Navigating Asymmetrical Information in Consulting Procurement

Asymmetrical information isn’t just an abstract concept relegated to economics textbooks; it’s a pivotal notion that shapes real-world market dynamics. Join your trusted host, Helene, on the latest episode of the Smart Consulting Sourcing podcast, where we delve deep into the application of this theory in the realm of consulting procurement.

Discover how the disparity in information can tilt the playing field, leading clients to either overspend on unnecessary services or fall short of their desired outcomes due to underspending. In an ever-evolving landscape of consulting procurement, where decisions can make or break strategic endeavors, it’s imperative for clients to navigate through the haze of asymmetrical information.

Tune in to gain invaluable insights into overcoming this obstacle and making informed choices that drive operational excellence amidst the complexities of consulting procurement.

Key Takeaways

  • Asymmetric information in consulting procurement complicates value measurement and negotiation for clients.
  • In consulting, clients often make decisions with incomplete information, leading to potential mismatches between their needs and procured services.
  • Adverse selection in consulting can result from information imbalances, where lower quality services dominate due to buyers’ inability to assess value accurately.
  • Clients struggle to differentiate between high-quality consulting firms and lower-quality ones due to information imbalances.
  • Lack of clear indicators in consulting can lead clients to hesitate investing in potentially low-quality services, undervaluing high-quality consultants.
  • Choosing a consultant is like dating; assessing value and quality isn’t easy due to the absence of standard metrics.
  • Companies often stick with incumbent consultants out of fear of the unknown, straying from core competencies, while finding the perfect match between client needs and consultant expertise is what matters the most.


Welcome back to Smart Consulting Sourcing, the ultimate podcast for insights into the world of consulting procurement. My name is Helene and I’m your host, and today we will discuss about asymmetrical information. We’ll first understand what it means, and then delve deep into the topic. But before we do that, let me give you a brief reap of what we talked about in the previous episode.

Consulting is inherently unique and strategic, capable of significantly enhancing your business’s value. However, its intangible nature complicates project scoping, value measurement, and negotiation. The key to navigating these challenges is to introduce structured processes in a thoughtful way, allowing you to leverage the full benefits of consulting services without compromising their need for creativity and flexibility.

Moreover, there’s a personal and emotional dimension to consider. Your internal stakeholders may form personal relationships with their consultants. This adds another layer of complexity, requiring a delicate balance in managing these relationships carefully to ensure they don’t cloud judgment or decision-making.

Acknowledging and addressing this emotional component is crucial in maintaining objectivity and maximizing the value of your consulting engagements. Striking this balance between process discipline, flexibility, and emotional intelligence is a demanding yet vital exercise for optimizing consulting outcomes.

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Remember to spread these nuggets of wisdom with your network and leave us a review – your feedback fuels our passion to continually bring you top-tier content. Plus, we’ve got exciting, hands-on workshops lined up, covering everything from mastering negotiations with consulting firms to crafting effective RFPs. Keen to join? Reach out at and embark on this enriching journey with us!

Now back to today’s discussion and here’s where it gets a little tricky. This week’s topic is the curveball in the game and that is – asymmetrical information. So, let’s jump straight into it!

Understanding Asymmetrical Information

So, what’s this fancy term all about, and why does it make measuring value and negotiating even harder for you, the client? Imagine you’re out shopping for a computer. You want something that can handle your marathon Netflix sessions and your last-minute work presentations without breaking a sweat. But beyond that, you’re in the dark. The salesperson, however, knows the ins and outs of every model on display. This mismatch in knowledge? That’s asymmetrical information at its finest.

In the simplest terms, asymmetrical information occurs when one party in a transaction has more or better information than the other. In the grand marketplace of life, this imbalance can tilt the scales, affecting not just the price but also the quality of goods and services that are exchanged.

Think about it: when sellers know more about the product than buyers, they can easily mask deficiencies or overstate the value, leading to decisions that aren’t in the best interest of the buyer. This imbalance can skew the market, sometimes causing it to fail entirely. Why? Because trust erodes, and with it, the willingness of buyers to take risks on what they don’t fully understand.

Now, let’s parallel this to the consulting industry. Consulting services, by their nature, are complex and often tailored to the specific needs of a business. This customization adds a layer of ambiguity in evaluating these services. Clients know they need help to solve a problem or improve their business, but deciphering which consulting firm offers the best solution is where the challenge lies. Information about the effectiveness, approach, and true value of the services remains predominantly with the consulting firms.

