Kevin Appleton’s advice on choosing a consultant

By Kevin Appleton23 April 2014

Kevin Appleton, managing director of Yusen Logistics UK.

Kevin Appleton, managing director of Yusen Logistics UK.

Understand the nature of your problems – strategic or operational? - before appointing a consultant, writes Kevin Appleton.

Now I have a confession to make. I have been a consultant. Indeed I sometimes do consulting even now. It’s a secret I try to keep from my friends, but it’s bound to get out soon, and I’m worried about what they might think of me. I mean… a consultant! They’re the guys that borrow your watch so they can tell you the time, and then send you a bill, and tell you that if the time they gave you was wrong it’s only because your watch provided useless data. And so the stories go on.

Does it ever make sense to hire a consultant? If it does, under what circumstances and what kind of consultant?

Business healers

The first thing to ponder is that in the English speaking world only two classes of people are commonly called ‘consultant’. One group are specialist doctors and the other group are people who are supposed to help companies. I don’t think that this is an accident.

Business consultants are theoretically about diagnosing problems and helping find cures, in just the same way that a medical consultant is about diagnosing an illness, based upon the presented symptoms, and then recommending a course of treatment.

Understanding the importance of this similarity really matters, because a lot of bad experiences with consultants are caused by picking the wrong type. You wouldn’t go to a consultant heart specialist with a knee cartilage problem.

Get the right doctor

All business issues can be boiled down into two basic areas – strategy and operations. These are confused and misused terms, but it maybe helps to think about the big strategic question being “are we doing the right things?”, while the big operational question is “are we doing the things that we do efficiently and effectively?”

You will notice the difference between the two is that the strategic question (theoretically) assumes no boundaries, while the operational question (implicitly) accepts that there are certain givens (“what we do”) and our job is just to be as effective as we can within that constraint.

So if we are losing market share due to having a rental offer, in terms of equipment or information, which is out of date and we respond by hiring an operational consultant to sharpen the efficiency of our hire desk operation, we have hired the wrong kind of help.

Management need to be sufficiently aware of their own market and company as to be able to form a judgement on whether their problems (or opportunities) are principally strategic or operational in nature.

In the example just given, a more efficient hire desk operation will not fundamentally alter the fortunes of a business with fleet that is just wrong for the needs of today’s market. At best the consultant is putting a dressing on a wound which will just get worse and worse.

The opposite can also apply of course. A basically well-set-up business can be underperforming due to some operational inefficiency. If you then hire a strategic consultant to look at the business they (the consultant) will not have the skill set (or in many cases even the interest) to see whether basic process execution is responsible for underperformance.

You will get a set of recommendations saying that the business is fundamentally sound in terms of market position (along with a couple of irrelevant observations about tiny areas that can be improved – they need to show they’ve earned their fee), and no clear action plan of how to improve performance.

Above all consultants need to be introduced only once management themselves have an inkling of what is making their business ill, and how it might be improved. In just the same way as patients who know and understand the messages of their own body are more likely to receive appropriate treatment, so it goes with management and their companies.

The author: Kevin is former CEO of Lavendon Group plc and former Divisional Chairman of Travis Perkins plc. He is currently Managing Director of Yusen Logistics UK Ltd, non-executive Chairman of Horizon Platforms Ltd , non-executive director at Ramirent Oyj and non-executive director of the Freight Transport Association. To comment on these articles please email: IRNfeedback@khl.com

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