You've decided to hire a consultant to take on a large marketing project. Maybe you've had dozens of successful consulting relationships—maybe you've never had one. In either case, you're about to open your cell phone and call a consultant... and you stop dead in your tracks, wondering how you can improve the results.
What are the right questions to ask to make sure you make the best choice and get the best performance from a consultant? We asked several top executives to share the questions they ask consultants during the search process. The process always seems to have three main groups of queries:
- Project scope
- Expectations and Monitoring
To a person, the group interviewed said beginning with the purpose for hiring is critical. Set out the scope of the project and be sure to articulate your needs correctly. Don't assume that the consultants know anything about your needs, goals, and company. Do fill them in with a "nutshell" overview, even of the personalities involved, to provide clarity and information that will ease their entry into the culture of your company.
When we asked Andrea Butter, Principal of Vekia, she suggested beginning with the purpose for hiring. "The need could be because the company requires an expertise that no associates have. The company could be entering a new market and needs someone to guide and set strategy. It's critical to ask how the consultant operates inside a company so that they're effective in their role. What is their work style? It must mix with the culture or social skill level within the client company."
The fit with company culture can't be overemphasized. If your firm is staid and conservative, don't hire a consultant who is an iconoclast with a flair for the outrageous. Matching people to the team they'll work with makes the consulting engagement smoother.
"Work backwards from expected outcomes. You want a partner—a person who can integrate with your team and the culture of the company," says Kim Walsh, vice-president of PG&E.
Expectations and Monitoring
There's no question that consultants can help executives see their business in a new way, helping them to increase productivity and take their company in entirely new directions. Be sure that your expectations of the consultant are clearly stated.
Ask, for example, whether they've ever worked with a company that manufactures silicon wafers 24/7 (if that is a key component of the project). Find out whether their previous projects included working with a gifted but unusual group of engineers who compete in a pinball tournament every Friday. If you require close, ongoing reporting to be in constant touch with progress made during the engagement, be sure to state that.
Whether in short-term engagements or longer projects that make a significant difference for an organization, consultants are the "hired brains" that sometimes make up as much as 50% of a company's workforce. It's important that you tell the consultants what your expectations are of their conduct while onsite. Be clear about how onsite meetings generally work. For example, some companies have people continuously checking email on their mobile devices and laptops during meetings. At other companies, this would be considered extremely rude behavior, and devices are left back in the office or cubicle.
Kate Purmal, CEO of U3, says it best: "The consultants I'm most happy with are those that feed me the right amount of information. The right amount means sufficient updates and progress reports."
And be clear about how much time you have for the consultant. If reporting is to be done every other week in a face-to-face meeting on Tuesday at 10:00 a.m., make sure that the consultant knows that it's not optional and that you can spare exactly 20 minutes, no more. Prefer phone updates backed by spreadsheets? Make sure it's not communicated only verbally; put it into the contract.
Again, Purmal is succinct, "Use as little of my time as possible, give me solutions. I should know exactly what's getting done."
Assess the consultant's work in your industry and how it might or might not fit with the project. If their experience is thin, is it supported by indirect experience on another project or in another field that is applicable? Have they worked with a major competitor?
Brush up on IRS rules with regard to consultants and make sure you and your people are in compliance. You can state preferences regarding reporting. You can't dictate to a consultant in the same way you might direct an employee's work. If your legal department hasn't already published guidelines on the hiring of consultants in concert with HR, find out what is permitted.
Agistix, a software solution provider for freight carriers, hires consultants frequently. CEO David Fox says, "We want lots of experience—there's no time to provide extensive information to a consultant, they've got to hit the ground running. Over-communicate! Over-emphasize the specifics of what you want done. And check references. It's important to have a pool of candidates, talk to a variety of people, and get a well-grounded group from which to choose."
It's been said that starting with the end in mind is important for success. Nowhere is this more true than in hiring a consultant. Make sure your consultant understands the results you desire and what constitutes a successful conclusion to the engagement. Be specific regarding the amount of time involved. The consultant must be told that changes to the contract need to be communicated early and often, should they see a looming problem.
Walsh was quick to remind us that strategic counsel and staff augmentation are complex and challenging types of consulting that require more communication. "Look for a consultant who doesn't use a 'cookie cutter' approach—it's a recipe for failure. Look for someone who is more interested in saying, 'How can I help you.'" The consultant who will morph her mode of operating to provide you with a better end result is one you'll want to consider.
Finally, keep in mind that you're hiring a consultant to produce results. The consultant who has industry knowledge, blends with your team, reports in a way you can easily digest, and has an ability to take on the role as you see it... is probably a good match. If you're not finding the right combination of brains, social skills, and industry understanding, keep looking. The right consultant is only a referral, a web site, or a board recommendation away.
Some of the following questions may be used as is—others will spur the development of questions on an array of topics. Here is a sample set to get you started:
- How long have you been consulting?
- What made you decide to become a consultant?
- Are you currently looking for full- or part-time employment at a company?
- Can you tell me about your background in this industry?
- What projects have you completed in the industry?
- Who are your top three clients?
- How soon can you provide me with five references?
- What year was your diploma awarded?
- Have you won any awards? For what work?
- Are you a member of any professional organizations?
- Will you work independently using our reporting style?
- What innovations have you been responsible for?
- Do you hold any patents?
- Have you been published? Where?
- What kind of speaking engagements have you done on your specialty?
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