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  • 20 Feb

Consultants, your critical friends

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Alan Morris

By Alan Morris, Managing Director of Retail Assist

Alan Morris argues that retailers should turn consultants into ‘critical friends’. That means friends who have a real contribution to make to the health of the business beyond simply highlighting what’s wrong with it. That said, retailers should prepare themselves for a certain amount of candour along the way.

In business as in life, the best friends are those who know your circumstances well enough to understand both the problem and the solution. Applying this maxim to the use of consultants, it’s wise to select those who know the retail market intimately and are able to judge whether an IT and/or a business process change is needed.

Whilst it’s not always easy to build a relationship of trust with consultants, this shouldn’t mask the main benefit that they can bring to a retail business: objectivity in driving change. It’s time too for retailers to put consultancy onto a more realistic footing, starting by examining their motivation for employing this resource and being clear on how to make practical use of it.

Their next step should be to decide whether they would be best served by a specialist consultancy, or perhaps by an organisation that is already embedded within their business, that understands its operations and can contribute wider market experience of what works and what doesn’t. In making this choice, it’s necessary to concede that not all consultants are equipped to both define and implement a solution.

Whilst there should be nothing nebulous about working with consultants, it can be challenging to bring together client expectations and the changes that will be delivered. The best firms or individuals advocate true end-to-end consultancy: from identifying the problem and making recommendations, through to the delivery and integration of new elements into the business.

Clients will be disappointed, or at the very least surprised, if they were not crystal-clear about expected outcomes. They should strive to brief their consultants fully and transparently, opening their business to them and giving them access to the right staff. Experience shows that business benefits will be directly proportional to the degree of involvement that the consultant seeks and that the client fosters.

If every piece of consultancy work was treated as a project and considered in its broader context, there would perhaps be fewer disconnects. As it is, despite good intentions, too often consultancy is deemed to under-perform. To make sure that work undertaken both fixes a technology issue and solves a business problem, both parties are well advised to consider all aspects of any change, not just its IT elements.

It’s important too to realise that benefits may not come immediately. Sometimes a new system demands new processes which are lengthier than their predecessors, or will produce new, unfamiliar outputs. None of this is a problem if expectations have been correctly set.

In addition to the more obvious elements such as timescales, budgets and deliverables, it’s critical to clarify which staff and which processes are likely to be impacted by any change. That includes team interactions, legacy systems and individual business ‘custom and practice’.

Moving goal posts is inevitable in a fast-moving industry such as retail. As and when the business evolves, retailers should have the courage to articulate (and, if necessary, pay consultants for) any required revisions to specification. Frequent reviews stop things getting out of sync and prevent consultants putting efforts into work that could take the project and the business off course.

In the final analysis, consultants should be judged by what they achieve for the business rather than upon simply completing a project. For retail businesses to achieve substantial gains from using consultants, they should commit to open themselves fully to the benefits that these ‘critical friends’ can bring.

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