David Dobson

Smoke and Mirrors, Virtual Companies, and Other Forms of Trickery

I’ve worked in product development in a number of roles for almost 27 years, most of it with consulting firms. I’ve tended to migrate to the consulting world because of the wide variety of projects and the never ending opportunities to learn. If you’re a high energy person with a curious mind, a great work ethic and a solid set of technical skills then consulting is a great place to be.

That said, things are not always easy in the world of consulting.  The main problem is the need to maintain a constant and consistent flow of business that keeps everyone productively occupied… and that’s not an easy task.  In order to do that, a company needs to understand who they are (capabilities, expertise, culture etc.), what’s happening in the dynamic marketplace (what’s growing, what’s dying)… and how they can fashion a unique and compelling service offering that resonates and is of value to their target market (the growing side of the equation).  All of this needs to be captured in a well thought out marketing plan, a plan that describes in a compelling way their unique value. Good execution of this plan is key.

Once the marketing plan is put into place, a consulting firm needs to mate this program/initiative with a strong business development team that understands and buys into the value proposition.  The BD team needs to intuitively ‘get it’, believe in it, and have the ability to articulate effectively this value in a way that’s both true and persuasive.  This is the world and space I now live in.

The difficult part of ‘selling’ product development consulting services is that determining the true capabilities of a firm is hard, both for the Business Development person to communicate and for the prospective customer to ascertain.  After making tons of presentations over many years, I’ve found that there is a lot of ‘smoke and mirrors’ out there.  At times it seems like everyone is claiming they can do everything well, saying and doing whatever it takes to bring the in the business and keep the billable hours up.

In order to help prospective customers understand who they’re hiring and what capabilities and experience reside in the consulting firm they want to use, I’ve compiled a list of terms and phrases often employed in the sales process… phrases that should serve as ‘red flags’. These terms and sales tactics need to be investigated further to determine their veracity and, of course, the consulting firm’s ability to work on your program effectively.

Red Flags:

  • “We are the same as them”  Usually the comparison is made with the best in the business. Really?
  • “We outsource that to our partners”  What this really means is ’we don’t have the staff or specific resources needed to work on your program so we need to find them somewhere else and figure out how to integrate them into our development process… quickly’).
  • “We have a network of contractors” or “We have a virtual company”   What this means is they need to find people to do the work they don’t know how to do themselves.  It’s not a big deal if a consulting firm doesn’t have certain capabilities that are peripheral to your needs, but it’s a show stopper if they don’t have expertise that comprehends and can work                   effectively on that part of your program which is core to your value proposition (i.e. Usability, ethnography, certain types of engineering and technologies etc.).  Spend a couple of well placed dollars and visit the potential partner’s development site to see it for yourself.
  • “We’ve worked on medical devices before”  This may or may not be true.  Designing and engineering a medical device is a very different animal than developing a consumer electronic product. Both may employ similar people/disciplines and technologies, but the process and regulatory requirements needed to design, engineer and test a medical device are a world apart from that needed to create a cool consumer electronic product.  Do your homework on this one. Find out if the firms you are talking to have the appropriate certifications, experience and processes in place to work on your project and can demonstrate that they follow them.
  • “We have X number of employees”   What difference does it make if the company you’re considering working with has 10 or 10,000 employees?  The key thing you need to determine is who will be assigned to work on your project.  Beware of the old ‘bait and switch’: Key employees (the ‘A team’ involved in the sales process) being swapped out when the project starts with B or C level employees who will actually do the work.  Ask for bios and an opportunity to interview those who will be working on your program.

Consulting firms can be a really good resource for a medical device or lab equipment company needing to accelerate their development path and get to market quickly.  They are also a great way to introduce innovation into a company because of their expertise and ability to objectively look at a problem from outside the organization.  You can have all this for a defined period of time and at a variable cost if you do your homework and investigate the claims made by each firm you evaluate.

Image: © Can Stock Photo / vorga

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