Sales vs Consulting – The Cost of Independence

What is the role of the “independent consultant”?  And should the “independent consultant” be allowed to benefit from a “sale” based on his/her independent recommendation?  Software vendors with “reseller” programs have always wanted a “free sales force” of consultants who offer their software “exclusively”; no salary, no benefits, no costs. These consultants are “paid” by the vendor in the form of commissions on sales (often narrowly defined) or referral fees and access to NFR copies of the software.  And yet, the questions arises, when one vendor demands exclusivity, what is the “price” for independence.  This article looks at the price and the benefits of an in independent non-exclusive consulting program to clients.  Some of the arguments are obvious, but they bear restating.

Independent consultants are into sales; but they are selling expertise, implementation and training, as well as product.  There are some consultants who are paid to just make recommendations and then leave.  In the document assembly space, consultants build solutions for their clients.  In doing so they often choose the most powerful and most cost-effective solution for their clients that is available within their client’s budget.  Their primary loyalty is, has been, and should be, to their clients.  The success of a consultant is measured in the increased productivity of their clients (real money to their bottom line) and the fact that clients will return to a good consultant to expand, extend and enhance a document assembly system; taking it to the next level.

A good programmer, like a good document consultant is not conversant in a single language. Who ever heard of a “good” Visual Basic programmer, who was not also conversant in C##, .NET, and PHP?  Limiting yourself to a single language for solutions will not result in a good fit.  Many solutions require a blending of languages, as when I blend a VB macro into a document assembly solution, or extend the help text in a web-based interview with javascript rules, even with dynamic prompts and option sets that call on custom functions outside the core document assembly engine.  Moreover, the expertise and approaches in one language are transferable to other languages.  Syntax and variable naming conventions that come from an object-oriented programming language like GhostFill can be adapted to HotDocs, Exari, DealBuilder/ContractExpress, and XpressDox.

The same document assembly syntax naming conventions can be used to manage merge templates for grabbing data out of Time Matters, Amicus Attorney and Advologix.  Only by exposing yourself to all these platforms can a consultant develop the breadth of knowledge and approaches to best serve clients.  There is real benefit to the client from this broad-based knowledge.  Regardless of the platform ultimately chosen, a “liberal arts” educated program will be able to build a powerful solution, exploiting the full power of the chosen platform.

So what if the consultant is “paid” by the vendor in the form of a commission?  When the software is “cheap” relative to the cost of the development and programming, pay is not a relevant factor that affects the independence of the consultant.  However, as the size of the software ticket increases, the size and scope of the commission does become a larger factor.  Ideally, the commission as between “competing platforms” or alternate solutions would be equalized with the result that the commission drops out as a factor in the recommendation.  However, if one vendor decides to exclude the consultant from any commissions where other vendors don’t, it is hard for that not to factor into the equation, when all other considerations are equal.

Maybe independent consultants should not be “paid” by vendors; conversely, “dependent” consultants should disclose the extent of their commission structure and payments.  That certainly puts a price on the “independence” that is not expected by those who choose to select a single-source vendor. Is the “loyalty” such a factor that it is to be rewarded, where independent judgment isn’t?

And what is the benefit to vendors from working with “independent consultants”?  Perhaps it is that their solutions will be presented to clients in a balanced and informed light by knowledgeable practitioners.  These practitioners can propose realistic solutions, including presenting side-by-side comparisons of products.  Given the maturity of the technology in the document assembly space, that isn’t a bad thing for either clients or vendors. An “informed consumer is our best customer” as one advertising campaign went.  What are the afraid of? This is not winner-takes-all sales and marketing; but a sale occurs nevertheless.

Disclosure For many years, I have been a Certified HotDocs Consultant (over 10 years).  During that period, I have benefited from NFR software and access to developers.  At various times I have purchased HotDocs software for “resale” to my clients at a discount and pocketed some of that difference.  At other times I have facilitated arrangements between my clients and HotDocs for publishing licenses (Interactive Legal Systems and Minnesota Bar Association); more recently I have received commissions on some of my software sales. I have worked with GhostFill which had a “wholesale purchase model” and a commission model; as well as a revenue sharing model (as for the 200 firms in Nebraska that we support on a Probate System).  I have worked with Business Integrity creating a consumer facing estate planning system.  And I have partnered with Exari and the U.S.Department of Agriculture wherein I subcontracted my services to Exari to come under a government contract. Previously I worked with Perfectus, The Technology Group, makers of SmartWords, and before that I worked with MasterDraft. Incidentally, all 3 products are defunct. On top of that, I have analyzed and deconstructed several defunct document assembly systems, including CAPS Author Systems, PowerTXT, and even Visual WorkForm systems.  So I have been both “compensated” and “independent”. You be the judge whether that is worthwhile.