Consultants Offer Flexibility, Hands-Off Productivity

With staff sizes and budgets restricted or diminishing, and top executives up and down the ladder under pressure to do more with less each year, many savvy executives are seeking help among the seeming army of consultants of every stripe to get their companies on the profitability track. Are they finding success down that road?

The idea of the consultant is ancient – Egyptian kings and pharaohs had “consultants” with specialized magical talents to advise them and point them in the right direction when governing the masses. King Tutankhamun had one of the greatest PR consultants ever seen, who told him that to the Egyptian people, big buildings mean big power, big statues mean big power – and Tut and other Pharaohs took this to heart and built the pyramids of Giza and other wonders of the ancient world.

Consultants can be used for a variety of purposes, from adding moral support in difficult or uncomfortable political situations, to adding credibility to pet projects in communicating them to Boards or subordinates. The image of the unfamiliar man with the briefcase and the air of confidence in the boss’s office was born out of some particularly sticky board meetings in the 1960s by top executives at a large conglomerate who’s ideas were not being communicated effectively or credibly, and a CEO who’s head was on the block. Once the Board members heard the same message in a different way coming from the consultant, an expert in such matters, they approved the plan and the CEO was spared. The consultant in that case didn’t come up with the idea, he simply communicated it effectively and lent his credibility to the idea.

This practice continues today with great success in companies and organizations across America. Communication by proxy can be used as an effective strategy if a number of conditions are met. One is that the idea or issue must have real merit on its own.

A bad idea is a bad idea, no matter who presents it. Another condition is that the consultant be at least as credible as the staffer to the selected audience. He should be a known, or at least vetted, quantity, with the credentials to back it up. Once those two elements are in place, communication by proxy can be effective in getting new ideas implemented.

Short Term Expertise
Consultants have many other functions as well, and most departments within the organization can find a number of consultants that specialize in their particular areas of functionality to assist them. Sometimes consultants can simply be used as additional manpower, fill-ins for key employees on personal leave, plug-ins providing necessary functionality on short notice for the short term.

These are not temps you can call in for a day or two while someone is out with the flu. They are highly-trained, experienced executives who have been in many different corporate situations and reached a level of comfort with the commonalities in procedures in their area between companies to be effective quickly. They are typically not used in situations where the term is shorter than a month, as the cost of lost opportunity for a stint that short drives the hourly rate beyond the return value.

Expectations in this situation are relatively high, as the consultant is being asked to step into any number of situations already in place and under way, and gather sufficient information from internal sources to keep these projects moving forward effectively, in a very short period of time, but without injecting much of their own influence or changing the direction of the project. This is a tough gig, and successful consultants are to be highly prized and respected for this set of skills that make such performance not only possible but routine. When projects are critical, and the schedule is inflexible for any number of reasons, this may be a good option for mid-size to large organizations.

“Special” Projects
Some organizations use consultants as outboard manpower to plan and implement special projects outside the normal scope of the department or organization, or for projects that are of vital concern to the organization’s success but only come up rarely.

Changing membership databases for a non-profit organization is a prime example of this type of consultant use. An IT or Association Consultant who has been through many such changeovers and data conversions can be an invaluable resource for such a critical undertaking that most organizations only face every few years. Hiring a consultant under such circumstances will expand and extend the organization’s scope of expertise for a short period, and take advantage of specialized knowledge that isn’t needed on a regular basis.

The expense of the consultant is far outweighed by the savings gained by avoiding a misstep in the process and crippling your organization, however temporarily, while the problem is investigated and fixed. The consultant can prevent you from making a poor purchasing decision, and mitigates buyer’s remorse by making the correct match between user and product.

Sometimes that special project requires some specialized expertise in order to allow a “pet” project to be executed properly, and that expertise doesn’t exist in house. If time is a factor, and there’s no time for internal staff to develop that type or level of expertise, a consultant can be an excellent solution. The can work directly with your internal staff, provide the expertise necessary to move the project forward effectively, by-pass the internal chain of command and the inherent internal politics, and propel the project to a successful conclusion quickly and effectively.

Guidelines
There are some guidelines to keep in mind when using a consultant for this purpose.