Remember our computer shopping analogy? Now, think about when you’re in the market for a new TV. How do you navigate the myriad of models, specs, and features? If you’re like me, and probably many others, you turn to comparison sites and sift through client feedback. This is your flashlight in the dark, cutting through the fog of asymmetrical information. Why? Because these resources offer some unbiased information, a peek into the experiences of others who were once in your shoes, making it a tad easier to compare apples to apples—or in this case, pixels to pixels.

This approach to breaking down asymmetrical information is exactly what’s missing in the consulting industry. Clients are trying to make informed decisions with incomplete information, leading to potential mismatches between their needs and the consulting services procured. The lack of transparent, unbiased information can result in clients either overspending for services they don’t need or underspending and not getting the results they hoped for. The stakes are high, and the cost of a misstep isn’t just financial; it can impact strategic outcomes and operational efficiency.

The “Lemons” Theory and Consulting

So, we can’t avoid a bit of theory this time. Asymmetrical information isn’t just an academic term thrown around in economics classes; it’s a concept so crucial that it was recognized with a Nobel Prize. Yes, you heard that right—a Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded for delving into how information imbalances can seriously skew market outcomes.

As I explained earlier, the concept revolves around situations where one party in a transaction has more or better information than the other. This imbalance can lead to adverse selection, where products of lower quality (the “lemons”) dominate the market because buyers cannot accurately assess their value.

George Akerlof’s seminal work, “The Market for Lemons,” fundamentally changes how we view market transactions, especially under conditions of asymmetrical information. At the heart of Akerlof’s analysis is the used car market, an example that brilliantly illustrates the concept and its consequences. So, let me break down the theory, using the very scenario Akerlof used to bring this concept to life.

Imagine you’re in the market to buy a used car. There are two types of cars available: good quality cars, which we’ll call “peaches,” and bad quality cars, known as “lemons.” The seller knows which cars are lemons and which are peaches, but as a buyer, you don’t have this information. All you see is a range of used cars with no sure way to distinguish the good from the bad.

In this scenario, because of the risk of buying a lemon, you’re likely to offer a price that reflects the average quality of cars in the market. This price is somewhere between what you’d pay for a lemon and what you’d pay for a peach.

Here’s where the problem intensifies: Sellers of peaches (the good cars) know that their cars are worth more than the average price buyers are willing to pay. They’re not willing to sell at this lower price, so they withdraw from the market. This leaves a higher proportion of lemons, which further lowers the average quality of cars and, consequently, the price buyers are willing to pay. It becomes a vicious cycle, where eventually, the market is flooded with lemons, and the high-quality goods are driven out.

Akerlof’s insight into the used car market reveals a fundamental issue in markets where one party has more information than the other. This imbalance can lead to a market failure where high-quality goods are underrepresented or entirely absent. The crux of the problem is trust—or rather, the lack of it. When buyers can’t distinguish between high and low quality, they adjust their willingness to pay accordingly, which can disincentivize the sale of high-quality products.

Just like in the used car market, the consulting industry is fraught with asymmetrical information. Clients (that is, the buyers) struggle to differentiate between the high-quality consulting firms (the peaches) and the lower-quality ones (the lemons). Without clear indicators of a firm’s ability to deliver value, clients might hedge their bets, reluctant to invest heavily in services that could potentially be lemons. This dynamic can lead to high-quality consultants being undervalued or overlooked, mirroring the market failure Akerlof described.

Navigating the Fog: When Choosing a Consultant Feels Like Blind Dating

“Now, I can almost hear the chorus of skeptics out there saying, ‘Bla bla bla, this is all just theory. How can a theory about used cars possibly apply to the refined world of consulting procurement? We’re much more sophisticated buyers than car buyers, right?’ Well, short answer? Not really.

At first glance, comparing the procurement of consulting services to buying used cars might seem like comparing apples to oranges—or should I say, peaches to lemons? But bear with me. The essence of Akerlof’s theory—the challenge of making informed decisions in the face of information asymmetry—cuts across industries, touching even the high-stakes world of consulting.

We like to think of ourselves as sophisticated buyers, especially when procuring services that can shape the future of our businesses. However, regardless of our refined tastes or sharp business acumen, we’re all navigating the same foggy market conditions when it comes to hiring consultants.

Choosing a consultant is akin to dating, right? You hear great things, they look good on paper, but you really don’t know what you’re getting into until you’re too deep into the relationship. The value, what consultants bring to the table, the quality—these aspects aren’t easily assessed. And here’s the kicker: there’s no standard measure of quality in consulting, no universal performance metric to guide us.

