The Kids Are Alright

Many companies are discovering that consultant teams from business schools are an inexpensive means of obtaining solid advice.

Add the word “student” to an innocuous activity, and very quickly you might have cause for concern. Think of the student driver merging into your lane, or the student barber asking just how short you’d like it.

Now try this one: “student business consultant.”

The idea may seem quaintly civic-minded at best, foolhardy at worst. Yet companies of all sizes are competing for low-cost or no-cost consulting services provided by students from their local business school. Most B-schools have such a program, which may be run as a student club or a for-credit course. Many companies that have participated say it’s an inexpensive means of obtaining solid advice — an especially enticing opportunity for smaller businesses that lack hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire professional consultants.

In each of the past two years, for example, Fashion Furniture Rental has worked with student consultants from nearby San Diego State University. Company president Brian Pidgeon says he intends to continue the relationship as long as the company’s business goals jibe with the school’s curricular concerns, and as long as the price is right. Currently, it’s about $4,000 per project.

Last year, Fashion Furniture Rental worked with a team of three or four students on Web strategy and search optimization. After the company acted on the team’s advice — adding descriptive text to Web pages and implementing a transaction process that customers could complete in fewer clicks — the company brought in at least an additional $100,000 in Web business, Pidgeon estimates.

Pidgeon has no qualms about being advised by students. A former consultant for a large professional services firm, he points out that many young consultants are themselves fresh out of business school. It’s these fresh faces who are dispatched to client companies when they sign on for a six-figure consulting project, says Pidgeon, “but in terms of experience, they’re about one week smarter” than the student consultants.

Yonnie Butler, on the other hand, was a bit hesitant about his project with students from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. In previous positions with other companies, Butler — now the president of Cary, North Carolina-based pharmaceutical consultancy PharmaDirections — had worked with student consultants from other schools, and their advice was “not that beneficial.”

What sold him was the students’ enthusiasm and the company’s need for fresh perspectives unclouded by industry familiarity. One recommendation, for instance, was to bring outsourced finance functions back in-house. Another was strategic: PharmaDirections should refocus on core competencies and eliminate unprofitable services, which should save the company about $500,000 over the next three years, Butler estimates. He believes that a third recommendation — hiring an additional practice leader to help build the company’s identity and scope on the framework established by founder Richard Soltero — could return anywhere from $1 million to $3 million.

These are big payoffs for a growing business that didn’t have $75,000 to $150,000, according to Butler’s estimate, to pay for professional consulting services. By contrast, Duke’s program costs $200 in administrative fees, plus expenses.

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