(Ed. Note: It has been three months since my last post, my annual prediction post. I could give a number of excuses for the hiatus, but suffice it to say that it has been a busy time. But we’re back.)
Two of the bigger trends evident in the digital signage marketplace right now are the emerging interest of large corporations in DOOH in all its forms; and long time network owners taking a hard look at next generation platforms. In both cases, it is common (and well-advised, at least in theory) to see the decision makers look for outside help in evaluating the marketplace, defining requirements and selecting partners. That is where it gets interesting, as it can be argued that the selection of consultants will impact the outcome of the project itself. This is not solely because one consultant may be smarter, more experienced or better qualified to carry off the assignment than the next, although that can often be the case. It is also because it is extremely hard to find a consultant who understands the digital signage space, yet is untainted by vendor influence. For both reasons, becoming an informed buyer of consulting services is in your best interest.
Here is a quick checklist for evaluating consultants:
- The single most important trait that a consultant can bring to the table is independence. Having no vested interest in “who wins” means that all logical and realistic options will be considered. Independence means not taking money from entities that you may be evaluating on a purportedly level playing field. A dirty little industry secret is that the majority of the people consulting in digital signage have been severely compromised by some of the larger vendors in the business. In particular, Intel and Samsung have thrown consulting money around like sailors on shore leave for many years. You can bet it gets chalked up to marketing, because that is what it is. They are not alone. Some of their competitors and many software providers have not been shy about keeping influential consultants friendly to their cause. A “research project” here, a speaking gig there may seem innocuous, but who among us forgets where their bread is buttered? Ask a simple question, “What vendors have you done paid assignments for?”
- The next most important traits are credibility and perspective. A consultant must arrive at a client site and gain respect and credibility almost immediately in order to have a project succeed. That credibility comes from their experience, both before their consulting career and during it. There really needs to be a sense of “been there, done that” to gain the confidence of clients who are actually there, doing that. Powerpoint decks can only get you so far. Sharing perspective, asking smart questions and establishing credibility go much further. When I ran a retail technology consulting firm, we rarely hired someone who didn’t answer yes to a variation of this question: “Have you ever eaten pizza at 1 AM while doing an inventory?” Our industry is not so young that we haven’t eaten hundreds of pizzas during rollouts, code releases and the like. You should value relevant experience on the ground over parachuters from ivory towers.
- A good consultant has a methodology and continuously evolves it. Whether the project is the development of a business strategy, the creation of operational processes, or the selection and implementation of technology, there needs to be a method for getting to the best outcome. Discovery of the unique aspects of the client’s business must be mixed with deep knowledge of best practices (and Bozo no-no’s) and appropriate research. All of this should be supported with interview templates, process diagrams, core requirements and an understanding of the impact of technology. The magic of consulting is based upon creating a fact base, identifying opportunities and issues and then using those to filter potential action steps. The best way to do that is working in concert with a cross-functional project team and applying time-tested methods for each phase of the project. Walking in with a pre-packaged answer has little value, even if it turns out to be the “right” answer. Consulting success is driven by a mixture of consensus building and knowledge transfer. A solid methodology is the backbone for making that happen. Remember that the process will influence the outcome, and understand what the consulting process will be.
- Sometimes it takes a team. Digital signage is really the application of many skills and technologies. It would be unusual for a single person to have the chops to consult credibly on content strategy, operational effectiveness and the many elements of technology integration required to make a digital signage project succeed. As such, it is often the case that a team of subject matter experts (SMEs) can collaborate efficiently on any given assignment. A consultant (or consulting firm) that recognizes this and leverages the SME approach is likely to bring more value to the assignment.
- Learning is never complete. Because our industry is grounded in technology, rapid change is a given. Sprinkle in the dynamics of the many companies in the space, results of recent projects and frequent introduction of new products, and you can sense how a static view of the marketplace limits the possible outcomes of a project. Good consultants understand the playing field; have unpaid working relationships with many vendors; can speak authoritatively on what is new and where; and actively invest the time to stay current. It is not an easy task, but it is the price one pays to be credible. Has your consultant seen all the products they solicit proposals from? Can they articulate the differences between them? It is useful to determine the currency and breadth of their knowledge in many areas.
Being smart about how you choose a consultant is as important as checking your parachute before jumping from a plane. It increases the odds that you’ll be around to talk about the adventure later. I share these ideas and issues as a classically trained Big 6 management consultant who built a 90-person technology consulting firm. I live on the other side as a vendor now, and would like nothing more than to see educated buyers drive digital signage consulting practices up several notches. That would be good for everyone.