A couple of weeks ago Peter Panepento wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy titled Bad Consultant Confidential. As the headline promised, it was about client/consultant relationships that didn't work out.

My take was that most of the “bad endings” cited arose from “bad beginnings.” That is, either mis-communication out of the box about objectives and expectations, or what seemed like obvious mis-matches from the outset (e.g., agencies being totally inappropriate for the client because of size, culture, cost, ambitiousness).

In situations like these, I think it's fair to say that both parties bear responsibility for the divorce. Both should know better.

But the very same day I got an e-newsletter from Kintera, the online marketing vendor. Featured in it was a very impressive customer quote from Kintera's very happy client, the American Lung Association:

“We have been using Kintera's solutions for several years with great success … We couldn't have asked for a more comprehensive solution to meet our needs.”

This drew me to their website, where I found many other equally satisfied customers, testimonials and successful case studies.

Then I went to their arch-competitor the new Convio/GetActive combine and of course found the same thing … many happy customers and successful case studies. For equal time sake, here's a kudo from Convio client SPCA of Texas:

“It's amazing what Convio has done for us, and as a result, that's why our online donations have grown like they have …”

I've shopped these firms for services in the past and I know they're both very capable. I also know that, of course, they've had clients who've bolted.

So I started thinking: Why does that happen? Reading the above quotes, can you imagine ALA leaving Kintera? Or SPCA/TX leaving Convio? Why might there be a client/consultant divorce in apparently successful marriages like these?

From my experience, it's for both good reasons and bad …

  • The agency/consultant gets intellectually lazy. They fall into routines that are easier to implement than striving to be fresh and innovative. If the client is lazy too, not a problem … they can snooze together. If the client is hard-charging, bye-bye consultant.
  • The agency lets service lag. Maybe there's a turnover in agency staff, and the new folks are, well, inferior. Maybe the agency gets too busy to maintain service quality.
  • The client changes leaders, and the new leader wants to rattle the cage, or bring in a trusted accomplice from their past, or just put their own stamp on things. Or maybe the chemistry is just off. Sometimes clients are upfront about this; sometimes they begin to magnify agency slips to justify the move. In either event, this is an unhappy fact of life for consultants, whose performance is not really the issue.
  • The client genuinely outgrows their need for the consultant as in-house capabilities mature, or alternatively, more complex needs of the client outstrip the capabilities of the consultant. Though they are no longer suited to one another, it is not because of malperformance on the part of the consultant.

Let me be clear … I'm not predicting any of these outcomes in the Kintera and Convio examples cited above. I'm only speculating about how even great client/consultant relationships, with successes under their belts, can sour.

Any recent divorcees out there with other perspectives on this?

Tom

This article was posted in: Nonprofit management.
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