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9 Impeachable Consulting Firm Offenses

Whatever your political leanings, you don’t want your consulting firm to lean into a bad reputation. The guardrails below will help.

Great consultants come in all political stripes, from those who like nuts in their brownies to those who believe only nut-free brownies represent their values to those who don’t like brownies at all.*

You and other consulting firm leaders may disagree on personal, political views or professional consulting approaches. However, you and your fellow readers all agree on at least one thing:

You never want your consulting firm’s reputation or integrity to be deservingly questioned

Consulting projects occasionally go sideways. A consultant or client makes a mistake along the way, or client expectations aren’t met, or one client receives another client’s box of chocolate. (Sorry, Tom.)

It happens. Fortunately, a consulting misstep can be forgiven by your clients.

But what about transgressions that can’t be forgiven? What are those consulting sins?

You, as a consulting firm leader and experienced consultant, naturally remain a safe distance from the blazing line between right and wrong. However, someone on your team with less clarity than you or whose hunger to succeed overpowers their moral compass could put your consulting firm’s good name at risk.

Therefore, you’ll benefit from explicitly noting the behavior that’s totally unacceptable for your consulting firm.

The overall rule:
Your consulting firm should never act contrary to the best interests of your client

Below are some examples of misdeeds that fall beyond the bounds of pardonable errors.

9 Impeachable Consulting Firm Offenses

Delivering advice or recommendations that you know is incorrect to your consulting firm’s clients.

Accepting a project your consulting firm is grossly unqualified to tackle.

Misleading a client about what actions or steps they should take because it would benefit your consulting firm.

Spreading gossip or rumors about your consulting firm’s clients—the organizations or individuals.

Revealing confidential information that belongs to your client.

Taking “kickbacks” or personal rewards in return for presenting a certain recommendation that is best for an individual, but not the organization that hired you.

Earning referral fees without disclosing that fact to your client.

Recommending and/or employing an approach or process on a consulting project that has already proven to be faulty with multiple, past clients.

Behaving or speaking in any way that is racist, misogynistic, or derogatory toward other people.

You’ve probably seen an infraction or two in your time. Help other readers avoid unconscionable mistakes by adding to the list.

Are there other, unforgivable consulting firm offenses?

  1. Ben
    January 20, 2021 at 6:21 am Reply

    Ouch. It pains my soul that this stuff needs to be spelled out, as it’s all so obvious and instinctively right.

    Any we all know that, under pressure, stressed and torn between conflicting demands, humans don’t always step back from a decision in the moment, and judgement can get clouded.

    So it’s good and helpful to have clear, simple values and guidelines in writing, that everybody recognises, signs up to, and can fall back on it times of doubt.

    • David A. Fields
      January 20, 2021 at 6:35 am Reply

      You’re 100% right on both counts, Ben. It doesn’t feel like you should have to affix the “Don’t eat my Girl Scout cookies” note to the box hidden in your bottom desk drawer; but, studies show that explicitly reminding people of right and wrong will help them stay within ethical bounds.

      I appreciate you calling out those points, Ben.

  2. frank farone
    January 20, 2021 at 6:40 am Reply

    Thankfully, we have never committed any of those sins outlined above, not even close. Our core values of Quality, Integrity, Teamwork & Success are indelibly impressed in all of us and reinforced at every quarterly meeting with our team. Team members who exemplify our company values are recognized by their peers (and management) each quarter with stories of performing above and beyond consistent with our company values.

    • David A. Fields
      January 20, 2021 at 6:53 am Reply

      Frank, your firm’s culture (which, by the way, is highlighted in an episode of my soon-to-be-released podcast) underscores an important element of good behavior: stories. Aesop gave us the fables for that very reason.

      A few consulting fables, parables and true tales bandied about your consulting firm can make a huge difference.

      Thanks for offering your perspective, Frank!

  3. Jay Arthur
    January 20, 2021 at 10:06 am Reply

    According to various articles and videos I’ve seen:
    – 75% of reengineering projects failed
    – 75% of Big Data projects failed to return the investment
    – 66% of Six Sigma implementations failed
    – Over half of software development project fail. Agile software development was developed to help prevent these failures.

    Yet every consulting outfit keeps selling the same old blarney without examining their failures or simply blaming the client.
    At a conference I attended, one Six Sigma consultant admitted that a client spent $4 million with his company implementing Six Sigma without any ROI. That’s malpractice. (He seemed baffled by how that could happen.)

    Over the last two decades I’ve been doing root cause analysis on Six Sigma failures finding both process and software countermeasures to prevent failures and deliver results in a day or two. I integrated Agile concepts into Lean Six Sigma to create Agile Process Innovation. Improvement + innovation.

    Consultants can become mired in “old think.” It’s the curse of knowledge. It’s time to reexamine what we’re doing in service of our customers.

    • David A. Fields
      January 20, 2021 at 10:16 am Reply

      Jay, about a decade ago I spoke at a large, consulting conference during which one of the other speakers cried, “Consulting firms claim to introduce innovation, yet the consulting approach hasn’t seen any innovation in decades.” Ten years later, there’s still virtually no change in how consulting firms approach their projects and clients.

      You’re right. It borders on malpractice in many cases. Or, willful unwillingness to change. Thanks for adding your voice and statistics to the conversation, Jay!

  4. Ron Chapman
    January 20, 2021 at 10:23 am Reply

    These are great examples of sins against clients. But, there are also sins committed with consulting partners, sub-contractors or employees such as:
    1. Taking credit for the work of others on a project
    2. Using other consultants to strengthen your proposal and then not involving them beyond a minor role, if any, on the contract
    3. Using the intellectual property of others as your own
    4. Lowballing the fee to a sub and then cashing in on a large markup to the client

    Even if you treat clients properly and with respect, eventually how you treat those you work with will become known and reflect either positively or negatively on us and our firm.

    • David A. Fields
      January 20, 2021 at 12:36 pm Reply

      Terrific addition to the list, Ron, and a great new lens to add on. You’re absolutely right, there are plenty of egregious misdeeds a consulting firm can engage in that are never seen by the client. How a firm treats its staff and subcontractors is vitally important to the firm’s health, reputation and long-term fortunes.

      The first three sins you mention I’m 100% on board with. The fourth item you listed could make for an interesting conversation. Everyone’s entitled to set there own fees, and a firm’s (or subcontractor’s) ability to command a premium is on them. I don’t begrudge a firm for buying low and selling high.

      Regardless, you’ve added huge value to the discussion, Ron. Thanks!

    January 20, 2021 at 10:37 am Reply

    I fully agree with Ron Chapman’s comment about involving other consultants to strengthen proposals who are not going to be carrying out the actual work. Having managed RFP’s for several clients to select an appropriate consulting firm or service provider I was continually disappointed by firms that brought in senior partners to help make the sales pitch in the proposal process that were clearly not going to be involved in the project work. In a couple of cases, I became frustrated during the review process and had to insist on hearing from the individuals what would actually do the work, who were usually hidden at the bottom of the conference table!

    • David A. Fields
      January 20, 2021 at 12:40 pm Reply

      Being disingenuous with a client is either ill-advised or flat-out wrong.

      It’s possible to present an expert during a proposal phase and then, by the time the client gets around to signing, the expert is no longer available. That happens a lot with slow clients and in-demand SMEs.

      In contrast, it’s not okay to show off big names or senior people while pursuing an engagement if your firm has no intention to actually use those folks. That’s point well taken, Roger, and I appreciate you highlighting it.

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