Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What Your Clients Think Of You, The Consultant

by: PSMJ's Public Works Project Management Consultant, Michael Ellegood, P.E.

Whenever I work with consultants, I am often asked how do our clients, particularly public agency clients, think of us in the private sector consultant world. Now, in fact, the attitudes vary depending on the agency and the consultant but generally speaking they usually fall within four groups:

• Na├»ve: “It came from the consultant, it must be right, no need to check it on this end”. This is usually from an inexperienced client who basically does not know how or what to check in a consultant’s submittal. Surprisingly, I have seen this in some large and otherwise competent agencies.

• Skeptic: “Consultants are merely vendors. They provide a necessary commodity but they are way too expensive, all over paid and have fancy overheads. They are just in it for the money and I don’t trust the b’tards.”
This comes most often from older clients who have had a bad previous experience with the consultant community. Sometimes, agency employees who have had salaries frozen for years will be jealous of the compensation of consultant employees. Many also do not understand how overhead is computed because public sector overhead is usually calculated much differently and, consequently, it is much lower.

• Competitor: “My guys can do it better but we are real busy so, I guess we are stuck with hiring a consultant.” I have seen this in many agencies, particularly those with a strong design capability. Caltrans, for example, is very proud of their past work and often keeps much work in house.

• Partner: “ The consultants we hire are an extension of staff, we all must work together for the common good”. This, of course, is ideal, it is often rare however, and consultants need to work to develop and maintain a “Trusted Advisor” status. Sometimes an agency and one or more consultants develop this relationship with the agency while other consultants working for the same agency never seem to get there. Sometimes agency engineers and consultant staff will form this relationship while the same agency’s accountants and procurement staffs remain in the skeptic category.

It is important but often difficult to remember that the world of the agency is much different and in many ways far more complex than the private sector arena. While the business model for the private sector can be summed up as: Find Work, Do Work, Get paid for the Work; the public sector business model defies definition. Basically it is “Follow the rules, even as they ever change; get ready for the auditors who are simply not motivated by you sense of urgency, avoid the press, they are not your friend; appease the politicians even as they push their favorite, but unneeded project; fight with other agencies especially the permitting people. Meanwhile and by the way, deliver the projects that you promised.

It is a complicated world that is not easy to understand until you have been in it for a while.

For more information on PSMJ's Public Works Project Management Bootcamp, click here.

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