Our term for the sickness which is pervasive among the largest corporations in America. It begins with a handshake approval from one of the principals, then blossoms into full-blown giddiness when, months later, the consultant hands over a gigantic, beautifully crafted presentation booklet with their right hand while taking astronomical fees with their left hand. And during the final presentation, most employees are afraid to question their findings or motives. Another clear case of documentitis.
This is an all too common scenario for many of the country’s largest and most successful corporations when they hire some of the country’s largest and most successful consulting firms to handle what are typically considered “global” issues.
Just like some firms think they need to hire advertising agencies only from Madison Avenue so they can rub shoulders with big leaguers, too many of the nation’s largest corporations are addicted to hiring only the big league consulting firms. What they typically get in return is not a good return, but frequently a complex set of findings which might have been used, with critically placed cosmetic changes, in a presentation to a different client two weeks earlier.
Using boilerplate opening sections in entirety while changing out the names and situational analyses to fit their client (and fool them into thinking they’re receiving a totally customized report), it is usually far from it, yet the gigantic costs don’t reflect that reality. Probably the best known consulting firm in the past three decades is now known to only take engagements if the fees are at least a cool $1 million. A good gig if you can get it.
So, here’s how it works. Client A has an ongoing product or service challenge that they need outside help to solve. Why do they go outside for this help? The typical company answer: “Our managers don’t have the kind of time this requires because they’re consumed by running their businesses. And that’s what they were hired to do. Plus we need an outsider’s objective viewpoint.” Into the executive suite walks the consultancy’s two principals, with rock solid presentation skills, and the sale is made. Often, there’s no sale to be made, because the CEO has already agreed to hire them. Why? It’s all about the prestigious association that comes with hiring them. One huge consulting firm hired by one huge corporation. And just before putting on the 15th hole, the CEO can happen to mention, “Yeh, XYZ company’s coming in to help us align our strategy. Our staff has done a nice job of fine-tuning each of the product strategies, but we just need an outside voice to make sure they all work together. You know our staff won’t ever get around to agreeing with each other on that, right, so we need an outsider’s perspective. We thought we should get the best.” Said matter of factly, with a shade of pride, but inside an all-out “gotcha” bragging rights mentality.
The initial problem is that typically the youngest, most recently minted MBAs are the ones who enter your hallowed doors, laptops in hand, super star future in their brains, and infest your cubicles for the next few weeks, sometimes months, bringing with them an adeptness at Excel and PowerPoint, but no real world business expertise. At all.
They get to work, and over the time they’re in your offices they rack up ongodly numbers of hours, blowing away even those clients who were supposed to be tightly monitoring their time spent. When you bring that up, your boss quickly puts it down, stating flatly, “You’ve got to let them spend the time to really get to know our business because they’re going to look at it from so many strategic angles that these hours will begin to make sense. Just give them plenty of runway. They’ll do a great job.” Notice the word “strategic”. The most overused term in corporate America, but it gets them every time.
OK, when all of this wraps up, the principals are back to finish with a flourish. During the presentation, you can even tell they must have gone through the data only a couple of days earlier, because they really don’t seem to have a full grasp of what they’re presenting. But, oh, the charts look so good, dazzling, even amazing. What you don’t realize is that these same exact charts were developed for other clients before you, and your company’s name was simply inserted along with other cosmetic changes to make it seem that they really know their stuff. You can even hear the CEO in the hallway right after the presentation mentioning to both of the principals: “Pretty impressive. Guess you guys have been around the block a few times.“ Yes, they have. And you’ve just been “boilerplated”. Fooled by the giant consulting firm into believing that the often hundreds of thousands of dollars your company spent was money well spent, with you even spearheading the assignment! Impressive presentation, beautiful leave behind booklet.
But let’s look at the Executive Summary they presented rather quickly. It’s typically chock full of an excessive number of recommended next steps which sound all too complex but actually explain very little and are not usually actionable by any means. Also, on purpose. They’ll get another assignment right behind this one: to clarify these findings (so everyone will understand what it all means!). Unfortunately, it’s often a one-time hit-and-run escapade of get in, do some work, make the presentation, leave an impressive leave behind, get paid and get out of there – leaving clients with a 300-page document that will take hours and hours to read, much less decipher and understand.
And that booklet? The spearheader, with all good intentions, starts out by trying to read it in the first two days after the presentation but, again unfortunately, is distracted by the day-to-day grind of managing his lines of business. The document, still largely unread, eventually is moved to the side of his desk, then his credenza, then eventually is filed away. And all the attendees have moved off to their offices and the task of managing their lines of business. Our opinion is that most of the time the booklets are never ever read. By anyone.
And so ends our little story of how the huge consultancy got away with it one more time. And the client corporation is guilty one more time of documentitis, sadly addicted to the use of under-delivering, over-charging consultants.
At Spearfish, we don’t hand out presentation booklets, but we can guarantee that every assignment is handled with a totally customized approach, and every conclusion is unique to that client and that assignment.
And every recommended action is clear, easy to digest, and highly actionable. We like to tell our clients that if they insert our action steps into their marketing plan immediately, it will start paying dividends by Tuesday. We are that confident in our findings because they are based on real-time feedback from real consumers who are honest and direct so we can show that same honesty and directness with our clients. And it’s all about confidence in the findings.
Fortunately, our confidence is based on real consumer feedback, not overly polished boilerplate report booklets.
The end result is that our clients benefit immediately from our reports. The big, bad consultants sometimes get fired, like the largest consultancy in the world did, when my clients from Frito-Lay discovered, because it was there in plain sight, that the reports for Ruffles and Lay’s seemed very similar. Because they were essentially identical, with just the names and a few details changed in this case, not successfully, to protect the not-so-innocent.
Our advice to you is this. When you hire the big name consultants, just realize what you’re getting. Ask the principals to check in with you periodically to report the status of the project and, hopefully, the progress that’s been made. Force them to ensure that the time you’re paying for is for time they’re spending on your business, not the time they’ve spent accumulating knowledge on someone else’s, disguised as customized findings on yours.
And, remember, don’t stand too close to these consultants.
Because you may catch a case of documentitis.