Consulting Complexities: The Commercialization of Service

This post on the tension between doing our work and managing our businesses is the second in our series that looks at what interferes with our capacity to serve, even in the face of our best intentions. It speaks mostly to external consultants though internal consultants experience similar tensions between service to a client unit and the pressure to implement the wishes of top management. Future posts will get into other complexities that undermine service. Winding up the series will be some thoughts on what to do.

When we offer a service primarily because clients want it, we have chosen commerce over care.

One factor making consulting work complex is the tension between delivering service and attending to the business of the consulting unit. When consulting becomes a business first and a service second, something fundamental about the work is changed. Most of us began our consulting work because we were attracted to a set of ideas and trained in a set of skills. We also wanted to make a living. It wasn’t until we became successful that we got caught between commerce and care.

There is an inherent strain between the economic demands of a consulting practice and the care we wish to offer to the client. Care comes when we can customize our service for each client, when something new is created with each client. The consultant’s promise is most accurately fulfilled when the person selling the work is the person doing the work. This way the client knows exactly who will be doing the work after making the decision to proceed. Care is delivered when we foster the client’s capacity to design their own changes and when the client is not dependent on us. In a practice based on care, each client becomes important, and the marketing strategy is basically to do good work.

Consulting becomes commercialized when the service gets standardized and becomes a product to be marketed. The economics of a service business drive you in the direction of standardized or packaged service. Salaries are the major cost item, and one way to reduce labor costs is to make the service uniform and predictable. It takes a very experienced, and therefore high-cost, consultant or staff person to be able to create a strategy and service for each particular client. It takes a lot of experience for one person to be able to conceptualize the project, sell the project, manage the project, and do the work. One way to solve this dilemma is to, in effect, package the service so lower-cost, less experienced people can do the work and manage the project. Then you only need highly experienced people in the front end of the project, doing the selling.

Many consulting firms and internal staff groups divide themselves into those who sell the work, those who manage the work, and those who do the work. As the overhead costs of the consulting unit come under increasing pressure, the drive to build sales and make repeat sales within each client organization becomes intense. At some point, the success of the practice gets measured by standard business criteria—annual growth, margin, earnings, return on capital. At this point, commerce has become dominant over care.

The shift from care to commerce can occur in any size firm or staff unit. It often just happens, rather than being something we anticipated. It happens when what we do works, and it happens in many professions. Physicians, architects, and lawyers, for example, often find themselves driven more by the economics than the professional objectives of their practice.

The inherent pressure is to make a business out of a profession. We worry about how to create growth opportunities so we can keep good people. We believe we need a large group to offer a full range of services and to take on really big change efforts, and it takes money to support more services. Plus the culture places a high premium on economic success.

But the commercialization of our profession is more a mind-set than a requirement of growth. It is a question of purpose and focus, and that is why it becomes an ethical obligation to settle the tension between commerce and care in favor of the best interests of the client.