What on earth does consultants do?

My understanding, to put it simply, is that they are professional advice-givers.


A grammar consultant could help you with the title to this thread. :smiley:

We do the work the clients don’t want to do or for which they can’t afford the risks, Health and Safety costs, training, expertise and so on.

In my particular field (environmental consulting), we have as clients, members of oil and gas companies, military, and state and local government, just to name a few. We write contingency plans, do clean-ups of contaminated sites, inspections of closed sites, sampling etc.

Many times, and depending upon the project, it is less costly, and less of a risk (think OSHA and worker safety for instance) for an agency to hire a consulting firm to perform these tasks than to hire, train and outfit their own department with the appropriate equipment and education.

Consultants provide expert advice and services to a company on (usually) a short term basis. The company benefits from the arrangement because they don’t have to go through the hiring process nor provide benefits to the consultant. The company is essentially buying the temporary services of another company’s experts.

Consultants are sometimes hired as part of a contract arrangement with the service provider and therefore sometimes referred to as contractors, although I find this term a little misleading. Contract employee would be better, if you don’t like consultant.

At least I think that’s what they are. I’m going to be one this coming Monday so I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Asking “What do consultants do?” is sort of like asking “what do engineers do?” or “what do workers do?”

A consultant is basically someone you hire to do something you need done, but don’t have enough of to do that you’d be willing to hire a full time employee. It would be really stupid to hire someone for $60,000 a year plus benefits if you could get the same job done for $25,000 in consulting fees, without benefits.

For instance, a lot of companies that need ISO 9001 registration will hire a consultant to implement it. If you’re a small company, like 25 people, you simply don’t need a full time employee to run your quality system. It would be retarded to waste the pay of a full time employee on something that might take 2, 3 days of work a month, tops. So you hire someone to only work 2, 3 days a month. That’s a consultant. Or if you need a new business system implemented, you hire an IT consultant to work on it for six months and then you get rid of him. If it doesn’t take full time hours, you don’t hire a full time person, you hire a consultant.

Simple enough?

You have it pretty well defined as professional advice givers. More technically, a consultant has some type of expertise (it could be anything) and sells advice on his/her field of expertise as a service. The expertise could be a broad field like management or a very specific field like executive compensation or installing a specific type of machine. This definition is adapted from Peter Block’s book, Flawless Consulting, which gives a pretty good overview of both internal and external consultant roles, if you’re interested in learning more.

A lot of times consultants get the assignment of “we know something isn’t right, we just don’t know what.” The consultant reads through the procedure manuals, talks to employees to find out just how closely the manuals are actually followed and compares the results against “best management practices” in that particular industry. Sometimes management is too close to the problem to accurately diagnose it; sometimes a company needs an outside party to tell it management is the problem.

I remember one client who read our report, fired us, then went ahead and implemented our recommendations. Yeah, we got paid for the work, but didn’t get that long-term contract that would have actually made a profit for us.

There are various types of consultants. I assume you are talking about management consultants like the type you might find at McKinsey, Accenture or Deloitte.

Essentially, yes, consultants are professional advice givers. The nature of that advice varies from firm to firm. Some (like McKinsey) provide strategy consulting. Others (like Accenture or CSC) aid in the implementation of technology. Firms like Deloitte and Bearingpoint have their roots in Big-6(now 4) accounting. Hewitt focuses on HR and benefits. My firm predominantly deals with troubled (as in bankrupt or getting sued) companies.

This advice generally does not come out of the consultants ass. Typically a consulting firm will spend time gathering data - industry data, company financial data, interviews (like the Bobs from Office Space), etc, etc. They take that data and compare it against other data - industry benchmarks, trends, and so on - and write up a set of recomendations. Sometimes those recomendations just end up in a binder on some clients bookcase. Sometimes the client might have them actually implement those recomendations.

Sometimes the recomendations don’t work for a number of reasons. The client chooses to ignore them, the consulting firm misinterpreted the problem or the firm tried to pigeonhole the client into a solution that wasn’t appropritate for their organization.

Consulting is a fairly grueling and competitive profession. Travel can be excessive - up to 100% of the time. Hours are often long and clients are usually pretty demanding. Compensation is usually pretty good, especially at the top firms (generally considered to be McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group) however many of these firms are extraordinarily difficult to get hired at. Other firms not so much. Backgrounds tend to be diverse but advanced degrees like MBAs are common. Turnover is generally high.

I am a consultant in business systems analysis. What other people said is basically correct. The one thing that might distinguish consultants for you is that we tend to work on projects although those projects can be lengthy. If a company wants a fancy website built and needs it to tie into a bunch of complex systems they might get a team of people like me with lots of project experience and specialized skills to do it. Even big companies don’t often have the experience in house to do really complex things. We often work under a project manager that tracks everything closely and makes sure that the right people are in place and tasks are carefully divided down so that a large project can come together on schedule.

