The oft-repeated, apocryphal definition of a consultant goes something like this: you hire a consultant to tell you the time. He borrows your watch; tells you the time… and keeps the watch.
It's oft-repeated in hospitality circles because many people view the work of catering consultants with a degree of scepticism. If you are an operator, probably your prices have been cut by a consultant, and if you are a client, you may have just paid a consultant's invoice and wondered what you achieved. "Well, I knew that anyway. Obvious really; just took an outsider to point it out."
Consultants may not attract the same levels of mistrust as - let's say - some high-street estate agents, or clumsy conveyancing solicitors, or motorway planning officers who decide that the country's entire surplus of red-and-white road cones should be stored at the junction of the M25 and the M40 on the very Sunday that you have to travel to Oxford for an important family party. No, consultants come way down that particular league table. But to many catering operators used to dealing directly with the client, consultants often appear to get in the way and slow things down.
It is an unjust reputation, of course, because it ignores the great contribution that the majority of consultants make to improving competitiveness and sharpening business procedure. But, let's face it, like football hooligans in France, it takes only one or two rogue operators to spoil the party. And that is why the Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI) has felt it necessary to endorse a new code of practice for consultants.
The code should be welcomed by all sides - consultants, clients and operators alike - particularly if it clears up some of the muddle about how less-scrupulous consultants earn their fees. If it achieves nothing else, then it provides a point of reference for all parties involved in, and affected by, the work of catering consultancies. The mistrust that elements of the industry feel is often based on a misunderstanding of consultants' work, and if the code of practice helps create a better dialogue between clients, manufacturers and operators, then it will prove to be a great leap forward for all concerned.
Leaving that achievement aside, however, the code should be seen as only the beginning of a broader process. There is a strong argument for it to be developed further and worked into a scheme of professional certification, with minimum entry levels and strict guidelines for operating.
According to the FCSI, such a scheme is being put to the test in the USA. As soon as the results begin to come through, everything should be done to put in place something similar in the UK and Europe. This may already be on the timetable, but let's hope that it comes sooner rather than later, and before the momentum of this first stage is lost.
Caterer & Hotelkeeper