What does an external consultant do?

An external consultant is brought on board to support activities that a business finds challenging to perform internally. There are a variety of reasons why businesses might struggle to perform these tasks, which also define the scope of work for an external consultant.

Covering gaps

One reason why organisations need external help to achieve an objective is simply because they do not have the internal capacity to do so. There might be gaps in an organisation’s expertise, or in its resource pool, or in the size of its workforce. An external consultant is brought on board to cover these gaps.

For instance, if a consumer goods business is looking to develop its brand’s profile through marketing, it could either build marketing capacity internally or appoint an external consultant to develop a marketing strategy. Building this capacity internally might involve hiring a marketing expert full time, or spending time on training the existing workforce in marketing principles. Such a task requires an investment of both time and finances, and is often a long-term commitment.

Alternatively, if the company appoints a marketing consultant to develop this strategy, it would assign a certain task with an expected outcome and a clear, limited timeline. A marketing consultant will come with substantial expertise and experience from having worked with other clients, and will be able to develop a quality strategy in a relatively short time without training.

The consultant will also be paid a fixed amount, and will no longer be a financial consideration once the strategy has been developed. As a result, hiring an external consultant to cover the gap in expertise temporarily can save both time and money.

This is not only the case with expertise, but with workforce capacity. For instance, if a business needs to deploy staff at scale in the short-term for a particular project, bringing consultants on board to temporarily bolster the workforce can be the more cost-effective option in the long run than hiring new staff that might not be needed beyond a point.

However, in the case where a business does decide to build capacity internally, possibly because it is needed in the long term, external consultants can also be brought on board to train the staff using their expertise. This can be in the form of a one-time training programme, or as a continuous coaching process.

Bringing perspective

Aside from covering gaps within an organisation, external consultants are often valuable by virtue of being external. While knowing a business inside out can be crucial to solving a problem, sometimes being too close to the organisation can become a barrier to being creative and navigating challenges.

Business leaders could be blinded to the flaws in their own strategy, or might disagree internally on the best way forward due to conflicting visions of where they want the business to go. Leaders could also get stuck in the established culture and processes of their business, and struggle to look beyond and think outside the box. Company culture and politics can also have an influence on leaders and affect their ability to take a rational decision for their company’s future.

At times like this, external consultants can be brought on board as an objective third party to examine the situation from a distance and recommend the best way forward. External consultants are likely to have helped other clients in the same sector navigate similar challenges, and will therefore have a more informed opinion on how to move forward.

Taking difficult decisions

There are also times when business leaders are faced with significant decisions that could have significant repercussions on a business and its people. This might be a major change in direction, a restructuring process or a change in the size and composition of the staff.

Business leadership can be weary of making these decisions for fear of repercussions, disruption and unrest within their workforce. They might also not be best suited to implement staff cuts for instance, as their day-to-day relations with personnel might introduce a degree of bias in their decisions. External consultants can be brought on board in such cases for their objectivity and distance. They are not familiar with the company culture and politics, and can examine the business from a rational point of view.

Some of the tasks consultants do

  • Conduct interview with clients and stakeholders to gain understanding of the issue
  • Craft strategies and evaluating the pros and cons of options
  • Hold surveys with employees to gain insight in areas of improvement
  • Create organisation charts, process flows and project plans
  • Analyse data and statistics to unravel process improvements
  • Manage projects and/or support project activities
  • Create deliverables such as project plans, workstream documents, etc
  • Help the organisation apply methodologies such as Agile, Lean, Prince2, etc
  • Build IT solutions and apps that help enable business goals
  • Guide transformations and implement practical solutions
  • Develop and deliver training documents

Where do consultants work?

External consultants typically work “onsite”, which means that they work at the premises of the client, working shoulder to shoulder with the client’s team for the duration of the project. Some types of consultants, especially those in strategy consulting, mergers & acquisitions or economic / marketing research, might spend most of their time working from the office of their consulting firm. In some cases client contact is not preferred (e.g. deals, confidential work) while in other cases consultants may need to access certain intellectual property which is available internally.