I know lots of "consultants". I'm sure you do too. What does that actually mean?
"A consultant (from the Latin consultare means "to
discuss" from which we also derive words such as consul and counsel)
is a professional who provides advice in a
particular area of expertise such as management,
the environment, entertainment, technology,
law (tax law,
in particular), human resources, marketing,
food production, medicine,
life management, economics, public affairs, communication,
sound system design, graphic design, or waste management."
Some people call me to ask me for advice about their online marketing efforts or their website development. Since I provide both services (and more), can I really be called a consultant? I suppose I can be, because I take it upon myself to provide an objective view of the client's needs. If a client may be better served by another company, I'll tell them so.
The line between consulting and sales has been blurred in the past couple of decades as providers of solutions are now "consultants". Are those consultants giving their clients objective advice about what is available in the marketplace when they provide a possible solution to their client's needs? One hopes so, but that's a tough call, and it may not even be important in some ways. If you call IBM Business Consulting, are you really expecting your consultant to tell you that Dell has the best products and services to meet your needs? I think you're calling IBM to have them consult you on what the best IBM solution is to your problems.
Independent consultants are getting harder and harder to find, in my opinion. These are people who don't have a vested interest in products or services they may suggest as solutions to your problem. Dennis O'Neill comes to mind when I think of an independent consultant. He will help you work on a marketing or sales program and tell you new flyers are necessary. He doesn't tell you which printer to get them from - he makes no money off the solution, but he consults on what the solution should be.
So if consulting in the modern sense is really sales, then why don't people just say they sell? Probably because the sales industry realized long ago that people don't like to be "sold" something - they prefer a more consultative approach. Now sales people are often given titles similar to "Sales Consultant" to take the edge off "sales", as if it's a dirty word.
My suggestion: if your "consultant" also provides the source of products for the solutions they present, they're salespeople. Yes, they're consulting you - on which of the products and services they offer as part of their solution are the best fit for you. It's no different than walking into an office furniture store and buying a desk. The "Sales Consultant" will work with you to see if the products they have fit your requirements. If you really wanted a consultant, you would have hired an interior designer or "space consultant" to find out what kind of desk would be best for you before going shopping.
I think the next decade will see "consulting" become as dirty a word as "sales". Just my $0.02 for you.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.