Are Consultants Heroes or Horrors?

I like to think that consultants are heroes.

Recently Scott Consulting took care of a situation where a company’s old NetWare server failed because of a bad power supply. One of our consultants went onsite, installed a new NT server, and loaded up FPNW and GSNW on it. FPNW -- File and Print Services for NetWare -- allows an NT server to pretend to be a NetWare 3.n server. GSNW -- Gateway Services for NetWare -- allows an NT server to be a NetWare 3.n client and to provide "pass-through" file sharing to an existing NetWare server.

After we got the NT server to act as a NetWare server, the client’s client machines had a home again. Next, our consultant disconnected the hard drive from the failed NetWare machine, temporarily installed it in one of the workstations, and copied all the data from it onto the NT server. The final step was changing the client’s clients, one by one, from NetWare to NT.

When we arrived, the company was shut down and its data hopelessly lost. By the time we finished, the customer was back up and running with a new network and the old data intact.

This was a hero story. We had hands-on know-how and we applied our expertise to solve a difficult problem -- perhaps even saving a business. We have lots of hero stories and they make me feel good.

Meanwhile, I had a conversation with an old ex-DEC buddy in a parking lot a few weeks ago. Ex-DEC people share a common bond and we can’t help talking about the good ol’ days, reliving war stories. This time, my buddy had a consultant horror story to tell.

A large consulting firm had finished a multimillion dollar study about what to do with their old PCs. The conclusion -- replace them with new PCs because the old PCs would likely have Y2K problems.

Well, duh! How many months and millions of dollars did it take for these goofballs to figure that out? And, more important, why can’t I get work like that?

I’ll bet we stood under that tree and talked for over an hour about the committees, diplomats, and bureaucrats who spent so much time and money studying that issue. Even after spending millions for such an obvious recommendation, they still couldn’t agree on how to replace those PCs.

I’d love to rub the other consulting company’s nose in its horror story, but, unfortunately, I have a few of my own. We had a situation recently in which one of our consultants spent lots of time with a customer over roughly four months. The result was supposed to be a design document for their ultimate network and a plan to complete the project. We never delivered either of those documents. Instead, we attended meeting after meeting, made a bunch of recommendations about application software packages, helped write an RFI to several vendors, and handled a bunch of technical support issues. Now, there’s no more money for consulting left in their budget, but we still owe them the documents.

Whoops! Looks like we get to eat some more free time.

What’s the difference between hero and horror stories? Hero stories seem to take place when the customer’s pain from maintaining the status quo becomes greater than the pain of change, and we immediately apply our expertise to take care of it. In every success story we’ve had, the customer was involved and engaged along the way. Although we led the effort, we stayed in close touch and made sure the customer was part of the delivery team.

Every horror story is the opposite. Either the problem was not urgent in the customer’s mind after all, or the customer somehow became disengaged from the process.

Make your situation a hero story. If you’re a customer, like it or not, you must remain involved with your consultants. You cannot completely outsource responsibility without a mechanism for oversight. If you do, the consultants will get off-track, most likely due to honest but misguided intentions.

If you’re a consultant, insist that your customer stay involved. Put together at least weekly, and sometimes daily, status reports and become fanatical about communicating with your customer. You’re the consultant and it’s up to you to manage the engagement. It’s tempting to put in time and send a bill for the hours you spent, and it’s easy to bury yourself in technology. But if you fall into this trap, sooner or later the customer will wake up and throw you out. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.