Research

Is your firm at risk of a reputational crisis?

Three ways to ensure that people see your business the way you want them to

In 2010, one of Europe’s leading management consulting firms* faced a reputational challenge among its clients and in the labour market. It wasn’t because the firm had lost its founding CEO or because international competitors were threatening to steal its market share. It was because a gap had grown between the firm’s identity and reputation. In other words, how the firm viewed itself was very different from how its clients viewed it.

Why was this a problem? Because ‘a disconnect between a firm’s image of itself and the way clients and other vital stakeholders view it can dramatically damage a firm’s credibility’, explains Tim Morris, Professor of Management Studies at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. ‘Management consulting firms offer intangible services, so reputation is often the only way clients have to evaluate them. If a firm says one thing but does another, it will not take long for potential clients to look elsewhere.’

Together with his colleagues from the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, Dr Milena Müller Santos and Professor William Harvey (now at the University of Exeter), Morris studied the reputational crisis and recovery of the management firm. Based on their study, the researchers identified three ways that firms can manage the gap between reputation and identity – and effectively lower their risk for a reputational crisis.

1. Leverage the reputation of your employees

Your employees are your most powerful asset. What they say and what they do determines how the world sees your business. Empower them to reflect your firm’s identity in every external interaction they have – whether that be with clients or even the competition – and your reputation will improve.  

‘Encourage and incentivise your consultants to live your firm’s values through their actions, and clients will see you as you want to be seen’, Morris explains. 

People celebrating against sunset

2. Create thought leadership that stands out

Becoming a thought leader in the market boosts your firm’s credibility and allows you to shape your external narrative.

Morris says it is often the tried-and-tested pathways that have the most impact. ‘Engaging in high profile debate and comment with authoritative media outlets and highly regarded broadcasters allows you to cut through the noise and establish your organisation as an expert in the areas that are important to you’, he notes.

 

3. Overdeliver on projects

‘Under promise and overdeliver’ is a common concept in professional services – because it works. Morris suggests using the tactic to impress your clients, but employing it with discipline.

‘Calculated over-delivery can send a signal to clients that your firm is dedicated and professional. However, they will become suspicious if your consultants complete a six-month project in six weeks, or at 50 percent of the planned cost. At the least, going “over the top” can come across as desperate. At worst, it can damage client trust.’

 

Reputation and identity conflict in management consulting is co-authored by William Harvey, Tim Morris and Milena Müller Santos, and is published in Human Relations.

*The firm studied by the researchers has asked to remain anonymous.