How to choose a consultant
I once asked a senior pharmaceutical executive why his company bothered to hire people like me when they had many good people of their own. He replied, “because you’ve got the time to do the thinking that is required”, which on reflection, made sense since employees have more than enough to do to achieve their daily goals and objectives.
Therefore, by definition this means that consultants are more useful on the unusual, the infrequent and the unfamiliar problem. Such situations induce anxiety and uncertainty. An effective consultant will bring clarity and offer workable solutions.
Outside consultants, through their objective perspective, provide the best value where a problem is poorly defined and politically sensitive, but where the correct decision is extremely important. Therefore, external consultants get the tough, important and sensitive problems.
For smaller companies or departments within large global companies, an outside consultant offers the following advantages:
- Objective advice through a third party perspective
- Frame of reference and best practices from other clients
- Models and methodologies to gain results more quickly than relying on internal trial and error
- Permanent transfer of skills to internal people
- They have little or no practical business experience
- They rely on ‘off the shelf/one fits all’ methods which often do not apply to a client’s situation
- They display a lack of empathy for the client, his or her business, the employees, the working environment and its culture
- They provide ‘ideal’ solutions, which are not practical for the client’s business/circumstances and therefore cannot be effectively implemented
- They have preconceived ideas and they will attempt to apply them regardless of the best interests of the client or, if the situation changes during the project
- They haven’t been on the planet long enough
Consulting is unique in the field of business because it is driven by ideas. The essential act of any consultant is thought. The process of thinking about client problems is what sets consultants apart from each other. Therefore, consultants with an exceptional ability to think, create and communicate are in demand.
The very best consultants are original and incisive thinkers who can quickly bridge the gap between theories, frameworks, processes and reality.
How to hire the best possible consultant for your needs
This is very important. Do you feel comfortable in their presence? Will they make a trusted advisor and partner? Do you view them as a peer? Will you be able to confide in this person? Are they a practitioner or a theorist?
Has the consultant ever worked in a conventional job? What are their qualifications or real experience to enable them to do this type of work? What types of projects have they undertaken and who with? What results did they achieve?
The individual should be professional. They should respond to your calls promptly, dress appropriately and act with integrity. It is important that you can understand what they are saying. Do not hire someone who loves the sound of their own voice, does not listen to you and who talks in jargon. You should feel confident that they could communicate appropriately to those within your company from the ‘shop floor’ to the board.
The consultant should provide you with a proposal that is based on achieving clear business outcomes and not just showing how the work is to be undertaken. For example carrying out one-to-one interviews is a task, improving sales results is a business outcome.
The consultant should provide a fixed fee for the project. Daily rates are not as effective because it makes it hard for you to budget for a project. With a fixed fee you know exactly where you are and it reduces the chances of a conflict of interests, since daily rates encourage protracted projects.
What to expect
The process of solving a client issue should proceed as follows:
- framing the problem
- diagnosis of its cause
- formulation of solutions
Finally the consultant should assist in the implementation of a solution. You should question the overall value of any consultant who unable or unwilling to implement recommendations.
Each stage requires focus, thought and understanding. The very best consultants probably add the most value in the framing and diagnosis stage. This comes from the ability to look at a very wide and unclear set of facts about a client, quickly suggest a few diagnostic surveys, discussions or tests and then arrive at a conclusion about the root problem.
Every business reaches a point where a bit of outside thinking is required. But because someone wears a suit and carries a tablet does not automatically make him or her a good consultant. Use the guidelines suggested and, most importantly use your judgment and intuition.
Ask yourself: Is this someone you would trust with your business?