How to Use Consultants Effectively

Who are these consultants? Why do firms use them? A consultant can be anyone, from the member of a large firm to a one-person shop. They have been used for a number of reasons. The client may not have the expertise for a specific project and the project does not justify hiring a full-time person. In other cases, the firm may need management assistance that is not available within the firm because of a staff shortage, budgetary restrictions, and so on. This is where a consultant can provide a service without tying the firm to a long-term commitment.

Sometimes the company needs to learn how to introduce a new procedure, use new machinery, tackle a new market, develop a sales strategy, or simply improve the qualifications and effectiveness of its work force through advanced training and development. Here again, consultants can provide these services.

Finally, there are cases where the client has a certain feeling of malaise. There are signs that something is wrong or that things could be better; but the firm doesn’t know what is wrong or what to do even when it does figure out the problem. This is where consultants can be particularly helpful since they can provide an outside, unbiased point of view.

How does a firm go about finding a good consultant? A good approach is to use the business network. This is especially important in dealing with larger firms that have many employees. They can’t all have the same degree of experience or expertise, and this is what you are buying.

Word of mouth is an excellent clue to the firm’s reputation and reliability. Brochures look great, but it’s the track record that really counts. Get a list of its clients and check their references. It is the personal contact that you make that will give you the best information.

Be sure to meet with the people who will actually be doing the work. The client-consultant fit is extremely important and both parties must feel comfortable with each other.

You should determine their availability and how well they understand your business, your people and your working environment. Many firms have had the unfortunate experiences in hiring consultants who are too far away, too busy to come when a problem crops up, or who fail to understand their community, their people, or the firms themselves.

What is to be included in the fees? Is the cost of travel to and from the firm included? What about the cost of research, computer time, training materials, final reports, and so on? Nail all these items down before the work begins.

Decide on the timetable and plan for any changes that might occur as the work progresses. New problems can surface, timetables do have to be altered, and changes may have to be made. If this happens, how will you handle it? Is there a need for an escape clause? Sometimes neither of you will want to be locked into a relationship that has soured. If this happens, you will want to be clear about how to handle it.

What services, information, access to records and people will the consultants need from the client? If the consultant needs to meet with management for five days, be sure that this is spelled out in the arrangements. If they must have access to your financial records, sales reports, or quality control records, be sure to stipulate and agree on this.

How will the work be evaluated, when, and by whom? These are important issues that are often left out. The size of the fee paid is no indicator of success. Any consultant worth their salt will be able to advise you on how their work can be assessed. Both parties should want some evidence that the work has been worthwhile and beneficial.

Is there funding available for this work and if so, who will obtain it? This question is often overlooked, to the disadvantage of the client. There are several federal and provincial grants available to support consultant services. Be sure you take advantage of them.

Finally, put all these items in a contract and have it signed by both parties. This will put the relationship on a firm business footing and give both parties a clear understanding of what is to be done, by whom, when, and under what circumstances.

Once you have done your homework and found the best consultants for the job, put your faith in them and follow through on their advice. After all, this is what you have paid for, and it would be ludicrous to ignore what they say. Remember, too, that if you require them to ask certain questions and recommend solutions, you may have to live with the results.

Peter Drucker, the guru of management consultants, said, “a good consultant is an insultant.” That is, he or she may tell you things you don’t want to hear. You probably knew that hiring your brother’s son was a mistake, but when the consultants tell you this was a stupid move, you have to face up to reality and deal with it. You will probably be happier as a result, even if your brother is not.