B2B Solution of the Week: Using specialty consulting firms to improve B2B processes

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Every B2B company, whether large or small, will use a consulting firm at some point. Most of the time, opting for consultants come in reactive situations such as when a publicly traded company has some real or suspected irregularity on its books and one of the Big Four accounting firms will be brought in to do a forensic analysis.

But many specialty firms exist that can help B2B firms proactively find processes within their operations that can be corrected before something goes wrong. Or they can find inefficiencies that can boost ROI by tens of percentage points. Some may work to help the C-suite improve employee relations to create more effective workers.

B2Bnn offers these tips for B2B companies looking to find the right consultants for their challenges:

Ask consultants about their real-world experience

Carlos Hidalgo
Carlos Hidalgo

When thinking about engaging any consulting firm, the B2B professional should ask about the consultant organization’s real-world experience. Principals in the field recommend finding out if the proposed consultant has worked in the B2B enterprise system or if their knowledge is all learned or research-based.

“Consultants that have held client-side roles where they had to implement processes, deal with internal politics and work across multiple departments to accomplish a goal bring real-world experience to their clients,” says Carlos Hidalgo, CEO and founder of ANNUITAS, B2B demand generation and change management firm. “Career consultants who have never been in the trenches often do not understand the practical application of what they propose and this leaves clients wanting more.”

Ask questions about technology vs. processes

Many consulting firms in the field often double as system integrators or value-added resellers but in a subtle way. According to experts, B2B companies should ask questions about what role technology plays in how a consulting firm operates. Business evolution will never be achieved through technology alone.

“Be wary of any specialty consulting firm that seeks to improve business exclusively through the installation of new technology,” says Bill Heitman, managing director, The Lab Consulting, a management consulting firm that reengineers inefficient business processes. “New technology may make processes move faster but will not repair or compensate for underlying broken processes.”

Even more important than realizing that throwing technology alone at a problem is not the answer is to find a champion for change within a B2B firm, according to Heitman. “Identify a sponsor within the company dedicated to real improvement and has power over people and process to make it happen,” he says.

Change management and tracking

The objective of hiring any specialty consulting firm remains instituting change within a B2B organization, of course. However, without monitoring and measuring that change, a B2B firm cannot know if it is getting its money’s worth.

“By establishing a formal benefits tracking process, the organization will see very quickly when things are going off track,” says Tony Lockwood, managing partner, xynergie Ltd., a cost optimization consulting firm. “In many instances, this will be because of a failure to successfully embed the change in behaviors, attitude and process across the organization.”

Enterprise lean management

A well-respected discipline within consulting circles, lean management is a formal procedure for uncovering inefficient processes and preparing the way for improving them.

According to Mark Rome, CEO, Empower2adapt LLC, a B2B consulting firm, businesses institute enterprise lean management with a four-step process that comprises:

  • Organizational assessment—understanding and baselining current B2B management and cultural challenges
  • Strategy development/strategy deployment—defining B2B objectives and ensuring all employees comprehend them
  • Standard work—establishing current staff best practices for completing work processes
  • Leader standard work—changing leaders’ roles from that of primary problem-solvers to builders of problem-solving structures for employee activities

“To achieve sustainable performance improvements, successful B2B companies can make use of a data-driven approach to lean management by collecting, organizing and analyzing data on people, business processes and infrastructure,” Rome says. “By looking at all these variables simultaneously, leadership can make informed decisions on the company’s product portfolio and allocation of resources to implement process improvement initiatives.”

What does B2B success look like?

At the bottom line, B2B companies want to know what the payoff is for engaging a consulting firm. What are the costs versus the benefits?

“It gets down to what it costs and what results (consultants) deliver,” says Mike McRitchie of Critical Path Action. “But before you even consider that part you must get be clear what your goal for the consultant is, and what a successful outcome would look like. Once you know that you can jump into the shark-infested waters. Just set clear rules and boundaries and find someone whose skillset and personality meshes with yours.”

B2B firms should interview past clients to make sure they know what they’re getting. And then reap the benefits of the newfound relationship, according to McRitchie.

How to pay specialty consultants

Most consultants—specialty or otherwise—work on a flat-fee or hourly basis. But that does not really put them on the same page as their B2B customers. How can B2B companies better align their consultant’s incentives with their own interests?

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“Most (specialty consulting firms) work on a contingency basis—making it risk-free—but not all employ the same strategy to uncover the issues,” says Gerry Conheady, president, Broniec Associates, Inc., a contingency-based accounts payable auditing firm. He adds that the most thorough audits will employ an automated procedure as well as a manual review. The combination of technology, a traditional audit approach of analyzing documentation and a thorough review of vendor statements makes for the most effective and efficient audit possible.

Who does the work at the specialty consultant firm?

When consultant firms take an account engagement from a B2B company, the customer has to ask who does the actual work. Many consultant firms feature an all-star name that will appear on the marquee but who does the actual work when it comes to crunching the numbers?

“Who will actually be doing the work and how many total project hours will be allotted?” asks Mike Holland, vice president, business development, Fortalice Solutions, cyber consultants to business and government. “Am I paying for a senior consultant to be a figurehead while all the work is done by a junior person with limited operational experience?”

Holland goes on to say that B2B customers appreciate it when consultants don’t throw billable hours at a problem and instead direct the right level of expertise at a problem and produce better solutions at a lower cost than larger consulting firms.

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Derek Handova

Derek Handova

Derek Handova is a veteran journalist writing on various B2B vertical beats. He started out as associate editor of Micro Publishing News, a pioneer in coverage of the desktop publishing space and more recently as a freelance writer for Digital Journal, Economy Lead (finance and IR beats) and Intelligent Utility (electrical transmission and distribution beats).