Not every project is an intense strategy or heavily analytical pricing project. Sometimes you find yourself heading to a client you didn’t know the firm had, doing work you didn’t know even existed. In cases like that, often the firm is brought in not because the client doesn’t know the answer, but because we have expertise doing something that the client doesn’t have.
During my summer at Deloitte, I got staffed on one of those projects, and it was the most valuable professional experience of my life. I found myself working on designing and outsourcing a digital supply chain (a fancy way of saying how you get digital files from point A to point B) for a media client. My workstream had two core parts; the first was to analyze the vendors our client was thinking about using. As a bit of a data nerd, this was a blast. I got to play with ways to slice and dice data in excel and tableau. My analyst and I even built our own analysis methodology, grounded in our rudimentary knowledge of statistics, and in a lot of Panera lunches spent sitting over giant excel sheets. The second part of my workstream was much less exciting. I was responsible for building the pricing book (a giant excel document that the client would use to collect and analyze pricing for their new system). Basically this is a giant pricing model that then gets hollowed out for vendors to fill.
My team built the model in about two weeks and presented it to the client, who had absolutely no expertise in pricing or excel modeling. He was a crusty, old broadcast engineer turned executive. He took one look at the pricing book and shouted us out of the room! We sat there and endured two hours of him berating us about how he didn’t need a complex pricing book, how he felt this would confuse vendors, and how he just wanted a simple number. Needless to say, our team, full of digital supply chain and outsourcing experts (and me, the non-expert at anything), was incensed. Back in the team room, we all groused about how of course he needed it, but how he just didn’t know it. We all agreed that we had the worst client ever (Which, of course we didn’t. He was a really nice guy.).
So we went back to the drawing board. We met with the client for hours every week, and built the model from the ground up. Our first meeting started with us sitting down in a room with him and discussing what the fixed and variable costs of the system might be. Once we met, we’d build a new layer of complexity into the pricing book. Over the next six weeks, we met for so many hours and so many discussions that they all blur together. After countless iterations, we ended up with a pricing book that looked almost identical to the one we’d built in two weeks. The difference was that this time, we brought the client along for the ride. Instead of giving him the finished product, without any context, we went on a journey together. We built both context and understanding for why he needed the tool, and how he could use it.
The team already knew the answer, and it wasn’t hard to build. The hard part, and the part of consulting that is more art than science, was bringing the client along with us. Even though it’s tempting to just build something and drop it in your client’s lap, the most effective consultants always take their clients on a journey, one that involves a few bumps along the way, to help them build their own internal knowledge around why we’re doing something a certain way, and how that works in reality. This key insight, that it’s not about the answer, is one that I always try to highlight to prospective consultants, both in and out of business school. Consulting is a both a thought business and a client services business, and a great consultant understands both parts.