David Maister wrote a powerful essay, more than 20 years ago, titled "The Problem Of Standards". It's a piece I recommend every consulting partner to read in its entirety, but here's how it starts:
Technology is potentially wonderful, but professional firms will never capture its benefits because there is no point in giving advanced tools to a group of people who do not have the discipline to do the basics.
If you really want to get the commercial benefits of any strategy, you must put in a system that forces you to execute that strategy. The tragedy is that they will not accept accountability for standards. Giving them technology is like giving a machine gun to a baby. You first teach the baby that there are certain standards to live by, and only then can you give them the advanced tools.
I see this in nearly every training engagement I deliver to small consulting firms. Here are a few examples.
Consultants say they are committed to client satisfaction, but how many of you have a system where you regularly ask clients for feedback at the end of every project? How many of you share those results, with the name of the relevant partner, with everybody in the firm?
Consultants say they care about their clients, but how many of you regularly read their press releases, news, or newsletters? Not all your clients, just your biggest ones.
Consultants say they are growth-oriented and always learning, but how many of you are investing time in writing articles, speaking in public, or doing any kind of initiative to create IP or build visibility for the firm? Are you willing to kick off one of your partners who haven't written a line in 10 years?
The thing is: We like to preach values and high standards of quality, but most firms don't actually enforce those standards.
As Maister puts it,
We preach client service, we preach supervision, we preach collaboration, but which ones do we actually enforce? None of them - because different people have different strengths and therefore we try to understand each other. It’s a wonderful environment. You can do what you want and as long as you cover the basics you are left alone. You do things your way and nobody ever bothers you.
There's nothing wrong with having no quality standards. Most consultants work like this. But it is stupid to keep running your firm pretending you are going to shine when you know you don’t have the discipline to do it.
If you know you don’t have the discipline, stop hiring training for skills you won't put into use. Don't waste time with strategic planning sessions when all you want to do is bill enough to fund your lifestyle and do your job. Enjoy the choice you have made.
You get no benefit by preaching anything. You get the benefit of that which you actually do.
“You keep getting seduced by consultants like me who come in and develop the next strategic slogan or the next branding or the next positioning because you think that as long as you just announce it you’ll get the benefit. You get no benefit by announcing anything. You get the benefit of that which you actually do. I’m sorry that it’s so intellectually trivial but it’s a lesson most of you still need to learn. You get the benefit of that which you actually do, not that which you encourage. Just don’t pretend. You pretend to have a commitment to client service, you pretend to have a commitment to supervision and you pretend that your partners are energetic. Your partners are not energetic—they’re asleep. And pretending gets you nothing.
The way you make money in business is not to be good at managing the money. The way you get money in business is that you decide what you want to compete on, whether it’s quick delivery at McDonald’s or fabulous cooking for some cuisine connoisseur or whatever it is. You don’t have to be McDonald’s and you don’t have to be the best restaurant in town, but you had better decide which you want to be, and once you’ve decided which it is you want to be, the key to making the money is enforcing the standards appropriate for that choice. The thing that makes the money is not the money. The money is an outcome of how high your standards are. He or she who has the highest standards wins.”
Source: David Maister
Buyers were asked to reflect back on the past few times they purchased professional services. 18% of buyers reported service providers being late to meetings, and 30% reported that the provider did not respond to their requests in a timely manner.
If these are the standards for client delivery, imagine what those numbers would look like for strategy or business development work.
What are the standards that you actually enforce in your consultancy?
Forget about what you preach and highlight in your value propositions. What are the standards that, if your team or collaborators do not follow, will lead to their immediate fire from the work? What are the standards that you enforce for yourself in your business?
You gain nothing by fooling yourself. If you want to see consistent, above-average results in your work, you need to set and enforce higher standards than the average boutique firm.