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Will the real consultant please stand up?

[Compos Mentis][September 9, 2006] If you are not sleeping well, your health and happiness suffer. So goes an advertisement that is run by a chain of furniture stores on a local TV channel. The ad goes on to encourage the viewer to visit the furniture store and to speak to a ‘Trained Sleep Consultant.’ A Sleep Consultant?

The sleep consultant is, of course, a mattress salesperson who earns a substantial commission if you buy a mattress. Perhaps they should also mention that if the ‘sleep consultant’ persuades you to buy a more expensive mattress (it really doesn’t matter if it is a better mattress) he makes more money!

Unfortunately, the word consultant has been abused to the point where it has many meanings and often raises hazy expectations. What a consultant really is – or should be – deserves careful reflection.

In business we seek good advice wherever we can find it. When we ask a supplier for advice, we know that self-interest clouds some of what we will hear, and we discount for the lack of objectivity. But when we ask our accountants and attorneys we expect expert, candid advice that is untainted by self-interest or conflicts of interest. They are consultants. Although they may not always be ‘lily white’ these professions do have Canons of Ethics. They are governed by law and have distinct liability for the conduct of their consulting practices.

Businesses draw on many other consultants. For example, there are expert consultants in the fields of metering, AMR and the related IT systems in a utility. And there are people who claim to be experts in these fields, but are not. There are contractors working full time in a sales/marketing capacity for a single metering and AMR vendor who call themselves consultants. They are not consultants. They are selling meters (or mattresses).

Then there are large ‘consulting’ organisations pushing their own software and CIS systems. Are they consultants? There are hardware suppliers that have acquired ‘consulting’ companies, thus compromising the objectivity of the company. There are AMR consultants without technical credentials who purport to guide utilities through the technology selection process. There are AMR consultants whose activities are closely aligned with a single vendor in an unhealthy “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” series of mutual referrals. Yes, consultants come in all sizes and shapes.

The expert metering and AMR consultant must be a master of all the technical and business ramifications of a vast array of products, suppliers, utility needs, regulatory trends, contracting practices and more. Utilities don’t install or replace AMR systems very often, and cannot be expected to have all the needed skills ready and waiting. That is what consultants are for. But in selecting a consultant the utility must ask the right questions if it is to avoid the commissioned ‘sleep consultant’. The two most important criteria are:

  1. Does the consultant really have the depth of experience and detailed knowledge needed?

  2. Is the consultant’s absolute objectivity assured, with no hidden agendas or conflicts of interest?

Most of the truly expert consultants in metering and AMR are with small specialised firms or are sole practitioners. A large mid-west US utility proudly engaged a large and familiar ‘brand name’ consulting firm to assist with its prospective acquisition of an AMR system. The consulting firm, in fact, had only a superficial under-standing of the metering and AMR field. There were two protracted request for proposal cycles by this utility, each very costly to the vendors who participated. And nothing happened thereafter.

While the utility claims it acquired valuable “intellectual property” in this painful exercise, whatever it learned became out of date very quickly. What the utility should have learned was that neither it nor the consultants had the experience or knowledge to conduct a cost-efficient analysis, justification and procurement process.

People sometimes ask why the attrition among AMR vendors is so high. One reason is that poorly advised utilities often make extreme demands on vendors as a condition of being considered for a procurement. Most ‘big name’ consulting firms simply do not have the specialist expertise to guide a utility through the complex process of acquiring an AMR system. Some also do not have the objectivity.

In the US, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) has established a Code of Ethics for Engineers on their website. This comprehensive document includes brief Fundamental Canons that prominently incorporate the words competence and objective.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Utilities should expect to pay well for top notch consultants, but then they have the right to demand ample evidence of specific competence in this field and complete objectivity. You can engage a real consultant or a sleep consultant. It is your choice.

If you would like to comment on this Viewpoint, please write to the author at cm@metering.com