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Getting Full Value From Consulting is in Your Hands

By Geoffrey Day


Call it the flip side of the downsizing era, or the by-product of re-engineering. Or maybe your secret competitive weapon. Whatever you call it, finding and managing consultants has become a mission-critical skill.

That's because only flexible companies - whether big or small, emerging or established - will be players in tomorrow's marketplace. And flexibility means obtaining expertise when you need it.

Get the right consultant and you can achieve great things - improve productivity, reduce product cycle time, increase market share, or build customer loyalty. Get the wrong person and you may put your company at a disadvantage.

If you're looking for a consultant, it's because you realize that you can't do everything, and that's a great place to start. But if you're like most people, you probably have questions on how to find the right person, and then how to manage the relationship for fullest value.

The first thing to know about hiring and managing consultants is that it's a developed expertise - the more you do it, the better you get at it.. It's also an important skill to cultivate, because you'll be doing a lot of it from here on out.

But before getting down to the nitty-gritty, you owe it to yourself to answer some fundamental questions. Are you ready to work with a consultant? You got where you are because you're smart, tenacious, and competitive. But are you willing to listen to someone who can help, even though he or she will never know as much about your company as you?

If so, you are ready to hire a consultant, someone who will provide what you want, while guiding you to what you need. Do you know what you want to accomplish?

For example, are you looking for someone to fix a narrowly focused problem, or do you need someone to help sort out larger business issues? A contractor or a temp does the former, while a consultant does the latter. A contractor will run your accounting software on Tuesdays while a consultant will advise you on how to do your accounting better, cheaper, faster. Consultants have a broader perspective and a larger mandate. (They do handle implementation, and often it makes sense to get them involved, but their primary purpose is to advise on solving a problem.)

Are you looking for an order taker or an adviser? If you are fairly certain you know what needs to be done, but only need the right person to do it, you need a contractor. If you generally know what needs doing, and realize you will benefit from working with someone who will help you think outside the box, you want a consultant. Consultants help figure out what to do and how to do it; tacticians focus on the doing.

Are you buying or investing? Buying is short-term oriented. It's about acquiring a service with a low return, on the order of 1:2 or 1:3. Hiring a consultant is about investing in your ability to compete. Like a capital investment, you should be thinking about returns that exceed 1:8 - and be prepared to spend to get those types of returns.

Now that you've considered the larger picture, and assuming you've concluded that you should engage a consultant, it's time for the nitty-gritty:

  • Define your goals. The more specific you are about the business goal you want to reach, the more likely your consultant can help you achieve your objective. The trick here is to focus more on the "what" and less on the "how."

  • Get buy-in from your people. This applies to middle managers, senior executives, and owners alike. One of the major reasons consulting engagements can go awry is that permanent staffers view the outside consultant as a threat. (When evaluating candidate consultants, ask them how they typically address this issue.)

  • Find the best consultant. While this is easier said than done, there are some time-tested guidelines for finding someone who can do the job for you. You should check out four major areas:

First, look for competence. Do the candidates have the skills you need? Can they transfer their experience from other engagements to your case? Do they communicate effectively?

Then look for credibility. Do they have the right background? Can they effectively challenge others without alienating them? Do they have the charisma to influence people within your company?

Look for learners. Good consultants constantly learn and are enthusiastic about their work. They're also confident enough to admit when they don't know something.

Finally, look for chemistry. Do you believe you'll get along? Are you willing to believe enough in them to give them a chance? Will you be willing to be challenged by the candidates you're considering?

Once you've zeroed in on a consultant, be sure to check his or her references. Specifically, ask about the results he or she achieved at other companies, as well as how well other people have worked with the individual. Find out how your candidate handles unforeseen problems, too, because this will reveal important character traits and creative abilities.

Just because consultants bring fresh thinking to your business is reason enough to seek out and engage the best. Because they also provide an efficient way to help you take your company to a new level, you owe it to yourself to take the time to find the one that's right for you.

Geoffrey Day, the president of The Consulting Exchange Inc. in Cambridge, has been referring management and technical consultants to client companies since 1987. He can be reached at gday@consultingexchange.com or visit the website at .


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