Choosing the right type of consulting for an engagement

By Tip Fallon, Business Analyst

You have probably worked in a client-consultant relationship, either as the consultant or the client, even if those exact titles were not used.  In essence, one party is providing help or service to the other.

A most fundamental part of successful client-consultant work is defining the type of consulting is to be provided: expert, set of hands, or process.  Hopefully after reading this you will understand the differences between the consulting types, which will enable you to select the type needed for the work at hand, and set that expectation with the other party.  Defining and sharing expectations about the type of consulting sets both parties up for success, enables open communication, and an enjoyable working experience.  Neglecting to establish the consulting type up front can lead to frustration, miscommunication, and compromised project success.

Three types of consulting


1) Expert:

There are two types of “expert” consulting: mechanic and doctor.

"Mechanic" consulting is similar to bringing your car to an auto mechanic.  The client points out the symptoms and the desired solution to the consultant, “This IT solution is too slow.  We want 3x faster response rates within $X budget.  Please determine the best solution and implement it.”  The consultant performs the diagnosis, identifies the problem, selects the appropriate solution, and implements the solution.  The client pays the consultant, and doesn't have to get his hands dirty or worry about the details of the problem.

"Doctor" consulting is analogous to going to a doctor with a health issue.  The ("doctor") consultant does a diagnosis, tells the client what the problem is and prescribes a solution (e.g., recommendation reports).  The client now knows the answer, and is responsible for implementing the solution.

2)      Set of hands:

The consultant is there as a "set of hands" to help the client execute an initiative.  The consultant’s role does not include diagnosis or developing solutions.

3)      Process:

The consultant works with the client to improve the client’s ability to diagnose problems, gather data, develop and implement solutions and manage change.  The consultant may provide assistance in diagnosis, developing solutions, and implementation, but the responsibility is on the client to learn the skills to perform those functions.


This is just one way to delineate the different types of consulting.  The not-so-little secret is that the type of consulting on an engagement may hardly ever fit into a single box, but the purpose is to be aware of primary type that would best serve your work.

So what?

By identifying which type of consulting would serve the work best and sharing that expectation with the other party, you can help increase the probability of success for both the client and consultant.

Source: Adapted from work on Process Consulting by Edgar Schein

One Response to “Choosing the right type of consulting for an engagement”

  1. Great blog Tip! It seems like establishing the consultant-client relationship at the beginning can help mitigate misunderstandings and differences of expectations in different projects at the outset.

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