I got an email last week from a consulting firm launching a new service line. I wasn’t the only one, as Dave Haynes gave his competitors some free publicity, which speaks well of him. The digital signage industry needs many things, one of which is a stable of credible, focused consulting practices competing for business. However, one thing the industry most certainly does not need is an entity that purports to serve as “Underwriters Lab” or “Consumer Reports” providing a self-described beacon of objectivity as people wade through the apocryphal 300 vendor offerings. That is arguably neither consulting nor a model that will advance the industry. There are many reasons why, and I speak here as someone who built a very substantial consulting firm helping large companies select software from a fragmented field of vendors. I am not an expert on many things, but when it comes to helping sophisticated (and sometimes less sophisticated) clients understand software requirements, alternatives and strategies, I have walked the walk. I hope this discussion can help both providers and consumers of consulting services in our sector.

The Myth of Big Numbers

Yes, there are literally hundreds of choices in terms of digital signage software providers. But the fact is that for an end user who is willing to invest substantial cash in order to make an informed decision, the field of truly qualified providers is actually less than 20, and I believe that I am being very generous to the last 8. A client should be paying the consultant to understand and challenge business requirements, filter out the obvious non-starters from that group, and ensure that there are no unique needs that might actually widen the search. Anyone throwing the Software Holocron on the conference room table and telling a client how much work it is to sort through all the choices is being disingenuous at best. The truth is that the task of running a collaborative and positive process is far more difficult than narrowing the preliminary field. A good consultant invests his or her time to develop a deep understanding of what is out there and how it changes over time. A client pays a consultant to bring a starting point to the process, and for the process itself. If that makes intuitive sense, and it should, then the number of solution providers is not really that daunting.

To the consultants: You are selling process, knowledge and methodology.

To the end users: You are buying perspective, experience and insurance. Know who you are buying it from.

The Best Consultants Are Independent

The value of hiring a consultant includes gaining their experience, knowledge and perspective. Their ability to assimilate the unique and important elements of your business and relate it to the selection of a solution is also incredibly critical to the success of a project. But perhaps the most important quality that a consultant should bring to a selection process is independence. They should be free of any taint of favoritism, sponsorship or conflict of interest. Why would anyone want to pay for a process in which the outcome is stilted or pre-ordained? That would be letting someone steal your watch and then tell you what time it is. Demand that a consultant not just tell you they are independent, make them prove it. Where have they worked before, and with what software? What biases do they have, both positive and negative, and why? How many different solutions have they selected and installed for clients or purchased and deployed as end users? Have they ever received a check or payment of any kind from a vendor? These are reasonable questions to ask, knowing that everyone got their experience one way or another, and that personal biases are acceptable if they are explainable.

To the consultants: Stake your reputation on independence. It is great and valuable to have relationships with many vendors, insight into what they do well and a sense of their roadmap. Invest your time to build that. Don’t sell out.

To the end users: You must ensure that you and your team are part of the process, and you must be willing to participate and challenge assumptions along the way. That is how you will get the most value and best results.

Pay to Play is a Horrible Idea For Everyone

Credible folks with passion, smarts and experience have posited this idea of a business model where vendors would actually pay them to “review” their software independently, and compile their findings as a resource to potential customers, who presumably would also pay dearly for them. This makes absolutely no sense to me. Independence goes out the door as soon as a check is written. I can’t imagine that any of the usual suspects in the industry who would actually consider this scheme to be a marketing expense (and we all know who they are) would tolerate anything other than a glowing review. I certainly would not, but then again, I would pay a consultant to review our solution right after we play some hockey on the River Styx. The result of this innocent sounding “Consumer Reports” scheme is a self-selected short list of vendors willing to pay to get preferential treatment. This isn’t SEO, and the decision being made is not which smartphone cover to buy! Selecting a digital signage solution is a strategic decision that will cost lots of money. Should an end user assume that anyone not in the compendium of paid reviews has a substandard offering, or that those paid reviews are legitimate? I don’t think so. We exist in an industry where confusion among newcomers is rampant. Having people with good resumes touting paid reviews as value-added consulting is not helpful. Real consultants should be selling process, methods and independence, learning their clients’ business and optimizing client outcomes over personal incomes. Pay to play is a bad model developed by ostensibly good people. If they really are smart, they will abandon it, and apply their ingenuity to methodology and toolkit, even if that requires investment. There would be ROI on that effort.

To the consultants and end users: When independence is not important, neither is credibility.

To my fellow vendors: There are better ways to deploy your capital. Just say no.

There are lots of lists and directories out there that help identify alternatives. What we lack are competitive, independent consultants who have invested the time to understand strategy, the concept of “fit”, the particular strengths and weaknesses of the top offerings, and who have developed a methodology for melding fit with process. Having competition among consultants will allow end users to assess approach, qualifications and results. When we get there, better decisions will be made, which advances the industry for everyone.