Considerations When Choosing a Consultant

November 5, 2007

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Sometimes we have to admit we need outside help in the form of consultant knowledge and experience. However, choosing the best consultant for a particular job can be quite daunting. Yet if succeeding in business is all about minimizing and controlling risk, you certainly don't want to risk a consultant who'll falter, leading to a poor decision and losses.

"I've been in consulting for well over 20 years and, to my astonishment, I find currently that about 50 percent of those calling themselves 'consultants' don't really know what they're doing, but almost 90 percent of those buying consulting services don't know how to tell the difference," explains Alan Weiss, Ph.D., of The Summit Consulting Group.

First, you must clearly understand where you want help. Before you start looking for the consultant that is best for the job, define the project. Have a clear picture of what your anticipated outcome looks like. Narrowing it down allows you to have an understanding of what it is not.

Good business-to-business decisions require doing some homework. In the case of choosing a consultant, "best references come from people and organizations for whom the consultants have worked,"according to Ontario, Canada's Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAF). Look at the final reports of similar projects that the consultants have carried out, the OMAF recommends, and when checking references, ask the following questions:

Did they honor the contract terms? Did they finish their work on time? Did they stay within budget? Were their recommendations or reports useful? Did their interventions make positive change happen? Were they open and flexible to ideas and input? How well did they work with the other clients?

In Consulting Tips from the Million Dollar Consultant: How to Choose A Consultant, Weiss notes that it's important to check credentials. You should ask:

Has the consultant ever worked in a conventional job? What are their academic degrees? How many similar organizations have been clients? Every consultant has to start somewhere, but I'd strongly advise that their start not be with you! They should start in a larger consulting firm, and should also have "real world" experience.

Additional aspects to consider, according to David E. Rogers, CMC, at the Institute of Management Consultants, include these:

Does the consultant "fit" your business culture and/or work environment? Are there potential conflicts of interest of which you should be aware?

"Some consultants may be under 'non-compete' agreements created in previous employment or consulting scenarios. They should tell you upfront if such a situation exists," says Rogers. "If the consultant is either a CMC or CPCM, the problem of disclosure of conflict of interests is a non-issue. Their continued certification rests on their ethical behavior.

"Remember, in this case, the only 'dumb' question is the unasked one."

As for the consulting budget, if your company consists of a small number of employees, you may be able to get free help from a consultant.

For example, earlier this year Los Angeles-based Aircraft Stamping Co. "turned to California Manufacturing Technology Consulting (CMTC) to help the manufacturer of sheet metal products prepare for the certification," The Los Angeles Times recently reported. Aircraft Stamping's largest customer, Boeing, told the company it must pass an aerospace industry standard.

"Nearly every week for five months," a senior consultant with CMTC met with the small manufacturer "to review its internal operations and quality management system," The L.A. Times noted, going on to add:

Although Aircraft Stamping paid for the services, most of CMTC's clients don't pay for access to the firm's expertise. Companies that have annual revenue of $15 million or less are eligible for its Small Manufacturers Advantage program, which provide on-site meetings, a company assessment and recommendations for improvement.

Some 450 companies use the program annually.

For a primer on how to hire the best possible consultant for your needs, check out Weiss' Consulting Tips from the Million Dollar Consultant.

Resources

Consulting Tips from the Million Dollar Consultant: How to Choose a Consultant by Alan Weiss, Ph.D. The Summit Consulting Group

How to Choose a Consultant by Marilyn Sewell Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs, July 1998

Some Tips on How to Choose a Consultant by David E. Rogers The Institute of Management Consultants

A Survey: Do You Want Free Help from Experts? by Andrea Chang The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 23, 2007

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