Consultants Have a Shelf Life

Consultants Have a Shelf Life

Leslie Kendall, a consultant/friend who works to identify and eliminate critical problems that limit businesses and not-for-profits success, recently told me “consultants have a shelf life.” I had two reactions:

  • Visceral: That’s not right; and
  • Delayed: There’s a lot of truth to the concept.

That’s Not Right

I have friends who have been successful consultants for decades. One may have tried to help John Wanamaker determine which half of his advertising budget was ineffective.

My initial thought: consultants don’t have a shelf life… or at least they don’t need to.

Most consultants with long-term success seem to have a core practice area (such as manufacturer-retailer partnerships) that they regularly update to fit their clients’ current needs, industry fads, and the latest tools, techniques and jargon.

There’s a Lot of Truth to the Shelf Life Concept

  •  Consulting services have a shelf life.

While it may seem hard for consultants to believe, clients may no longer desire their services because the clients’ needs have changed beyond the consultant’s capabilities or brand.

For example, a consultant may have been extremely profitable selling cost reduction before their core clients decided that it is time to build revenue.

Remember Y2K: in four to five years, an entire consulting industry developed to take advantage of the hysteria…and went away.

  • Consulting relationships have a shelf life.

The most successful consultants, meaning those most successful for both themselves and their clients, I know have a mixture of:

  • Knowledge and track record,
  • Gravitas and hubris, and
  • Natural relationship building skills

Regardless, most long-term clients drop consultants at least partially because relationships deteriorated over time.

  • Consulting clients have a shelf life.

Even long-term clients:

  • May find someone with apparently a better capability to fulfill his or her needs.
  • May no longer be employed, have a budget to tap or have the responsibility or authority to select consultants.
  • Consulting categories have a shelf life.

Is this the decade of the large/brand name strategy firm, the boutique specialist, cost be damned/need the best, or good enough is good enough?

If a consulting firm’s style/brand is out of favor, it needs to adapt and reposition itself or risk being irrelevant and unsuccessful.

Yes, Consultants Have a Shelf Life.

It seems that Leslie is at least partially right.

Quoting What to Fix by Daniel Markham: “At three months, the honeymoon is up. Like milk, outsiders and consultants have a shelf life, and around three months you are becoming more one of the gang instead of an agent for change.” It’s worth clicking through to this interesting blog.

This does not mean the consultant gets fired, but his/her role may change over time, often becoming more comfortable but potentially less objective and impactful and delivering less value, which can accelerate how fast they reach their shelf life.

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