The 5 deadliest consulting sins —€” and how to avoid them

September 2010 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS
Robert A. Meyer, P.E.

One of the most cost-effective ways for a consulting firm to increase profitability is to build long-term relationships with clients that have routine or recurring needs for such services, thus relieving the firm of the time-consuming and expensive necessity of constantly seeking new clients.

As a municipal official, I see consulting firms time and again sabotage their chances of building long-term, lucrative relationships with their existing clients. Having previously owned and operated two consulting engineering firms, I am both more critical and more sympathetic regarding consultants than my municipal counterparts who have never been consultants.While there are many excellent consulting firms, even the best are occasionally guilty of one or more of the following five deadliest consulting sins.

1) Unrealistic schedule
Schedules are important for a variety of reasons. In municipal government, the approval process is generally lengthy and conditioned upon a monthly meeting schedule. Regulatory permits and bonding, usually required for such projects, add to the length of this process. In the Northeast, which has a relatively short construction season, the most effective strategy is to complete design and obtain approvals during the winter months so construction can begin in the spring.

Many municipal projects can be classified as either revenue-generating or cost-avoiding. In either case, it is economically important to advance the project as quickly as possible.

2) Busted budget
Municipal project approvals are based in part on their estimated costs. In addition, funding (whether by grant, bonding, or other financial resource) needs to be secured. Needing to obtain additional funding to cover a cost overrun not only undermines the credibility of all concerned, but also can delay the project. Additionally, if significant enough, cost overruns can undermine the economic viability of the project itself.

3) Inconsistency
The sin of inconsistency (a.k.a. “the changing story”) can take a variety of forms, such as a different reason for a configuration change each time an explanation is given; inaccurate representations of conversations with regulatory agencies including exaggerating supposedly favorable relationships with regulatory agencies; and similar situations.

4) Non-responsiveness
There are a variety of forms of consultant non-responsiveness sins ranging from delays in returning phone calls or e-mails to being tardy in responding to review comments. Having a regulatory agency call and plead for client intervention between the consultant and the agency is definitely a bad sign!

5) Insensitivity
In many ways, all of the above sins are essentially forms of not being sensitive to the client’s needs. Blatant sins of insensitivity include not designing a project for reasonable expansion or growth; a surprise, last-minute significant scope change; not discussing design cost overruns in advance, resulting in an unanticipated, huge invoice; ignoring client’s billing requirements and cash flow needs; and not seriously considering client comments, requests, and suggestions.

Avoiding consulting sins
None of the above sins help the client and, ultimately, wind up undermining the credibility of the consultant. Fortunately, many of these sins are easily avoided.

The three traits necessary to avoid these problems and serve the best interests of both client and consultant are sensitivity to the client’s needs, honesty in dealing with situations as they are, and effective communication to keep the client informed and obtain feedback.

A consultant’s mission is to serve a client’s needs. Clients may do a specific project just once in a lifetime whereas the consultant does these projects for a living. Therefore, clients look to consultants to provide realistic estimates and expectations — not just to tell the client what the consultant thinks the client wants to hear. On the other hand, the consultant cannot be expected to be a psychic or seer. Still, having familiarity with the specific project type as well as typical problems and pitfalls likely to be encountered — and to be avoided — on these types of projects can help the consultant advise his or her client properly and sin-free.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of his employer.

Robert A. Meyer, P.E., is a professional engineer licensed to practice in N.Y., N.J., and Pa. He can be contacted at

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