* When planning to include a consultant in the mix, be sure to make “room” for them both in the budget and in the schedule. There will be some initial ramp up, no matter how short, as they learn to work with the particular in-house players, and assess their individual capabilities. Leave a reasonable time for them to get acclimated and figure out who’s who in your organization.

* Depending on the type of project, the consultant has been hired to provide expertise, advice and specialized services. This often requires change from the status quo, introduction of new ideas, and some assessment of the internal strengths and weaknesses on the team. Take the advice and ideas you’re given and make the most of it. Putting up roadblocks, creating obstacles, withholding information, and rejecting ideas out of hand are all a waste of time and money. You’ve hired him or her as an expert, treat them as such, and listen to them.

* When planning to use a consultant, build into your plan sufficient staff time to manage the consultant, and the money in the budget to implement the ideas they introduce. You’ve hired an expert, but if you don’t leave room in the budget to put into practice the concepts they introduce, you’ve only done half the job. Even if you don’t keep the consultant in the picture during the implementation, you still need to fund the project sufficiently to be successful.

Most good consultants in most fields have learned to work with a bare minimum of supervision or management. If you carefully outline the goals for the project, introduce them effectively to the internal staff, and provide the resources and the communication pathway for them to get accurate, unvarnished answers to questions quickly, they will take the ball and run with it.

In order to keep them from veering too far from what you envision a success to be, some check-ins or milestones for approval should be built into the project schedule. That way you can adjust the course at critical junctures before they go too far off the map. Too many of these can erode the effectiveness of the consultant and doom the project, so avoid the temptation to micro manage. You had the foresight to hire them, now let them do their thing. Too few milestones can lead to some surprises, when the end of the project approaches and the final product is not what you envisioned and you don’t know why. A happy medium and a light touch usually lead to a successful outcome.

Finances
The financial arrangements for consultants vary to some degree, depending upon the industry, the scope and duration of the project, and the nature of the organization. Many work on an hourly rate, which are standardized to some degree based on what the market will bear for the size of the projects, the area of expertise, the reputation of the consultant, and the geographic area.

A Human Resources Consultant will likely charge a small company in Tennessee less per hour for a candidate search than a large company in New York City, and the company’s expectations and needs will likely differ as well. The rate can be negotiated up front, before the project starts, and the terms are often outlined in a binding legal contract. Most Boards insist on such a document in one form or another, to help provide the company some recourse and some protection for both parties should outcome turn out to be less than expected.

Some consultants in certain industries work on a fixed project fee. This is negotiated up front as well, once the scope and extent of their involvement and the size of the project has been agreed upon. A contract is often required for this arrangement as well, with some contracts including an incentive bonus for successful or early completion or for staying under established budget guidelines.

On rare occasion, a consultant will work on a contingency, similar to a tort or personal injury attorney. Especially in forensic financial work, collections, auditing, or tax work, these arrangements exist where the consultant’s fee or payment is tied either directly or indirectly to the money they are able to recover or save the company.

No matter what the arrangement, no matter what the industry, selecting which consultant to work with is a critical step to a successful outcome. A recommendation from a colleague who has used someone for a similar project is a great start. Other sources include your local Chamber of Commerce, and industry-specific trade publication editors. The local College or University department most closely aligned with your industry is also a good source of “experts” in your selected field. Once you’ve gathered a few names, a brief phone interview is always a good idea. That alone can whittle the field down to two or three suitable candidates.

Their availability, and responsiveness will give you an idea as to what they will be like to work with on your project, and you can prepare some industry specific questions to ask, to see how close to your industry and your project they are currently. Once these are complete, a personal interview is in order. This will give you an even better idea as to the character of your candidates and their capabilities. Each candidate should furnish a list of client references, and they should be rigorously checked before making a decision.

Once a decision is made, financial arrangements can be made, and your project can begin.

Consultants can be a vital part of your organization, expanding your capabilities, allowing you flexibility in staffing to meet short term needs, and let you take advantage of expertise beyond the level you are able to train in house. Used wisely and strategically, consultants can help you meet goals, complete new projects, grow your organization and function more efficiently and profitably.

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How To Work With A Consultant

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).

Pre-hire

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

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