Consulting vs. Professional Services

I had a meeting yesterday with the VP of Consulting for one of my companies. The ostensible agenda for the meeting was to discuss how to accelerate their consulting / professional services business, which is a small, but growing and highly relevant part of what they do.

As we got into the discussion, I realized that the construct of “consulting and professional services” was bothering me. A pet peeve of mine is that “consulting” and “professional services” are fundamentally different things, even though many people and companies interchange them. I once had a company that had a group called CompanyX Consulting and Professional Services – I could never figure out why we didn’t call it one thing or the other (CompanyX Consulting, or CompanyX Professional Services.)

Professional Services is easier to define – in my little universe it’s what software companies do to implement and support their software products. One of my companies – Channelwave – provides professional services as part of their PRM software product. When you buy Channelwave’s PRM product, you also purchase professional services from them to help deploy and implement their product. This activity is almost always in support of a pre-existing product that addresses a well-defined need.

Consulting is a little harder to define, partly because it has a broader range. One of the large clients of my first company (Feld Technologies) was a strategy consulting firm – they typically did work for Fortune 1000 companies. Some of the work was high-end, CxO level consulting and business transformation (before that buzzword became popular) – this was clearly consulting. The Feld Group – now part of EDS – provided “CIO outsourcing” work to Fortune 100 companies – again – clearly consulting as Feld Group took responsibility for managing and running the IT organization for an F100 company.

It gets tricky when you mix both Professional Services and Consulting within the same company. Return Path has a young consulting group (which they refer to as strategic solutions) that helps companies understand how to be more effective with their email marketing. This is not in support of any specific Return Path product, yet in encompasses all of the capabilities that Return Path can bring to a customer, along with others from Return Path partners and complimentary providers. However, within Return Path’s Delivery Assurance products, there is a professional services component – as many deliverability customers want help interpreting and understanding the information they are getting as well as learning how to take action on it. In this case, there’s a clear consulting group that engages with customers independent of the specific products that Return Path sell and a professional services group that helps support the specific Return Path products being used by their customers.

The nuance seems important to me – especially given how severely I react to the phrases being mixed casually. I’m curious how y’all think about this – please comment freely (hence providing me free consulting.)