What HR Consultants Are Doing Wrong, and How to Get It Right

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Jul 23, 2010

A recent study conducted by Clemente Communications Group, LLC, in Glen Rock, N.J., provides insights about the challenges companies are facing that require the retention—and sometimes the termination or redeployment—of advisers, such as HR consultants. The study is based on a survey of senior executives from middle-market companies, a web content analysis of information available online relative to the trends on selecting and managing professional service providers, and a series of in-depth interviews with corporate decision-makers involved in identifying the need for professional services and screening and selecting qualified providers.

In terms of the traits most desired, specialized expertise and industry experience rise to the top of the list, cited by 43.2 percent of respondents. This is followed closely by competitive fees and pricing options at 39.5 percent, indicating that while expertise is desired, it needs to represent value to the hiring organization. No surprises there. And no surprises in terms of how potential clients find out about consultants, either. Their reputations precede them.

Failure to Leverage Reputation

According to the Clemente study, referrals from friends and personal contacts are the primary means of identifying professional services firms, cited by 52.5 percent of the respondents. The next highest source mentioned is input from past or existing clients at 50.6 percent.

Scott Howland is a human resources executive who says he has hired, fired and retained dozens of HR consultants over his 20-plus year tenure in human resources. Through his experience he’s observed good and bad performance. In terms of things HR consultants often do wrong, he said, they range from the small —a retained benefits consulting firm that never called to congratulate him when he was promoted into a compensation and benefits director role—to more significant missteps, like the firms that submit proposals without asking any questions or meeting with key decision-makers.

Howland agrees that reputation and past performance are key and that as a client he plays a major role in helping to promote his consultants’ services. “There are a lot of consulting firms that I enjoy working with where I think I’m probably out there selling them more than they market themselves,” he said. Howland notes that even in large markets, the HR world is a small one. “I’m learning that even here in Chicagoland we all know each other and we all know the HR consulting firms in this area. The people who don’t have the clients raising flags and cheering for them are going to lose out,” he said.

Missing the Mark on RFPs

When organizations issue a request for proposal (RFP) they’re looking for responses that are brief and concise, that explain pricing clearly, and that provide an appropriate level of detail about the implementation of the proposal and the HR consultant’s specific action plan. And they are looking for solutions tailored to their needs, said Daniel S. Bowling, III, former head of HR for Coca-Cola Enterprises, Inc., and currently on the faculties of Duke Law School and the University of Pennsylvania. The biggest problem that HR consultants have, he said, is trying to fit the company into their model, not vice-versa.

Clients benefit from solutions that are designed to meet their needs, he said, pointing out that small consulting firms might have an edge in this area. “If you’re in an individual practice you can be flexible,” he said. “Use that flexibility as your strength.” Take the time, he said, to really get to know the client and the client’s needs. Bowling, who now runs a small consultancy himself, was recently on-site with a client to spend time with the executive team before developing a strengths assessment and workshop for the company. “I want to really get to understand them and what will and won’t work so that I can provide them with a custom solution,” he said.

Not Digging Deep

Howland agrees that specific client focus can make a difference and that focus is often reflected through consultants’ interest in learning more about clients’ needs by asking the right questions. He tells of putting out an RFP for a project to three consulting firms. “Two of the firms took the time to call me ahead of time to say they wanted to get more details so they could fine-tune their bids,” he said. This extra step made a difference not only in terms of his perception but also in their bids. The two who called for more information were within $10,000 of each other and in the $50,000 range; the third bidder came in at $110,000. “They didn’t fully understand the objectives and made inferences because they didn’t clarify what the deliverables were,” said Howland.

The secret to success is understanding fully what the client wants, he said. How do you find out? By asking. “Early in my career I read something by Tony Robbins where he said the way to get anything you want in life is to ask. It’s simply that. If you’re a consultant and you want to figure out what the client wants, just ask.”


Paul Diamond is an HR professional in Britain who worked recently with an HR consultant who was providing services for one of his clients. The consultant, he said, erred by using too much “HR speak” as opposed to common language that would be easier for the non-HR people reading her report to understand. HR consultants need to be watchful of their language choices, said Diamond. While they certainly understand HR speak, and HR contacts within the client organization might understand HR speak, other audiences do not. Consultants, said Diamond, should work to make the language in their presentations and reports as “accessible as possible.” Those reports, he noted, will not always be intended only for HR audiences. “In fact, the majority of people who will need the value of the insight presented will just need it presented in plain English,” he said. “The easier it is for more people in the organization to understand, the more people you can get involved in the conversation and the more successful you’ll be,” he said.

These are particularly good times for independent HR professionals to make an impact, said Diamond. “At a time like this, organizations need thought from good HR professionals, they need that external point of view that’s going to enable them to make strategic decisions that are far-reaching and based on a broad platform, not just satisfying the will of the executives.

“It’s a great time to be in the HR industry,” he said.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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