This at least is the backdrop to Tom Lambert's book. 'It is tempting to assert that the top earners are the best consultants,' says Lambert, '(but) many of the highest earners would be little better than run of the mill were it not for their remarkable capacity to attract business and make money.'
The book's title is indicative. Just as a consultant should clearly address the client's problem and answer it, Lambert has asked himself 'What do consultants want?' The answer: not to be the brilliant best, but to make lots of money. This is, after all, one of the chief rewards of consulting, along with freedom from office politics and variety of work. The rewards also make up for the unpredictability and lack of a corporate safety net that comes with consulting or any freelance life.
But those on the consulting bandwagon know the world is turning in their favour. Throughout the 1980s, companies increasingly 'delayered' their pyramid structures, chucking out thousands of middle managers who read the runes, checked the papers, made the decisions and got those decisions rubber-stamped by someone in the next layer up.
Today, consultants brought in from outside are being asked to make those decisions. Without the cost of providing them with a permanent desk, chair, pension scheme and other comfort blankets, the consultants are much cheaper for the company, and - because they have to sing for their supper - likely to be more productive.
Lambert's book offers sound advice on how to stay one step ahead of the pack. In essence, he is a consultant's consultant. The advice is that successful consultants will ask the same questions of themselves that they should ask when they offer advice to a client. 'What are my strengths and weaknesses? What are the factors critical to my success? Who is the competition? How do I market myself? Am I charging the right amount of money for my services?'
Once those basic questions are solved, the consultant needs to address others that also will reflect the problems his or her client will need solving. Companies usually get in trouble because they sell their goods too cheaply, or choose customers who can't pay or won't pay. Consultants are no different. Slashing fees to attract business may seem the best way of paying this month's mortgage but it will backfire in the longer term.
Much of the advice in the book is of the Kiss variety - Keep It Simple, Stupid - such as the cheap and straightforward ways of marketing that can deliver far greater results than glossy brochures or colour magazine advertisements. Some of the suggestions (letters to newspapers and writing articles in trade magazines) are relatively palatable; others (eating rubber chicken and giving an after-dinner speech at the local car dealers' association meeting) sound gruesome.
The majority of the book is devoted to this sort of advice - how to build and market the consultancy practice. Rather less is devoted to the actual work of a consultant for a client. And little is given over to guidance on the particular areas of consultancy to go for or avoid. The balance reflects Lambert's viewpoint that the consultant's particular skills are more or less given while the winning of business is there to be developed.
Consulting has been defined as being paid to tell client what has been staring them in the face. This book does essentially the same thing, but is no less invaluable for that. And unlike a consultant, you don't have to keep paying it every day you get its advice.