Your Clients And Their Data: A Horror Story?

The mess of your clients' data is not always a bad thing.

Here's an uncomfortable truth for management consultants: 99% of your clients will have trouble with their data.

Everybody talks about big data and the growth of predictive analytics. But the moment you start asking your client for information, it becomes clear how big of a mess it is to collect and aggregate even their most basic numbers and customer information.

It might sound counterintuitive, but I believe this to be one of the main reasons management consultants are hired in the first place. As John Kim said, "it is often because the data is difficult to find, that the client has not really solved the problem yet."

The Heavy But Necessary Work

The two most common challenges I see when collecting data are:

  1. The consultant needs to hunt the people who own it; and
  2. The consultant needs to spend time and energy to uncover good data due to flawed (or the lack of) internal processes.

The first one is more frequent among clients with a large staff. Sometimes you know where the data you need is. But you need to spend days (or even weeks) to get the right people to handle it to you.

By the way, this is something that became an even bigger problem with the rise of remote work. Several friends who are operations consultants mentioned that they often went to the client site just to get the information they needed faster. Now they need to wait, which adds up to the client's final cost.

The second challenge is the need to dig for good data. I don't have any statistics to back it up but my impression is that the older the company, the more dispersed and polluted the data is. This can happen for many reasons:

  • Their tech stack and IT systems are not integrated or being used correctly. It's easier to customize some fields or ignore important features than to change the current process. The root cause is usually the process, not the tool.
  • There are legacy processes in place, like the use of paper forms or manual data entry. This creates poor, incomplete, or duplicated data that you will need to clean.
  • As always, there are people's problems. Sometimes, the responsibility of maintaining clean and updated data is not assigned to a specific person - so nobody does it. Or people lack the analytical skills to do it.

Clients will come up with all kinds of excuses to justify the data mess. What matters is, as long as they don't invest resources to fix it they will continue to pay a lot of money for the manual task of getting their data cleaned, validated, and updated.

Insight, Not Data

Important: What your clients are looking for is insight, not data.

This means that, apart from cleaning and validating data, we consultants need to know how to:

  • Ask for the right data: When we don't know what we're doing, we might be tempted to ask the client for "everything you have". This is onerous for the client and troublesome for you. One of the outcomes of your initial diagnosis should be to narrow down what the root causes of the problem might be, so you can request only the data you need.
  • Find new data: Sometimes you might need to uncover or create new data to solve a problem. Learn how to use surveys, interviews, focus groups, workshops, models, and benchmarks. And get ready to use them if needed.
  • Transform that data into insight: Data by itself is useless. You need to clean, sort, and standardize it to turn it into information. The information then gets analyzed, and the most valuable part of it gets polished and presented as insights.

Remember that your goal is to improve the client's condition. The messier their data is, the more likely you are to find life-changing insights and huge sources of value to be unlocked. But you better be ready to get your hands dirty.

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