How to hire a consultant pt.1

My friend Andrea (here, here and here) has been dealing with a situation with her consultant over the past several months and thinks it’s worth sorting out here. It’s a bit awkward and difficult for me to write this since I am a consultant and 99.9% of my clients have been an absolute joy to work with but I’ll try. Andrea and I are so deep into what went wrong in her case that we almost can’t see out. Let’s start with some basics.

  • Do you want or need a consultant?
  • What do you want a consultant to do for you?
  • How to know if a consultant is any good.
  • Compensation and affiliations.
  • Ending the relationship.

Expertise is the first requirement because you can’t afford to pay someone to learn your business only to have them tell you what you already knew. Necessarily, this could mean they work or have worked or will work for your competitors. You can tell how trustworthy they are by how much they reveal about previous and existing clients. Many consultants won’t give you names which is good and bad. Good, because they’re (hopefully) trustworthy but bad because you can’t check up on them easily.

Do you want or need a consultant?
Wants and needs are different but each are valid in their own way. What do you really want, a mentor, a teacher, a coach? These are justifiable reasons to need outside help but maybe not a given consultant. A consultant can be supportive but they must be objective and tell you things you don’t want to hear, can you handle mixing the two? I can only speak for myself but my clients have been awesome balancing this so I’d be inclined to think you could too.

Even if you need more of a coach at the outset, you shouldn’t hire someone until you have developed some goals and completion targets. You do want a friendly relationship but you must have objectivity -on both sides. Hiring a consultant is ideal if you have a tightly defined project. If your wish list is too open ended or defies description, you might seek a coach first.

What do you want a consultant to do for you?
Spend some time to determine your desired outcome. Do you need development help to get off the ground or are you established but have hit a plateau? Can you define the realm in which your problems lie? While some cross over is to be expected, consultants should specialize in given scenarios, say troubleshooting in operations, finance (expansion) or sales. I had a friend who did sales consulting with a very simple strategy. She had customers list objectives and then to write next to each one “I will do this”, “You will do this” or “I need some help with this”.

You need to get a buy-in from the consultant as to the source of your difficulties. If you can’t, it means they define your problem and likely solution differently. If the interaction is running counter to your expectations, glean the validity of their objections based on the kinds of questions they ask you. In truth, the role of a consultant is to jostle the apple cart a bit because you’re set on a path that has been determined by the complexities of your daily operations. You need a fresh eye. Again in my experience (only), I’ve found that most of my clients have a good idea where they want to go. They just need some help and guidance to get there.

How to know if a consultant is any good.
This is the trickiest part because they may not know themselves and how do you know somebody knows if you don’t know? Here are things you can do, Andrea has used some to great effect:

  1. Develop a list of test questions to ask, ones you know the answers to.
  2. Probe to see if the consultant makes up answers. Use interviewing strategies like “can you elaborate” and “what do you mean by that”?
  3. Ask how they suggest solving various kinds of problems. Be specific. Again, use problems you know the solutions to.
  4. Ask them what constitutes their task completion. (I would have trouble answering this!)
  5. Ask them to define their accountability in problem solving.

The obvious goal is to eliminate candidates who can harm you with bad advice. Most of these people aren’t bad per se, their problem is that they’ve stepped outside their realm of dominion. Not knowing is not a problem as much as their not knowing they don’t know. If you’re uncertain, or maybe even if you aren’t, it wouldn’t hurt to verify answers and compare notes with peers or other providers.

A consultant should be able to justify their advice. They should be able to say where they got the information and share those sources (within reason) with you. They should be able to quantify their suggestions with analysis, metrics or established standards of practice common in the trade. You’re looking for someone who actively continues to educate themselves.

Compensation and affiliations.
Everyone works differently but I don’t think a consultant should charge for initial conversation to discuss the parameters of your needs. My friend Valerie (recommended) charges an up front fee amounting to three hours of services because her involvement is longer term. Since my engagements are typically short term and limited, my minimum is 15 minutes.

Most consultants are affiliated with other businesses. If their arrangement is such that they get a commission for a product or service they recommend, they should disclose it. Always ask. It’s common for production consultants to get a small percentage of any contract work they place for you so ask about that too. Sourcing can be sticky. Do not ever hire someone you pay to source products or services for you if they will not disclose the sources to you. I know a bra production consultant who charges $100 an hour to find things (in her rolodex, only she doesn’t say that) and then forces you to order fabric or molds through her. You never see the supplier’s invoice, only hers which conveniently enough, includes a 40% mark up. Do not hire a consultant to source for you if they will not agree to disclose the name and contact information for any pattern makers or contractors they find for you.

Ending the relationship.
All relationships end eventually and consulting is no different. Maybe they run out of material and don’t have more to give because you’ve grown beyond their expertise. This is a good thing. If everything goes according to plan, you will outgrow your consultant so it’s best to be prepared to have the conversation. You don’t have to wait for the situation to disintegrate or come to an acrimonious end. Discuss it once you see the horizon looming.

These are the high points. Feel free to jump in, we could use some help in fleshing this out in more practical terms.

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