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Management consultants: the used-car salespeople of professional services?

Management consultants: the used-car salespeople of professional services?

Management consultants: the used-car salespeople of professional services?

By Paresh Mistry

What comes to mind when you think about the least-trusted professions? Used-car salespeople, typified by the crooked father in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, who sweet-talk you into buying something which looks in pristine condition but which falls apart the moment you leave the showroom forecourt? Politicians, who will drop a manifesto pledge like a hot potato when they realise it will be too difficult or costly to implement? The trades, where overcharging, poor-quality work and flat-out absconding with customers’ hard-earned cash is rife?

Increasingly, you can add consulting firms to this list of dodgy dealers looking to make a quick buck by delivering low-value, by-the-numbers fixes at the (huge) expense of their clients, taxpayers, and the good name of the industry.

You don’t have to be directly involved with management consulting to know that the sector has something of an image problem of late. Even those with a vague interest in current affairs may well have heard the names McKinsey or PwC spoken about in less than favourable terms following a series of scandals which have exposed some of the questionable and immoral tactics employed by the so-called figureheads of the industry.


Putting the con in consultancy

In October 2023, political satirist John Oliver became the latest in a long line of McKinsey critics, devoting an entire 30-minute Last Week Tonight show to a broad-brush takedown of the company: “McKinsey is a firm that projects a huge amount of confidence to sell a frequently unremarkable product at sky-high prices, making them truly the Salt Bae of companies,” he said. Oliver spoke of their secrecy, from having zero branding on their offices and even paperwork to their reluctance to publish client lists – no surprise, he said, when you’ve lined your pockets with money from opioid manufacturers, tobacco companies, fossil fuel companies and authoritarian governments around the world, carefully covering your tracks as you go. 

“The McKinsey way” is an oft-used phrase that refers to the way the company sells its services, builds its teams and approaches the problems to be solved, but it has come to be associated with mass layoffs, disguised with euphemisms such as “finding efficiencies” or “organisational streamlining”. This has led to management consultants being criticised for being mechanistic and dehumanising, rather than considering the human and social dimensions of the workplace.

And then there are the widely-reported conflicts of interests, from the more benign – advising Ford and their competitor General Motors at the same time, for example – to the truly troubling, such as working for Purdue Pharma, the company behind the Oxycontin scandal, and the FDA, the federal agency investigating it, concurrently.

In The Big Con, Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington look at how the widespread use of consultancy firms by large businesses and governments actually weakens them: they become reliant on external help, rather than allowing or enabling their brightest and best to tackle the thorny problems that all big companies have at some point. That’s a view echoed by Lord Agnew, former Cabinet Office and Treasury minister, who wrote to senior civil servants during the Covid-19 pandemic saying that Whitehall had been “infantilised” by an “unacceptable” reliance on expensive management consultants.

Management consultants are often brought in for their specialist advice and expertise, but there are questions over whether they deliver this. Mazzucato and Collington say that consultants often give an illusion of competence that is compelling enough to secure big contracts, but that the outcomes are often a pale imitation of the promise.


Trouble down under

Last year, Australia was conducting no fewer than three Parliamentary inquiries into the consulting industry:


There is a growing feeling that the interests of consulting firms are not always aligned with the public interest. When it feels like their MO is to maximise profits at the expense of important social or human values, is it any wonder that increasingly budget-conscious corporations and governments question the value of their services, and baulk at paying their huge fees?

The critics of consulting stop short of calling for an end to the use of consultants, but almost universally they ask for better visibility and more accountability – especially where public money is being used. I think that’s more than fair enough.


Turning the ship around

It doesn’t need to be this way. At their best, consultants provide expertise and objectivity. Not every company wants or needs the skills and experience we bring on their payroll. We’re all for upskilling your workforce – we’re proud to help our own consultants to  – but companies that don’t use external consultants can become insular, uncompetitive and inefficient – especially with the technological pace of change. The firms drawing criticism have commonalities: they are huge multinationals trading on their name, motivated primarily to encourage their clients to keep using consultants. They’ve been found out, and now they’re having to find their own efficiencies.

Changing public perception of consultants doesn’t seem that hard to me. If you work with honesty and integrity and genuinely put your clients’ outcomes above all else, you really can’t go wrong. Maybe that’s why more and more companies, disillusioned with the traditional firms, are coming to ROLABOTIC?


Here’s how we put the trust back into consulting:

  1. We serve no one but our client. When you choose ROLABOTIC, you’ll know who you’re working with truly independent consultants.
  2. We deliver more value than the cost of our services. We know we do that because our clients tell us (Link to Enterprise Case Study).
  3. We start by working with what you already have, optimising your existing systems and processes to maximise the efficiency of the tools you know and trust first. Learn more about native automation (links Native Automation page in website).
  4. We deploy area specialists. If it’s a finance challenge, the project team will include financial experts. If it’s HR, the same.
  5. We execute flawlessly within budget and set timeframes.
  6. We have a unique ROLABOTIC guarantee which offers a no quibble refund if you are not happy.


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Paresh Mistry – Linkedin