In some ways however, we are just highly paid temps and all large companies seem to have some in those roles. I have never really figured out why. I have known lots of contract consultants that seem just like employees and have been at the place for many years in some cases. I have been at my current job for 9 months and it is turning that way for me. As a matter of fact, they are going to hire me soon but the company I consult for in a consulting company itself so I don’t know what to make of that.

I’ve been a consultant for about 6 years now in the computer industry (specializing in backups and storage primarily).

Say you have a problem - you dont know what time it is. You ask the consultant, and the consultant will ask you for your watch, tell you what time it is, and then put the watch in his pocket and walk off.

ok so its a cynical view, but I got a kick out of it when my manager told me that!

Two things consultants do well - fit in and sell. A lot of people that don’t consult think consultants are paid to come in and tell people what to do. If you don’t do that with a certain amount of sensitivity, you’ll never have another client. I used to manage consultants and had guys who didn’t catch on to this. One walked into a client and demanded to know “what idiot had implemented this stupid ip address structure” (the client…we were asked to pull him out that afternoon…it possibly wouldn’t have been so bad, but he wasn’t there to fix their IP address structure, which they were perfectly happy with, he was supposed to be doing application integration.)

The other thing good consultants do well is not take it personally. I sized up more than one situation, made a darn good recommendation, and then helped implement something far more stupid than my own idea. I also took the fall more than once for dumb things because I was the consultant - easier to pin the blame on me and send me out the door than try to pin it on the real employee that made the decision.

That would be a pretty terrible consultant.

A true consultant would proceed to conduct interviews of a representative sample of decisionmakers and industry leaders in order to determine recent trends in telling time. He would then produce several diagrams demonstrating how paradigm shifts in time telling have affected productivity along multiple axis.

Ideally we would want to establish a repeatable process for not only telling time be for diseminating that information throughout the organization. We would want to view a 4 quadrant diagram of which timekeeping method would be most effective in empowering the organization.

I might recommend facilitating a number of workshops with key employees to reach a consensus on affecting change throughout the organization. We should establish a timekeeping owner to serve as a gatekeeper within the organization for establishing protocols and procedures…

The value in a consultant is that they have already acquired the expertise, knowledge, and skills necessary to perform a specialized job or skill. It might cost an organization twice as much in time, money, and resources to train or hire someone to perform a job that will only take 6 months. It’s cost-efficient to bring in a consultant to perform the job who carries with them the training and experience already built in to the price.

I’m a business analyst for a software development firm. While we do help people determine their needs for software and automating business processes, we also just help people figure out how it is they do what they do. Often, a company may not fully understand the organization and structure of its own processes and workflows. Having an objective third party make observations about the way things are structured can give valuable insight that helps streamline processes and introduce efficiency. It makes sense to have someone not directly involved in the processes creating the documentation to avoid any bias that might arise from internal sources, and also to get a ‘forest’ perspective rather than just that of the ‘trees’.

So I’m not the only one who said “Do!” before opening the thread? Thank god. :stuck_out_tongue: I can’t help it…I assess student writing for a living.
Diamonds02, If you want an even more cynical view of what consultants do than silk1976 offered, Office Space is on sale this week at Best Buy.

Oh, I forgot. One definition of a consultant is anybody with an attache case more than 100 miles from home. :slight_smile:

Since the OP has been answered, I will just chime in with the line from Dilbert, IIRC. “It is a contraction for con and insult the client”

Bwahahahaha. Well said sir.

Three years ago my company hired me to be a consultant at a factory. My company sells all the tooling and I provide inventory management and the expertise of what to use and how to make the customer run better, faster and cheaper. I go to the customer’s factory 8 hours a day and see my boss once every couple of months and collect my check.

The huge downside is I’m the whipping boy for everything that goes wrong. I “work” there but I don’t. It’s a wierd feeling.

Lots of good answers and information here already (best by msmith537). Another aspect of the equation is that the hiring company gets the ‘right’ to throw just about any problem at the consultant, and the consultant has to deal with it. I did a little bit of consultancy in my own specialised field (IT industry tech writing and documentation) and that was basically the tone of the deal: “okay, we’re paying you a bit more than we would pay a regular employee, and for that we get the right to fill this toilet with every (documentation) problem and snafu we’ve ever had or can drea mup and to shove your head in it and pull the chain as often as we like”. I actually quite enjoyed the ‘challenge’ aspect of the job, and the awareness that I was expected to have sufficient experience and expertise to deal with anything that they wanted to throw at me.

This is true. Anyone who says “not in my job description” would make a horrible consultant. I actually had to tell this to one of our new hires (for some odd reason every new hire I didn’t personally interview sucks). He said delivering some package “isn’t part of his job” and was a “favor”. I told him “your JOB is to help the company and it’s clients in whatever capacity you can. As you are unstaffed (on “the beach” in consultant jargon), you can best assist by showing your willingness to contribute.”