So, in a world where peeking under the hood isn’t an option, what do buyers do? We’re risk-averse by nature (and nobody wants to lose their job), so we take the easy route. We look for proxies of value. Brand reputation becomes our safety net, our shorthand for quality. After all, no one has ever been fired for hiring McKinsey… or so the old adage went. But even this line of thinking is showing its age. 😄

Let’s unpack this a bit. While it’s true that partnering with renowned firms like McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte, and their peers can offer an air of credibility and assurance, it’s not a foolproof strategy. Premium prices and a glowing reputation don’t always equate to high quality. The crux of the matter is the fit—the adequacy between your needs and the consulting firm’s DNA. This alignment is far more complex than simply balancing price and reputation.

Herein lies the risk: out of fear of venturing into the unknown, companies stick with their incumbent consultants, gradually engaging them in projects that stray from their core competencies. It’s a bit like ordering the same dish every time you visit a restaurant because you’re too scared to try something new, even though there’s a whole menu of potentially delightful options.

And let me be clear: I have absolutely nothing against McKinsey or any other big-name firm. They do excellent work within their core competencies. The reality, though, is that many consulting firms find themselves on the same hot seat. It’s just that we don’t hear as much about it…

What really matters, in the end, is finding that perfect match between your specific needs and a consultant’s expertise. It’s about looking beyond the shiny PowerPoint presentations and the brand names, digging deeper into what they can actually deliver based on your unique challenges.

So, how do we navigate this complex landscape? How do we ensure we’re not just swayed by reputations but are making informed decisions that align with our business goals? These questions might be running through your mind, right? But unfortunately, with respect to time, we have to end today’s episode here. But don’t worry, because we’ll cover the rest of it in next week’s episode.


Right then, before we wrap up, let me summarize the key insights about asymmetrical information in consulting procurement that we just discussed today. navigating the complex world of consulting services involves confronting the challenge of asymmetrical information.

As we’ve explored, this imbalance, where consultants hold more knowledge than clients, mirrors the “Lemons” theory in economics, famously explored by Nobel laureate George Akerlof. Just as buyers struggle to distinguish between high and low-quality used cars, clients in the consulting industry grapple with discerning the true value of services amid the fog of information asymmetry.

The parallel drawn between choosing a consultant and blind dating emphasizes the common struggle: despite refined tastes and business acumen, clients lack a standard measure of quality in consulting. Relying on brand reputation as a proxy for value may not guarantee success, as the fit between client needs and consultant expertise is a nuanced consideration beyond reputation and price.

The reluctance to venture into the unknown, akin to ordering the same dish at a restaurant, can lead companies to stick with incumbent consultants, potentially deviating from their core competencies. The key takeaway is the importance of finding the perfect match between specific needs and a consultant’s expertise, transcending surface-level indicators like brand names or flashy presentations.

In the dynamic landscape of consulting, where the stakes are high and missteps can impact strategic outcomes, informed decision-making becomes paramount. As clients strive to break through the fog of asymmetrical information, the pursuit of unbiased, transparent information becomes crucial for making choices that align with their unique challenges and drive operational efficiency.

As we close today’s episode, for those of you inspired to dive deeper into the intricacies of consulting and learn more about the themes we’ve explored, the below resource will enrich your understanding and equip you with the knowledge to navigate the consulting world with confidence.

In one of our insights, “4 Things You Should Know About Asymmetrical Information in Consulting”, you’ll be able to uncover the 4 pivotal factors essential for success in a landscape where information imbalances shape strategies. Go through our comprehensive guide and gain knowledge to thrive in the nuanced world of consulting.

Looking ahead to our next episode, we will of course carry on from where we left off today. We will look at asymmetrical information and how you the client can get started off. Plus, we will touch upon the importance of performance measurement and client advocacy. So, make sure you join me next week for that episode.

Alright then! Thank you for tuning in to today’s episode! Your thoughts and feedback mean the world to me, so don’t hesitate to reach out on LinkedIn or via email at I’m always up for a chat! And if there are any topics you’d love to hear about in future episodes, send them my way too. Can’t wait to hear from you!

Until next time, stay safe and keep up the smart consulting sourcing game. Au revoir for now, and happy sourcing!

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Helene Laffitte

Hélène Laffitte is the CEO of Consulting Quest, a Global Performance-Driven Consulting Platform. With a blend of experience in Procurement and Consulting, Hélène is passionate about helping Companies create more value through Consulting. To find out more, visit the blog or contact her directly.

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