Jul 042010

As much as we’d like to think we can do everything, the truth is we can’t. Even the biggest organisations don’t always have the right skills for a task that needs to be done. Enter the consultant.

Consultants have had bad press in recent years due to a combination of misunderstandings and misuse by big and small organisations. Ideally the consulting company will bring a fresh set of eyes and skills to projects that are not central to the daily running of your business. So how do we go about choosing a consultant?

1. Do they show up on time?

If a consultant is unreliable when they are chasing your work, what makes you think they will be any better when you hire them? If you’re hounding them for quotes and proposals then you have to wonder if they are really capable of doing the job. The time required to reply to an enquiry is a good way to whittle down the short list.

2. The internet is your friend

An experienced consultant will have a digital footprint with articles, white papers, blogs and a website. These are a good guide to the areas the consultant is an expert in. For consulting firms, those white papers can be powerful marketing tools to show off their expertise.

3. Read their public utterances

Reading into articles will dig up that consultant’s or their staff’s views on the market and different solutions. Comments on other peoples’ sites by the firm’s principles and employees is a great way how deep their expertise is and how they are regarded in the industry, this is also a good check that their values align with yours.

Something that catches out a lot of the self-proclaimed “social media experts” and marketing people is they often show their talk of trust and openness is little more than talk. If a consultant’s tweets, comments or Facebook wall posts are at odds with what they are telling you, then that should be a danger sign.

4. Check references

The consultant’s website will cite the clients they have worked for. Pick up the phone and talk to them, did the consultant really do this work? How effective were they?

If your consultant is an individual, part of that digital footprint is social media. Tools like LinkedIn and Facebook help in checking references as well.

LinkedIn in particular has a recommendations section that is handy quick reference checker. Don’t be shy to contact those people to check the veracity of their recommendations.

5. Understand their biases

We all have biases towards certain solutions. As the US industrial psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “When all you own is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail”. In technology this is particularly pronounced as consulting firms small and big have made a substantial investment on one platform or another. This isn’t a bad thing but keep their biases in mind and ask questions why they are proposing a certain course of action over alternatives.

6. Know their expertise

The whole point of hiring a consultant is to do a task you aren’t familiar with. If you ask the consultant to do something outside of their immediate area of expertise then your fees are paying them to train in a new area. Good for them but not for you.

7. Are they too agreeable?

If the consultant agrees with you all the time, then there’s little point in hiring them except for self-validation. A good consultant will be prepared to gently steer you away from silly decisions. On the other hand one who screams at you or puts your staff’s views down is best let go.

8. Trust your instincts

If something doesn’t work for you about a particular proposal, individual or organisation then look elsewhere. If you’re uncomfortable before signing an agreement, imagine how you’ll be when the invoices start arriving.

9. Price should not be the factor

Choosing a consultant purely on cost is risky. As I addressed in a recent blog on the crowdsourcing revolution there are real traps in going for the cheapest option. Invariably, the cheaper and inexperienced consultants will require more handholding and demands on your management time.

A good consultant is worth their weight in gold and finding one is a great help for your business. A little due diligence through the hiring process makes sure you get the person right for your needs.

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