If you type the word “consultant” into any web-based search browser, you’ll quickly come up with hundreds if not thousands of consultants’ names. These may include management consultants, marketing consultants, wedding consultants, fly-fishing consultants, contractors, freelancers or any other kind of consultant you want to find. What you probably won’t find are any consultants that remotely resemble what you are specifically looking for – especially if you happen to be looking for someone reasonably local.
If you next ask friends or acquaintances if they know of any consultants, you will obtain somewhat better results, at least insofar as the consultants you find will be local. While some argue that a consultant is an expert from out of town, most prefer to use people nearby to keep ancillary costs low.
Whether you search the web or query your peers, friends, associates, or competitors, finding names of consultants shouldn’t be particularly hard.Figuring out if the consultants you learn about are right for you, however, may be a bit tougher. Many of the consultants recommended will unfortunately be far afield from the caliber and focus of expertise you really need.
How then does one locate the “right” consultant? How do you meet and hire one who will implement solutions that will adequately solve your current and future problems? Having observed hundreds of company/consultant matches over nearly the last two decades, my firm has identified a number of proven “success points.” Let me walk through a few of the major ones:
1) Begin at the finish, that is, start by defining your end point. What results are you looking for by the time your consultant has finished with the job? Do you want to increase your sales, decrease employee turnover, improve production capacity? What’s your final objective?
Starting from wherever you want to be, work backwards. Of course, consultants may be necessary to help you define this through close observation analyzing your problem area and proposing a solution to work toward. Be careful he or she doesn’t redefine your problem in light of irrelevant solutions or specialized skillsets. If a consultant’s approach is canned or non-customized, you could end up with significantly greater problems than you started out with.
2) Know whether you need a consultant at all. Sometimes a “contractor” or new full time staffer fits the bill better than a full-fledged consultant. Do you know how to tell the difference? Consider these definitions:
A consultant helps you identify your problem, devise a solution, then implement it or train someone at your firm to do so. Typically a consultant will perform all such stages within an efficient and relatively short period of time. What little time your consultant actually spends at your location will be both well planned and highly focused. It’s the consultant’s role to assume the lead in guiding the overall process.
Where consultants lead, contractors “follow.” The role of the contractor is to carry out assignments, to implement plans laid out by someone else (you or perhaps your consultant), to perform tasks and actions in the context of a previously defined “big picture.” Contractors (and full-time staffers) usually require close supervision while consultants generally do not.
Why would you choose a contractor or staffer over a consultant? When you’re clear what the problem is—say, a computer needs to be fixed or more help is required in finance at year-end—call in a contractor. Such an assignment will be short-term as with a consultant except that contractor fees typically run substantially less. The contractor only stays to do something that has previously been laid out, then leaves when the need has been served.
Choose a full-time staffer for the same reasons you would a contractor but when your time span is indefinite, i.e., when you’re clear what the problem is but you know it’s isn’t going away anytime soon. Example: computer problems are ongoing, mostly because you are putting on new employees every week and expect to be doing so for a long time. Thus brining in a computer technician who will always be available makes sense. Or, let’s say your present accounting manager just can’t handle the workload any more because your workforce has been growing in leaps and bounds. Another hand is needed, a junior accountant, to help out. This kind of problem cannot be solved by a temporary fix or by questioning high-level assumptions so a permanent staffer is a better solution than a contractor or consultant.
Seek someone who listens. The best consultant for you will be a person who works objectively, on your behalf, to determine the direction that will best resolve your problem at hand. To a carry out a useful analysis, your consultant must be able to understand your needs and be capable of recommending and seeing through action items on how to get from Point A to Points B, C and D. The right match for you will then be able to point to specific examples of past consulting clients who have traveled similar routes successfully.
Look for the candidate who takes in everything about your organization and industry as well as your goals for your firm’s future and problem-solving methods you’ve already tried. Seek someone too who holds back “magic” answers until all pertinent data gathering has been completed.
Questions to ask yourself: Did the consultant to whom you’ve been referred do more listening or more speaking at your first meeting? Did you get a comfortable feel that this was a consultant who sincerely wanted to help you? Or, the reverse, did you find yourself growing steadily uncomfortable as too much time was spent trying to “sell” you? Seek therefore the consultant who listens well.
4) Time is short? Then cut to the chase!
Searching for the right match often requires a lot of time and not infrequently a bit of luck too. Asking around, browsing the Web, networking with colleagues at professional events and conferences—these can be valuable search activities with multiple payoffs including relationship-building, professional enrichment and visibility for your company.While potentially useful in the long run, they do require inputs of many hours as well and may extend over weeks or months.
When time is short, however, call a referral or placement service to help you out. Such a brokerage service may specialize in the genuine article by function or industry, and understand just what you’re looking for and be able to introduce you quickly with those who have “been there and done that.” Other brokers locate contractors for you or candidates for full-time employment. These services often charge you (the hiring company) nothing and yet can shorten the search cycle immeasurably, as well as zero in quickly on candidates that are the best fit for your situation.
Our firm, for example, can instantaneously sort through a database of thousands of consultants to locate experienced consulting candidates, weeding out those who don’t fit or haven’t yet developed a track record. This means consultant/candidates not only specialize in solving certain types of problems but also can prove how they have repeatedly done so successfully in the past. But whatever search method you settle on, by all means pay attention to the success points outlined here. Finding the right match can be tricky but following my tried-and-true guidelines will likely lead you to a successful conclusion. It may also permit the partnership with your new consultant (orcontractor or staffer) to satisfactorily address your issues in a manner that meets and quite possibly exceeds your expectations.
Geoffrey Day is President of The Consulting Exchange (Cambridge MA), New England's leading consultant referral service, free to companies looking for consultants. Call The Consulting Exchange at 800-824-4828 or visit their website at www.cx.com.
Reprinted by permission: Boston Business Journal.
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