Integrated consultancy means recognising the problem behind the issue and solving it

An interview with Heribert Sterr-Kölln, Managing Director of Sterr-Kölln & Partner mbB, on working with an integrated consultancy team

Mr. Sterr-Kölln, integrated consultancy: can you explain it in one sentence?

"I have been searching for a single sentence for years...but our guidelines define it quite well: integrated consultancy means using different yet all necessary expertise, to identify, understand and solve the problem."

Can you be a bit more specific?

"I'll give you a practical example. Imagine a company, a supplier in the renewable energy field. In just a few years the innovative start-up has grown into a company of 60 employees. Demand is increasing and production cannot keep up. Investments are required… and quite substantial investments, too. An initial refusal from the bank is attributed to a lack of securities. Potential investors are generally suspicious of innovation. So how can the company secure the funds that it needs?

Integrated consultancy means not taking the facts at face value. It would appear that the company would only have to present the promising figures in the right way. But juggling with figures is not a long-term solution and does not gain the trust of banks.

Looking beyond the facts and figures into the organisation and the people involved we found company structures which had hardly changed since the start-up phase. They did not reflect the new demands on management, planning and internal controls evolved in the years since. Discussions with employees and management showed that people and tasks had grown apart. Expertise urgently needed in the current status was missing.

Together with the client, we helped the company adapt to its success; integrating new expertise and using existing expertise better. This is how we have gained the trust of lenders in the end."

Do you need special training for this type of approach? Or a specific employees?

"It depends. Of course you have to be a professional with a recognized level of expertise. But having a feel for the right questions, the ability to listen, empathy for others (including for colleagues)... all of that cannot be learned at the university. We exercise these skills. Not everyone is open to this approach, but a surprising number of people in my experience are. It is just not generally promoted or rewarded."

Not promoted? But companies explicitly look for team players ...

"Team work frequently means that people work together on something but the areas of work are strictly allocated. Crossing barriers may be considered unwarranted interference. This is often the case - but not with us."

Is the same not true of clients? Don't they find it interfering if you deal with things that don't have anything to do with the reason for the problem?

"No client welcomes interference in their own field of expertise. But our partners quickly notice that our questions are helping to get to the core of the problem.

Let me give you another example: A medium-sized business purchased licenses for manufacturing special biogas systems and wants to establish itself on the European market. However, the market reacted with scepticism. There were not any reference projects to prove the capability of the manufacturer when entering the market.

We then started to ask questions: How is the product positioned? How is it marketed? Is the calculation right? Are sales structured well? These questions suddenly revealed that that the most promising negotiations frequently failed just before their conclusion. The supply contract gave reason to time-consuming discussions. Guarantees and warranties did not inspire confidence.

Dealing with the entire negotiation process and the contractual terms and conditions brought us closer to the solution: we made contracts more simple instead of employing a complicated marketing concept or restructuring sales. The company now works with standardized contractual clauses in which the customers' interests are taken into account and clearly formulated. The size of the supply contract is significantly shortened from 68 pages to 27 pages. A binding term sheet saves the negotiation marathon that negatively affects the customer relationship."

One final question: is integrated a specialist term?

 "No. Once we had identified how we come up with good solutions, the word 'interdisciplinary' caused us increasing unease. It simply didn't hit the core of our consultancy concept.

We then searched for a name for our concept. The term intends to cover several aspects at the same time: our interdisciplinary view of the whole problem, but also the idea of not only working for, but especially working together with our clients. The term 'integrated', there-fore also includes the idea of being 'in accordance' with our client in working towards the best possible common solution. This is something I personally like very much."