The Consultant’s Severability

Let me further explain the point I made in the last post about a consultant’s “severability” – why it’s so crucial to effective consulting.

A consulting relationship is not based on its value to the client alone. It’s based just as much on its arm’s-length simplicity. Put another way, it’s based on the unspoken “easy come, easy go” rule. That may not seem intuitive to you, so let me elaborate.

First and foremost, when a client engages a consulting firm or an individual consultant, it’s to purchase expertise. The consultant offers in depth knowledge of a technical subject, or peddles some sort of organizational improvement package, or sells valuable marketplace contacts and connections, or brings needed capacities or skills that the client doesn’t have in house. Pretty obvious so far.

But what’s also valuable to a client about employing an external consultant is that the relationship is uncomplicated. It’s much easier to initiate and terminate than relationships with corporate partners, full-time employees, regulatory overseers, large customers, and so forth. In other words, from the client’s perspective, an association with a consultant is disposable – by design. It can end as soon as the goods are delivered. It can end if the goods aren’t delivered to the client’s satisfaction. And it can end for pretty much any other reason too.

It’s natural to think consultant/client relationships are sustained by the consultant’s value alone. In fact in some cases, the value is so great that the client becomes dependent, even indebted to the consultant – as if that all-important fence-line has been breached. You’d think this type of relationship is immune from dissolution.

But it’s a fiction. Even in such intertwined relationships, if ever the client becomes inclined to walk away, the client can walk away… with ease. So even the consultant who appears to have a “permanent” affiliation with an organization can be consigned to oblivion in a moment. And that’s exactly what the client finds attractive about the affiliation.

When a consultant understands that he is and must remain an outsider, he offers both expertise and severability. And he’s that much more valuable for it.

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