IT Consultants Sued For Overstating Their Expertise. That's Like An Iceberg Being Sued For Overstating Its Heat

A California county government is suing the Deloitte consulting firm because, the lawsuit alleges, it radically overstated its expertise in a major project. What the lawsuit doesn't consider is the fact of life of consulting. Sending in senior people to convince the client that it has expertise in the topic and then sending in inexperienced, low-cost worker bees to do the actual work—this somehow surprises the people who run Marin County?

Do these people go home and get stunned when a plumber arrives late or painters don't deliver their bids when promised? We live in a world where IT consultants act like IT consultants and always will.

According to this well-done InformationWeek story about the lawsuit, the litigation claimed that Deloitte "used the County's project as a training ground to provide its neophyte consultants with public sector SAP experience, at the County's expense," that it made false claims "about its deep knowledge of SAP systems" and that "in its two years of work on the project, Deloitte engaged in a fraudulent scheme to ensure that the County would not learn the truth about Deloitte's pre-contract misrepresentations until Deloitte's fees had been paid."

The county perhaps expected Deloitte to volunteer that information before those fees had been paid?

As the oft-quoted fable The Scorpion And The Frog points out, consulting firms act this way because it's in their nature.

This is an issue with most consulting firms as opposed to individual consultants. Generally, the firms' executives present their knowledge and expertise relatively accurately. But they’re referring to their top people. Few clients drill down to ask: "What is the specific experience and knowledge of the people who will be assigned to our project, should we sign?"

That's a Retailer's Lesson One from this episode: Consulting is about people, not a corporation. You should insist on meeting with the specific people who will be on your team and, critically, list their names in the contract and make the deal conditional on them being on the project.

The counter from the consulting firm will be: "We can't do that. Our people have to be placed on the projects that make the most sense at the time." But you need to stand firm: "I was impressed with the comments made by Jane, Bill and Abhijay, and I am comparing my comfort with working with them compared with the people sent by the other firms bidding for this project. Your bid must include the specific people you'll be using. I'll compromise with you, though, on the start date. If we have to wait a few more weeks to get the team promised, we'll agree—in writing—to do so. And if you need to make a substitution, you can show me that person's background and let me interview him/her. If that person is an acceptable substitute, that's fine. But we need for you to bid a specific team and stick with them."

Retailer's Lesson Two: You don't use a consulting firm for expertise. You can use a consultant for that, or a specific person at that consulting firm (see above about specifying a person's name in the contract). But an onsite team from a consulting firm is to do work you don't want your team bothering to do.

It can be to give you a 65-person programmer boost as you're rushing to get new apps ready for the holiday season. It can even be to handle all the details of a move in a brand new area (say perhaps mobile or a cross-border program) but still be under the management of your people.

And then there's Retailer's Lesson Three: As tempting as it might be, you simply should never outsource your strategy. They can give advice, but if you're dependent on the consulting group's strategy to dictate your strategy, it is not going to end well for you or your chain.