The Art of Consulting – What’s the Role of the Consultant?


From time to time, I run training courses on Non Technical Skills for Consultants and one of the first questions I ask participants concerns the relationship between consultant and client.

After years in the field we consultants take this relationship for granted, but it’s actually a slightly tricky one. We’re engaged to provide independent and impartial advice to our clients, but we’re also paid for it. On the one hand we must do what we’re told, and on the other hand we tell our clients what to do.

Conflicts of interest in consulting have an infamous history. Remember the ENRON scandal and its aftermath. When the big audit firms provided consulting services to their clients they had an interest in being a little more ‘understanding’ of accounting lapses than they ought to have been. Being nice to their audit clients won them millions in consulting fees. The link was never explicit, and perhaps in some cases it wasn’t even conscious, but even so, the consequence of the scandal were that the big audit firms were forced to shed their consulting practices and firms were required to change their auditors more frequently.

So, where do we consultants stand? Are we told what to do, or do we tell?

Those of us who have been in the business too long might, at this point, and with a wry smile, plead the ‘psychoanalyst’ position, and claim that all we’re ever expected to do, as consultants, is to listen sympathetically to what the client says, ask a few very open questions, and then agree with whatever position the client takes. You certainly don’t get fired that way. But it’s not my way.

In my training course I draw a parallel with the way a waiter might present his restaurant’s offering to a guest, and I ask participants to tell me which waiter is most like a consultant.


The Compliant Waiter 

The compliant waiter is eager to provide his guest with whatever he may ask for:

Good evening, Sir. No, Sir, we don’t have a menu. This is perhaps an unusual restaurant. We take pride in offering you the best possible service. We give you exactly what you want. Our chef can cook absolutely anything. Just tell me what you’d like.

The Conventional Waiter

The conventional waiter offers a menu of options.

Good evening, Sir. Here’s our menu. You’ll see that we have a wide variety of dishes, all of them good. Just tell me what you’d like.

The Advising Waiter

The advising waiter offers his own recommendations from the menu.

Good evening, Sir. Here’s our menu. You’ll see that we have a wide variety of dishes, all of them good. But we’re especially famous for our fish, and the lemon sole is particularly excellent today. But if you prefer meat, then the sirloin steak is the best we’ve got. Just tell me what you’d like.

The Honest Waiter

The honest waiter puts the interests of his guest first, and seems abandon commercially sensible behaviour, sending his guest to another restaurant (perhaps in the hope that he will return on a better day?).

Good evening, Sir. Here’s our menu. You’ll see we have a wide variety of dishes, all of them usually good. But just between you and me, the chef had a tiny bit too much to drink last night. If you really want to eat well, then come back another time. You’ll do better today at that restaurant across the road. I ate there myself last week and it’s really pretty good.

The Extremely Honest Waiter

The extremely honest waiter is intrusive!

Good evening, Sir. It’s nice to see you again. I have to say, though, that you don’t look your best this evening. In your present condition I’d say you’d be much better off not eating anything at all.

Which of these is most like a consultant?

Let me know your thoughts.

This is the second post in a series on the Art of Consulting.

The Art of Consulting

21 thoughts on “The Art of Consulting – What’s the Role of the Consultant?

  1. I’m not sure I can relate very well to the waiter analogy. Obviously the name consulting covers a wide range of services. Helping the client put his or her thoughts in perspective by talking to someone who is not part of the organization is actually great value added (no wry smile). At the other extreme, a yield assessment of a product line is also great value consulting. So depending on circumstances and client requirements, all of these could fit imho.


    • Yes, fair point. I’m in the business IT corner of consulting and generally believe in strong advice. So for me it’s the last two waiters I admire. I keep my wry smile for those who don’t even help to ‘structure’! Thanks for your comment.


  2. The Art of Consulting – Impartial, Honest and Independent – Adam Bager

  3. The Art of Consulting – The Essential Skills – Adam Bager

  4. I think a melding of the honest waiter and the advising waiter. As a consultant, I think it’s my responsibility to advise the client on best practices, and offer the wisdom from the decades of experience I have; however, I can in no manner tell them what to do. Ultimately, they write the checks, and if they decide to do or have me do something completely stupid, after I have advised them not to, then that’s what I’ll do, and try to figure out how to fix things after the “I told you so” moment. Of course, that does not include illegal actions, unethical actions or behavior that goes against posted corporate policy. That would get a “I am sorry, but, No, I’m not doing this because ….” from me..


  5. The Art of Consulting – Listening – Adam Bager

  6. The Art of Consulting – What’s a Good Question? – Adam Bager

  7. The Art of Consulting – Representation and Analysis – Adam Bager

  8. The Art of Consulting – Writing Simply – Adam Bager

  9. The Art of Consulting – Designing (Completeness & Simplicity) – Adam Bager

  10. The Art of Consulting – Designing (Pragmatism) – Adam Bager

  11. The Art of Consulting – Designing (Affordability, Flexibility, Maintainability, Elegance) – Adam Bager

  12. The Art of Consulting – Judgement – Adam Bager

  13. The Art of Consulting – Presenting – Adam Bager

  14. The Art of Consulting – The Final Report – Adam Bager

  15. The Art of Consulting – Persuading – Adam Bager

  16. The Art of Consulting – Planning – Adam Bager

  17. The Art of Consulting – Managing Others – Adam Bager

  18. The Art of Consulting – Clients – Adam Bager

  19. The Art of Consulting – Selling – Adam Bager

  20. The Art of Consulting – Some Golden Rules – Adam Bager

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