Confessions of a Consultant: Inside Story

What the heck am I doing here? I kept asking myself why I even agreed to meet Christine under these circumstances. The cafe was dark, dingy, secluded and seemed like the kind of place where married men meet their mistresses or where shady deals go down. How did she even know of this place to begin with?

Anyhow, at least I don't have to worry about running into anyone from my social circle here. In the event that I do, they will be just as embarrassed as I am, so no need to worry about word getting out about me being at this establishment.

I checked my watch. Christine was 10 minutes late. From the corner of my eye I see a shadowy figure approaching my table. "Hey pretty lady, looking for company tonight?" he bellowed, his breath reeking of alcohol. "No thanks. My friend will be back soon" I retorted, trying to mask the fear I was feeling. Upon hearing this the figure slithered away, back into the dark recesses that he crawled from.

How many more of these scary, creepy figures will I have to fend off? I felt like Bambi; a prime target (literally and figuratively) in this den of wolves. I was just about to leave when I spotted Christine walking through the door. Finally!

She sat down, ordered a drink and then proceeded to tell me the sordid details and confessions of being a consultant at a firm that conducted evaluations. I was curious to know what was so scandalous that we had to met at a place on the wrong side of town. She explained that as an employee at a top consultancy firm, she could not risk being heard by any of her high profile clients.

Now settled, Christine began to speak of her "Most Despised Clients" list.

1. The client who expects the consultant to work miracles

'Why don't you also turn water into wine after you are done parting the Red Sea?'

Christine started to read a recent Request for Proposal (RfP) that read:

"Consultant needed to undertake a final evaluation of a three year humanitarian programme implemented in the hills of Afghanistan. The consultant is expected to review all the programme documents, carry out in-depth interviews with all 30 project staff and with at least 20 of the major stakeholders. A survey should also be conducted with a representative sample of the 600 beneficiaries. An evaluation report should then be produced. The total budget is $5,000 and covers consultant fees, transportation to the project sites, visa fees, all food and drink during the stay."

Christine paused and then added 'duration of this consultancy is fifteen (15) days'. She stated that the budget of '$5,000' was already appalling, allotting only 15 days to undertake all these tasks was adding insult to injury.

She continued that though this example was a bit extreme, a lot of the RfPs were unreasonable in the scope of works (compared to the duration of the consultancy) and/or the budget for the evaluation.

Problem: Clients with unrealistic budgets and scope of works.

Proposed Solution: Negotiate. Negotiate. And negotiate while presenting credible arguments why the clients expectations are unrealistic. Some clients will listen to reason once presented with facts. If they are not and stay on the course they are on, then they deserve another consultant who feeds the delusion (which can only end badly for both parties).

2. The client who practices 'Scope Creep'

'The monster that pounces when you least expect it'

Christine explains that just as the name suggests, scope creep is the gradual increase in the scope of works while the price remains the same. As a consultant you were contracted to undertake a certain set of activities for a certain price. However, the client keeps adding extra things on top of what was agreed in the Terms of Reference (ToR). For example by saying 'oh by the way, can you also add a few additional questions to the survey?'

Due to how incrementally things are added, the consultant don't usually realise how big the project has gotten. Afterall, you are not going to charge more for just speaking to one more staff member, right?

Before you know it you are in too deep and the project has gotten way bigger than when the contract was signed. Now you are stuck with the original price stated in contract. This is where you begin to lose money as more time spent on a project than you anticipated puts you out of pocket.

Problem: Scope creep - the process by which a project grows beyond its originally anticipated size.

Proposed Solution: Be vigilant as a consultant and maintain openness. Have very clear scope of works from the beginning. Additionally, instead of agreeing to every change your client makes, explain that you can add a task if another task is removed from the agreed scope of works. This encourages the client to prioritise on which tasks are more important. If they feel that the existing and new tasks are equally important, then it is time to renegotiate the price.

3. The client who misleads the consultant

'All that glitters is not gold'

At this point Christine takes a sip from her cocktail and proceeded to talk about the client who inadvertently (or knowingly??) misleads the consultant. She recounted the times she has heard the lines 'yes, our data is clean', 'we have a sophisticated database and 'the data is disaggregated'. As the consultant you are then in a euphoric state that your work will be easier. That is, until you come crashing down to earth when you finally see the 'sophisticated database' that consists of a logbook with written notes. No computerisation whatsoever.

Problem: Clients who exaggerates (or hides) the state of affairs.

Proposed Solution: If possible have a walkthrough and ask to view the documentation, database, datasets etc., at the Inception Meeting. Additionally, ask probing questions, insist on detailed answers and never assume anything.

4. The client who expects the consultant to be a magician

'Consultants are not the next Houdini'

At this point Christine pointed out that she saved the best for last. She spoke of the client who had no real interest in an evaluation for learning, improvement and reflection. The evaluation was solely to please a donor or an important stakeholder. As such, they are keen to cover up any negative results of the evaluation or aspects of the programme.

Christine mentioned a few clients who asked her to embellish or be 'creative' in reporting on the evaluation findings. Somehow, she had the powers to magically transform a poorly executed programme that had an '(il)logical framework to begin with or a faulty Theory of Change into a stellar programme.

Likewise, she encountered a few staff who mistook her role. They tried to get her involved in the office politics, complaining about another team member, pointing fingers about reasons for the failures in the programme etc. Somehow they looked to her to have a silver bullet to fix all the issues that were wrong in the programme.

Problem: Clients who expect the consultant to fix the problems.

Proposed Solution: Maintain your professionalism and don't get drawn into any unethical practices. It is good to share the draft evaluation report and get input from the relevant stakeholders. However, make it clear that although you give due consideration to all input, you as the evaluator determine how the findings are presented in the final report.

A good approach is to present some of the positive things first in the report, then the 'not-so-good' things in the middle and end with the remaining positive aspects (along with the recommendations).

With that as her final word, she took the last sip from her glass while I proceeded to pay the bill.

I did not bother to ask Christine how she knew of this place. She looked so comfortable and knew which drink to order without even glancing at the menu. I did not ask because afterall she does not have to confess everything. A girl is entitled to a few secrets.

Final thoughts - Although Christine is a consultant working in a firm conducting evaluations, her experience may be similar to consultants in other professions. Feel free to share your own experiences in the "Comments" section below.

See the aftermath of Christine's confessions here.

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