The most important thing to remember is that hiring a consultant is an investment, not a cost, and should produce a return on that investment. Keep that in mind and the rest is easy (well, easier anyway).
If hiring a consultant is an investment, what sort of return should you expect. Well, that depends on why you’re bringing in an outside consultant and the nature of the work. And that leads into the second most important thing to remember; hire a consultant for specific things, don’t hire a consultant if you don’t have specific requirements, set objectives, or defined outcomes. If you only have vague ideas on what you want a consultant to do, you’re in trouble. Of course, there may be times when you hire a consultant to help you develop specific requirements for a not yet defined project. In that case, the objectives for this particular consultant would center around developing the defined objectives and outcomes of the greater project. That’s fairly common, especially for an undertaking that is something new for your organization or is much larger or more complex than you’re used to developing.
There are any number of things you might hire a consultant for. The difference between hiring a consultant and outsourcing work to a “regular” vendor is generally in terms of scope. A consultant is generally hired for specific projects that are well defined, which includes a defined time frame, whereas a vendor is usually more of a long-term relationship involving regular deliveries of products or services, or multiple projects over an open-ended time period. Consultants are hired for their specialized skills and expertise, to bring in an outside perspective not tied to internal culture and politics, for a fresh, creative perspective to a particular issue, to free up internal resources for special projects, and to educate and train the internal workforce, which can include executive management all the way down to the lowest tier workers.
You might hire consultants for everything from developing marketing campaigns, conducting research and development activities, technology recommendations and implementation, process improvement, financial recommendations, executive coaching, management systems development, implementation, and training, and anything in between. The specific requirements for a consultant will be different depending on what you’re bringing them in to help you with. If you hire a consultant to provide recommendations for a technological solution to a particular issue, the requirements you develop for the consultant will include, of course, a final recommendation. But you don’t want to just leave it at that, that’s too open ended by itself. You probably want to include other requirements, like documented and substantiated backup for why the particular solution was recommended. You might want the requirements to include the documented methodology that was used to review the options and determine the recommendation. Put some thought and effort into defining your requirements for the consultant. You’re spending money for results, and you want those results to be valid.
Interviewing Potential Consultants
Potential consultants for each project may be someone you’ve worked with before, they may be someone you’re familiar with, but haven’t worked with, they may have been recommended to you, or they may be someone totally new and unfamiliar to you. No matter which category they might fall into, potential consultants should be interviewed prior to being awarded a contract. Even if you’ve worked with someone before, each project is unique and you want to ensure the best fit of consultant with the project. Even if the project is the same, or very similar, to one the consultant has already worked with you on, if any time has elapsed since the completion of the project, things have changed, so interview them anyway.
At this stage, you’ve probably already determined whether the potential consultants have the skills and expertise needed to complete the project. You’re interested in their fit with the project, their work philosophy, and their methodologies. Since you’ve defined the requirements and the expected outcomes, you looking at how the consultant is going to go about achieving them. You don’t want to define how they go about doing their work, but you want to make sure that they will mesh with your internal organization, when required, so that the goals will be achieved within the time frame you’ve outlined.
Ask tough questions. Ask what they’ll do if certain things happen, like unforeseen events. They’ll probably have good answers for you, but look at how they answer them, their attitude, and their perspective on things.
When the Work Begins
So, you’ve selected your consultant and hired them. Now what? Do you just sit back and wait for something to come out down the road? Probably not a good idea. You want them to do their work, their way, but you want to monitor them and keep informed of their progress and how things are going along the way.
In your contract, whether it’s formal or informal, you should define how you’ll monitor their progress and how they’ll report their progress. A lot will depend on the scope, length, and complexity of the project. You might require very detailed written progress reports on a weekly, or less, basis, or you might just want a quick, informal chat on an irregular basis. I’d lean more towards requiring a more formal, written, and regular report, even if it’s short and simple.
You don’t want to get in the way, but this is an investment, so you want to keep an eye on things. For the most part you want to leave them alone to do their work. But, you want to be aware of any potential glitches before they erupt into full-blown problems. You need to know if any internal resources have to be added or allocated, and if the project will be completed on-time and will meet expectations. It’s better to know these things beforehand, rather than be surprised with some special requests or unfulfilled expectations.
Again, it will depend on the project, but the question of where the consultants will work may need to be addressed. For some projects you’ll have the consultant sitting with internal staff, working side-by-side. In some instances, the consultant will work away from your facilities. They may work out of their own office, they might be on the road meeting with some of your partner organizations, such as suppliers or customers, or they might just work virtually from some distant home base. It all depends on the nature of the project, the requirements, your needs, and the needs of the consultant. Be flexible. If you think the consultant has to be in your sight at all times, and they do not, look at it from their point of view. Since you’ve already defined the objectives and the progress reporting requirements, there isn’t always a need to have the consultant around just to have them around.
After Project Completion
After the project is completed and wrapped up, you should always conduct a follow up session, or debriefing. Review what went well, what didn’t go as well as expected, why things either did or didn’t go as expected, and how you can improve the process. Anything you can learn about the process of hiring and working with a consultant will benefit you, and them. Chances are you’ll utilize a consultant again in the future, so the more you can improve the process, the better. And if you utilize the same consultant, all the better to maximize your investment.
If you’re happy with the work that was performed, write a recommendation that the consultant can use for marketing. Consulting is very much a relationship based business, and personal testimonies from satisfied clients are valued and appreciated. Don’t wait to be asked, provide it at the completion of the project. This will also help you with your relationship with the consultant, which is always good. You never know when you’ll need their services again, so it’s beneficial to establish a good relationship.
Steve Novak is the founder and President of PPR Management Services. An independent consultant specializing in Business Operations and Strategic Planning, Steve helps organizations improve their performance by improving their operations. Working in a variety of industries, from manufacturing to non-profit, Steve helps organizations define their goals, dev