What makes a consultancy worth the money?

And, why is process our most valuable product.

What's the product you're picking off the shelf?

Agency/consultancy work comes down to three categories: staff augmentation, project work, and or evaluation and analysis. With long-term clients, we often do all of the above. In any case, our expertise must align with the engagement goals, or there's a high potential for failure; and failure is expensive. This type of knowledge is where a consultancy's process comes into the picture.

A good friend of mine is an exceptional cook... in their kitchen. Put them into another kitchen where the conditions and tooling are different, and they break down. They know their tools, they know their environment, but they don't have principles or a practice that deals with change. Does this make them a lousy cook, then? No, of course not. Their process is built around a narrow set of experiences and situations.

Value in a consultancy lies in the many experiences across many domains solving similar problems.

What we talk about when we talk about process

We often get asked about our process of working with new clients on projects. "What's your process?" It's a logical and prudent question. As customers, you want to understand who you're hiring and how we will deliver a high-quality product and solution you need. It sounds straightforward, but we find that people often ask about the process without being sure of the answer they're expecting or seeking: Is this a technical, logistical, emotional question, or all of the above?

Asking—and unpacking—the question about process

What I hear when asked about our process is something basic and emotional: "How are you going to achieve the goals we've established?" and "How can I be sure this is a win-win situation for us?" and "What kind of certainty can you give me—how can I trust you?" 

Why? We often associate the process with the tools and technologies we're using, but this question is really about the search for certainty at the end of the day. At a very human and emotional level, you need to know how we're going to handle the uncertainties that are inevitable to a project. A lot can change—people, technologies, finances, the scope of the project—but ultimately, you need to hire someone who can provide certainty through it all.

Consider this: What matters most to you? What can't fail? And why?

I often pose this question to clients when we talk about the process. These questions dig at the heart of what's essential. In this, I'm trying to understand the driver: What is the struggle, emotion, pain, doubt, or conflict you're facing and need us to help resolve? How is it related to the product or solution? When we uncover these answers, we can start talking concretely about addressing a client's specific needs through the tools and processes we already use as a company, or with new ones, we can integrate. There's no one-size-fits-all solution. 

Tools and technologies facilitate

Anyone can sell you the latest fancy technology, but alone it's not enough. Tools and technologies are essential, yes, but only after we've understood a client's real needs. We can then look at these more technical elements to facilitate certainty in our process and our work toward delivering an excellent product.

For example, why do I have a big monitor? I might say it's because I need to see more, which helps me do my job. But what it's really about is the perspective I'm seeking through this bigger monitor, and how this greater perspective contributes to the certainty I'm embedding in my process.

Take the opportunity to dig deep

As a customer, ask software consultancies about their process and turn this question back to yourself. What kind of assurances would help you with the problem you need to solve? What about the project that makes you worried, keeps you up at night? This dialogue and reflection offer a rich opportunity for both client and consultancy to dig deep and better understand the other's needs, expectations, hopes, and even fears, which will ultimately lead to a more positive and fruitful relationship. 

Asking and talking about the process as a potential client should make you come away feeling calm and confident about your project and the solutions a consultancy can offer you. It shouldn't feel vague, and it shouldn't be full of jargon or slick industry talk. It would be best if you came away with heightened understanding and certainty and clarity not only about the end goal of a project but about how you'll get there and why you're headed there in the first place.