What is the difference between consultants and advisors in business? Beyond my own opinion and experiences, I researched both roles on how they are perceived today and investigated the history of the activities and the etymology of the terms.
The term “consultant” originates in the Latin word “consultare,” which means “to discuss something” or “to deliberate.”
An “adviser” or, the more popular alternative version, “advisor” is derived from an old French phrase that goes “ce m’est a vis” (in my view). The “vis” originally comes from the Latin word “visum” which is the past participle form of “videre” (to see). Before people used the word “to advise,” there was an old version written “to avise,” which fills the gap between origin and current use.
What does a consultant do?
A consultant is engaged in fulfilling pre-defined terms such as solving problems or underlying constraints. These terms are defined by a sponsor or stakeholder and usually, the consultant is presented with a task after the need to solve a particular problem has already been identified.
Sometimes it is expected from a consultant to take care of the problems on their own and report the solution to the sponsor. More often, however, the consultant will prepare options for how to solve the problem and then discusses the pros and cons with the sponsor.
In rare cases, a consultant is used to replace a management position temporarily until a long-term replacement has been hired.
What does an advisor do?
An advisor has deep knowledge across multiple disciplines and has experience in working in several functions. The role of the advisor can be compared with a mentor or guide around a broad scope of subjects and differs categorically from the scope of a task-specific consultant.
The advisor is usually a long-term member of an organization and understands the organization’s strategic targets of near-, mid-, and far-future planning. He or she knows the staff, the leadership, clients, and all other related individuals and their services/products very well and is able to translate perspective and verbiage from one angle to another.
Advisors identify issues (or tasks in general) before they become a problem and share their opinion and insight with the stakeholders. They raise their concern in an adequate way and help to address work items in order to clear out the “threat” of not engaging in this particular activity. The advisors usually decide on their own how much of their own time they invest in the activities, based on the severity of the issues.
So in a compact format, what is the difference between a consultant and an advisor?
- Consultants act retroactively, advisors act proactively
- Both consultants and advisors can be either external or internal
- Consultants have functional roles; advisors are usually part of the leadership
- Consultants are generally hands-on problem solvers; advisors lay out the plan and explain the necessity
- Consultants typically work with sponsors or stakeholders and not with advisors directly
- There is no difference in the quality of work between these two roles; they do different work
The Norwegian loan agency Lån For deg may serve as an example. While their financial consultants work dedicatedly to find solutions to their customers’ specific financial needs, their advisors lay out strategic plans to maintain the company’s strong market share.
The reputation of consultants has suffered severely in recent years. Suppose you provide professional services as a freelancer or within an organization and feel that you cover the activities from both roles, as described above. In that case, I recommend you market the services as advisory rather than consulting to avoid such issues. However, if you feel that consulting as per this definition is the most appropriate term for yourself or your service, you can surely make use of it if the messaging is clear. Firms Consulting, for instance, have made their offering for consulting and professional services very clear in their marketing so that prospects can better understand what they do.
When I started work in the newly established “Professional Services” team of GMS Global Media Services GmbH in early 2013, CEO Tobias Enders gave a book to all founding team members. The book was titled “The Trusted Advisor” (written by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford) and lays down a great framework for the good practices of advisory work. It splits up into client relationship management, professional services and a guideline to being a (…you guessed it) trusted advisor.
Also interesting: What’s the Difference between a Technician and an Engineer?