At some point in time, most businesses or government agencies will need to employ the help of a consultant. Before I became a consultant, I actually didn’t have the best opinion of consultants. Turns out, that was just because I wasn’t working with the right ones, in the right ways.
Over the last ten years, I’ve had the chance to really think through (and have experienced firsthand) when a client-consultant relationship works well – for both parties and I’ve spent the last year talking with business leaders in Wilmington about when and how to work with a consultant.
First, it’s important to understand what a consultant actually is. There is a difference between a freelancer, and a contractor, and a consultant. A freelancer is different from a consultant in that they are deliverable focused, often producing something finite and specific such as a report or an article. A contractor often works in a role more similar to an employee, carrying out a set of responsibilities under contract. A consultant, on the other hand, is a professional who brings deep experience and expertise to their clients to help them evaluate and resolve a need or gap in their team.
With the definition of consultant in mind, let’s take a look at when it makes sense to work with one. Based on our team’s experience, it is best to work with a consultant:
1. When the company lacks the required expertise in-house. However, if ongoing internal expertise will be needed, it will be best if the company hires someone to take on the responsibilities long-term.
2. When the company lacks internal capacity. Perhaps you do have internal expertise, but the person with that expertise is already at full capacity. Adding additional work to this person(s) is unlikely to have the outcome you hope for. There’s a great article from the Harvard Business Review (an oldy but a goody) that discusses what happens when you increase your staff’s workload by more than 10%. In these cases, bringing in a consultant may have a better outcome.
3. When the scope of the work is short in duration. Short can, of course, be a relative term. There are certainly cases in which a project with a consultant can appropriately last a year or more. The point here is that the consultant should not become a de facto employee. The scope for should specific and discrete. Otherwise, you may want to consider a contractor instead.
4. When an objective, outside perspective is needed. Sometimes, your team can become too close to the problem being addressed or may disagree on the solution to the problem. In these cases, having an outside perspective can help resolve conflict or enable decision making.
5. When the company isn’t making progress on its own. There could be many reasons for this inertia—including reasons 1-4 listed above—but in any of these cases, bringing in a consultant can be the catalyst for progress.
Now, once you’ve identified that your company could use the help of a consultant, you might wonder how you go about finding the right one. Here are some steps you can take:
1. Clearly define your need for a consultant. In order to find the most appropriate consultant for your need, you must clearly define what that need is. If the need of the company is nebulous, working with a consultant may not be the best approach. Consultants are expensive resources, and you want to be able to direct them at a clear, discrete problem.
2. Identify the type of consultant that best serves that need. There are many different kinds of consultants to help you address different needs. For example, if you are setting up a new business or want to evaluate how your existing business is operating, you will want to work with a business or management consultant or if you want to improve the leadership abilities of your management or executive team, you need an executive or leadership consultant.
3. Source recommendations from your network. Start by asking trusted resources who they would recommend.
4. Set up a formal process to identify and select a consultant. You can use a Request for Information (RFI) process to ask consultants to tell you how they would recommend you solve the problem at hand and then you can use that information to create a Request for Proposals (RFP) where consultants can submit formal proposals with descriptions of how they would do the work, who would do the work, the timeline, and the cost. The RFP process is certainly something that will take time and resources, but it is much more likely to set you on the right path from the beginning.
5. Interview consultants and talk to their references. Through this process you will be better able to evaluate the person’s character and problem-solving skills, how creative they are, how strong their communication skills are, and, honestly, if the consultant is simply someone you can work with well. No matter how great their experience is, if you don’t like the person, it doesn’t make sense to hire them. It is also worth noting that letters of reference are always good to have, but they can’t replace actually getting a reference on the phone.
6. Understand clearly who will be doing the work. Some firms have a team that gets the business and a different team that does the work. Others have a principle that leads the team, gets the business, but then delegates to junior team members to conduct the work. Either way, this is an area we suggest you gain clarity on early.
And whatever you do, we cannot overstate how critical it is to not select a consultant based on price alone. Price should, of course, be a variable – there is definitely something to the saying “you get what you pay for.” But on the other hand, don’t assume a high-priced consultant equals the best consultant for you, either.
Do’s and Don’ts from Consultants for working with Consultants
Finally, once you’ve hired the right consultant for the need at hand, how do you work with them most efficiently? Here is a quick list of do’s and don’ts.
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