When You Need an Expert, You May Need Two

A friend of mine who is an intellectual property strategist frequently comments to me about the low quality of patents that she routinely sees.  Patents are, it turns out, really hard to get right.  A patent strategist is a highly-specialized patent professional whose job it is to help clients make sure that they hire the right patent counsel to do the right things (or avoid doing the wrong or wasteful things), and to identify existing patent work that ought to be fixed and manage the process of doing the fixing.  Part and parcel of this service is the capacity to critically review the work that the client’s patent counsel is doing, and ensure that it’s done effectively.  

It strikes me that clients place an incredible amount of trust in their service providers and advisors.  They retain an attorney, an accountant, a business appraiser, an IT security specialist, a human resources compliance consultant – we all provide our services and expertise, and we become “trusted advisors”.   The problem is, many of our clients are highly vulnerable in this relationship.  Not only are most of our clients not equipped to critically evaluate our work (or sometimes, even understand it), but any shortcomings in our work will not be visible for a long time after the engagement has ended.  The tax return.  The patent application.  The gift tax appraisal.  The data security protocols.  As far as our clients are concerned, all the work we have done was done to perfection.  Until there’s an audit, or a lawsuit, or an IRS challenge, a data breach, or a Department of Labor action, which could happen months, or even years later, with costs and loss of management time exponentially greater than the initial work performed (which is why it was performed initially!)  Sure, we all have our own internal quality control measures, and they likely are effective a high majority of the time.  But nobody’s writing the perfect contract, or financial statement audit, or report, or contingency plan, or data policy.  This is why public company auditors are subject to peer reviews.  There are always opportunities to improve.

In cases where the stakes are very high, the client would be well-advised to consider retaining a second professional to look over the work of the first – and this goes for business appraisers as well.  As it happens, I actually build this into Arpeggio Advisors’ high leverage engagements.  In such cases, there is budget in the engagement fee for someone completely independent of the firm to review the work product, identify any weaknesses, and suggest areas for improvement.  This is overkill for many or our assignments, but for perhaps 10% of them, it’s an extra layer of assurance that ensures that we are doing right by the client.  Some of our peers are starting to use Arpeggio in this capacity as a peer reviewer and I respect the heck out of them for it.  They are putting their economics and egos aside for the best interest of their clients.  I am much more likely to refer them conflict work.

Clients have a right to fully understand the work products they are commissioning, and are, of course, equally entitled to work products that fully serve their advertised purpose.  Bringing in a peer reviewer is hard for us as service providers.  It’s hard to be vulnerable with someone who is a competitor, as well as the client whom you only recently sold on your omniscience.  However, I would much rather have a peer reviewer identify a weakness than a regulator, or adverse party to the client.  If you’re a service provider like me, I urge you to think about establishing processes to engage peer review on your more sensitive and difficult engagements.  If you are a user of such services, are you absolutely sure that every piece of work done for you is flawless?  What are the repercussions if a flaw is later discovered?  Review fees are typically a fraction of the original service fees.  What would that additional insurance mean to you?

Peer review of work products is not a threat to top-shelf service providers.  It is an opportunity.  It’s an opportunity  to improve.  It’s an opportunity to cement yourself as a trusted advisor to the client in a way that you are truly worthy of that trust.  It’s an extra line of defense against a catastrophic outcome that could ruin your client relationship, your reputation, or even your career.   As a professional services client, consider a second pair of eyes on a work product that is critical – not every engagement rises to the level of needing a peer review.  For a relatively small additional investment in the process, you will, at worst, sleep much better – and you may identify opportunities to tighten up the work product as it’s being completed.

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