Are You a Consultant OR a Contractor?

by Margo Boster

by Margo (Burnette) Boster and Mark Boster

One of our client who we will call Jane was concerned about how to deal with the new project manager, Dave (not his real name), who was hired to support their important clients.  Dave had impeccable credentials, valid experience, and “really knew his stuff”.  Everyone was happy to have Dave on the team.  Jane described how the client was “really messed up” and Dave was trying to help them.  Dave told the clients some things they were doing wrong and proceeded to implement new ways to do things.

Everything was going well for about 3 or 4 weeks when suddenly – wham! – the client said they no longer wanted Dave to work on the project.  What had gone wrong?  Dave couldn’t understand why his suggestions and experience weren’t appreciated.  Jane was uncertain how to handle the situation both with Dave and the client.

Jane and I talked about the difference in being a “Contractor” vs. a “Consultant”.

A contractor is hired to complete a job and produce deliverables; for example, a company hired to deliver a software system.  If the contractor sees that the direction the client gives will cause the client to “drive off the cliff”, they have an obligation to inform the client the challenges and risks that they perceive, and to offer alternative solutions.  If, however, the client understands the risks and makes the decision to proceed, then the contractor must continue as directed.  This does not mean that the contractor do anything illegal or unethical, but if it is simply what they perceive as “stupid decisions”, then once the contractor has taken reasonable means to inform and advice the client, they must continue as directed.

Think about the builder of your house.  If he/she doesn’t like the design of your house, you probably don’t really care.  You simply want them to build your house.

A consultant is hired to provide advice, for example, how to improve organizational performance or implement process improvement.  However, the decision still rests with the client.  The consultant provides advice; the client owns the decision.

Before proceeding to “fix” the client’s problem, the consultant needs to make certain what problem(s) they are being asked to address.  Then, the consultant should identify the information to review and an approach, provide an assessment of the situation, give perspective on risks, rewards, costs and returns, and make a recommendation for next steps.

Consider the architect of your house.  You are looking to the architect to tell you the best way to get all of the features and amenities in your house.  Again, they offer advice, but the design of the house is yours.

The builder is like the contractor; the architect is the consultant.

We also talked about presenting suggestions and insights, and when to back off.

You and your team were hired because the client believed you could help make them look good.  This likely means they were impressed with your credentials and past experience, and thought that you would be able to meet their needs.  They did not hire you to be embarrassed or made to feel stupid; hence, it is important to be aware of how to give your suggestions – and when to back off.

Dave might have reduced the client’s negative reaction had he been aware of the client’s overall needs and areas where they may be sensitive.  While technically Dave may have had the “best answer” the client probably had a larger universe of concern.  Had Dave first discussed his proposed approach with Jane or another team member, they could have offered a different perspective on the value of the recommendations as well as been attuned to the client’s general position.

Following are some suggestions for how to prevent Dave’s situation:

  • Make certain there is a clear understanding of expectations. The contractor / consultant needs to understand if the client wants advice for how to do things better, or if the client has decided upon their desired outcome and are looking for you to produce the deliverable.
  • If you are serving as a consultant, you need to address in written report(s) as well as verbal communications with the client your understanding of the situation, your approach to conducting the assessment including documents you reviewed and individuals with whom you talked, the risks and benefits, and your recommendation of next steps.
  • Regardless of contractor or consultant, it is important to accept and embrace that the decision rests with the clients. It is critical that you document the risks and alternatives, and how you have communicated them with the client.  This is not a CYA approach, but simply a good contracting action.
  • And finally, good training and coaching with your team members on how to present to clients / customers are key.  Your team must understand that even though they are an expert and highly qualified in their field, they must respect that client and demonstrate that respect.

Clients can find it challenging to be receptive when the “experts” come in to help.  For the “experts”, it can be challenging when one feels that their advice is not being taken, or that their clients continue to make what they believe are “stupid decisions”.

Both the contractor and the consultant offer value, yet it is important that the contractor / consultant and the customer / client understand the difference and the expectations.

What has your experience been?  Is there a time when you offered your suggestions that backfired?  Or is there a time when you wish you had offered your suggestions?  We’d love to hear from you.

  • Excellent advice! The level-setting needs to take place both with the project team as well as with the client – as both parties have to embrace their roles and responsibilities and accept the ground rules. Margo, I remember you gave a presentation to my team a few years back on this very topic, and it was a great eye-opener!

  • Thanks, Simona. I recall the presentation to your team – it is still relevant as I was just talking with a client (“Jane”) about this a couple of weeks ago. Yes, both parties need to remember the differences. I’ll be curious of suggestions that readers have to help the client understand.

  • Barbmays

    Margo: This is a good piece that clients would be wise to review prior to entering into a contrctor/consultant relationship. Barb

  • Thanks for the comment, Barb. Perhaps you can share the information with your colleagues who are entering into contractor / consultant relationship. I’d love to hear suggestions for how to reinforce it with the clients.

  • Great post. The topic is a very gray one but the rule of thumb and the rules for engagement provided are dead-on.

    One additional dimension to always consider is the staff-augmentation role versus project focused. Are you being brought in as an extra set of hands or to tackle a project? Dave sounds like he was the former as he was supporting clients and filling out staff. This dimension isn’t mutually exclusive with the contractor/consultant distinction, but it does impact the interactions with the client and how you advise the client.

  • Thanks for the comment, Laurence. You raise a good point about the staff-aug role. Interesting perspective on “Dave”.

  • Consultants are hired to provide advice but if you are looking for a hands-on person to shake your workforce into life and get their hands a bit dirty then you are more likely in need of a contractor. Someone that is hired especially for one purpose, usually to initiate new ways of working that benefit the company daily as well as overall. In this case, an organisation with access to hundreds of contractors, such as Von Essen Consulting, is what you need.

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