It is precisely because both client and consultant "can lose sight of the brief" that Roger Empson believes consultants "would do well to get the brief very firmly written down. In my experience," he explains, "in at least two out of the three cases there were some very specific things which hadn't been written down." However, Empson is quick to add that clients must assume their own share of the responsibility for ensuring that a project is satisfactorily completed.
Top of Empson's personal checklist is securing a comprehensive brief. He adds several other caveats: beware of the smart salesman; clarify who will actually do the job (it is invariably not the initial contact); and establish how much the project will cost. In fact cost is sometimes at the root of client complaints about lack of definition in the original agreement. Since consultants certainly do not come cheap - the price tag for a senior consultant at one of the big firms can easily top £1,000 a day - an ambiguous brief can soon send the bills through the roof.
So why, with all of these perils, does anyone ever use a consultant? Apart from any specific expertise, clients stress the advantages of objectivity and added manpower. As Mike Smith explains: "The big benefit consultants bring is that they've got eight hours a day to deal with the problem." They also lack a vested interest in the client company itself and can therefore make recommendations unimpeded by any internal constraints. At its most negative, this may simply be a way of getting the consultant to do management's dirty work. In its more positive form it can be a sensible precaution, external confirmation being no bad thing where substantial investment is involved. In this respect consultancy is "like the sealed envelope game", thinks Elliott. "If an outsider says it, it must be right."
Ironically, however, as the trend for mergers, acquisitions and expansion goes full steam ahead, what clients want may be at odds with the goals of the profession. In a recent survey of 150 companies, carried out independently on behalf of Biait Associates, more than two thirds of respondents had complaints. Over half were based on costs, while, "of the three assignments priced at more than £100,000, two were regarded as failing the value-for-money test, one of these also being considered counterproductive".
Price was by no means the only sore point. Respondents indicated that the quality of the recommendations and knowledge of the client company were generally better at smaller consultancies than at the big-name firms.
Biait's findings are borne out by the observations of others. Though Roger Empson is dubious about the one-man bands which have sprung up with the recession, his most successful experience was with a small consultancy. The consultant "knew the company very well", he "was very clear about what we were trying to achieve" and he "revisited the project regularly". On this occasion Empson was a satisfied customer.
Mike Smith's view is similar. "A lot of the small consultancies which specialise in certain areas tend to be much more efficient," he thinks. They are getting "more professional" and they are certainly "more independent". He adds that next time he needs a consultant he may well go to one of the little guys instead.
For all the banging of drums at the big-name consultancies, the merits of the small specialist may still win the day. In any case, big or small, the consultant will only be able to help the client who puts in the commensurate effort. "I don't think clients can whinge about management consultants," says Empson. "They get what they deserve. Those who expect off-the-shelf solutions are in for a shock."
So, for that matter, are those who expect their management consultants to come pre-packaged. Calling in the consultants is a serious matter, and would-be clients should certainly shop around. They would also do well to remember that old Roman law, "caveat emptor".