When words are worth their weight in gold

Updated: 2013-01-17 14:28

(China Daily)

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Consulting | He Wei

Aside from their clients, consultancies often have to deal with journalists on a frequent basis.

We constantly seek comments or statistics from them, whether it is for something breaking or an in-depth piece.

We are thrilled to get a quick response, ideally from a partner, or the latest survey results that get right into the issue we are working on.

From a reporter's point of view, consultants are valuable. They work extensively across sectors and have a profound understanding of the industry. They are able to offer unbiased opinions and, in certain cases, are our final recourse in our efforts to make a story more convincing.

But how do companies perceive their efforts?

People once joked that a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. To some extent, the joke makes a point. Who hasn't been tempted to hire someone knowledgeable about balance sheets and business strategy? At the same time, what can an outsider tell you about your own assets?

The costs of appointing a consultancy, which can be enormous, have to be weighed against the benefits.

It's not a problem in a healthy economic environment, as there is enough cash sloshing around for businesses not to penny-pinch and for consultants to make a good living. But in a recession it gets really tough, because consultants are among the most conspicuous spending to cut, given that their contributions may be unclear.

Mindful of that, I talked to several entrepreneurs in China. To my surprise, they lauded the services consultants were able to bring along, even if it was just a few dos and don'ts.

That falls in line with a 2010 survey conducted by the UK Management Consultancy Association, which showed that 58 percent of companies estimated consultancies' work was worth between two and 20 times as much as it cost.

From a business perspective, anything that makes an organization more effective or more efficient has value. One entrepreneur I talked to said people tend to ignore the price consultants pay to gain their expertise and sharpen their craft.

"Even when they simply suggest you put out an online advertisement, it's still worthwhile if the decision helps you save 20 times your payment to them," the businessman said.

Indeed. Sometimes I feel that consultants are not as outspoken as some of the critics or TV commentators. They tend to have double-checked and even triple-checked figures before talking to me.

However, that is because they invested years studying what works and what doesn't. They are more aware of the result of changing even the fourth figure after the decimal point.

If there is one area in which consultancies may improve, in the eyes of a journalist, I would suggest it is having a more flexible role with their public relations units.

I once sent out an interview pitch to the PR department of a consulting firm. I waited for three days only to be informed that the partner was too occupied.

I know it was a bit "adventurous" but, as a final resort, I dialed the cellphone number of the partner himself. He turned out to be very easy going. He said he would love to take the phone interview right away but it had to be short and concise, as he needed to attend a concert with his daughter.

We wrapped up in five minutes. I got the quotes I needed and he was off to spend some quality time with his family.