Choosing a Consultant

If you’re going to hire a consultant, then choose a great one. Below are some questions to ask yourself and your potential consultant.


1. What is it you want, exactly?

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Before you start peppering a potential consultant with questions, make sure you know what type of consultant you need and where in the process you need them.

Do you require a consultant to undertake an inspection or audit that will help you identify areas at risk and make recommendations on what you need to do?

Do you already know what you need, and simply require a consultant to assist you to complete the actions and implement the plan you have already identified?

Do you require a consultant to do both – identify what you need, action plan it, and then undertake the tasks and processes to implement into the business?

Be clear on what you are seeking, and ask questions on exactly what the consultant’s scope of work will be for the price they are asking.


2. What type of expertise will generate outstanding results?

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Most executives start hunting for a consultant that fits their situation, which could sound like this: ‘We are a construction company with a limited safety system; therefore, we need a consultant who has expertise in safety systems in the construction industry’.

You will experience better results by searching for a consultant who has mastery over the outcome you are striving to achieve. This might sound closer to ‘we need a consultant who will help us manage our compliance, can assist us in audits, and can implement a safety system which will enable us to gain accreditation.

Unless your projects’ objective is specifically to understand an industry better, put industry expertise toward the bottom of your list.

The areas of expertise that could yield an excellent outcome are: 

  1. subject (e.g. safety) 
  2. targeted process (e.g. system implementation) 
  3. high-level process (e.g. knowledge of accreditation, auditing)
  4. your reason for doing the project (e.g. gaining higher level tenders) 
  5. industry (e.g. construction)


3. Do we want fast, talented or inexpensive? (pick two)

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The triangle of trade-offs certainly applies to consultants:  you can get superior talent, faster results or a lower cost, but Jonathan Thurston wont teach your team to score a try tomorrow for free.

Often an executive will set a budget number then search for the best talent and/or fastest result within that budget, however the budget-drive approach can often compromise results.

Your best course is to establish your desired outcome and judge each potential consultant by how likely they are to deliver that outcome. You may find the budget is a non-issue or you may determine a small premium is well worth the investment for a superior consultant or a faster timetable.


4. What is their specialty?

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Once you have answered the first three questions for yourself, start determining whether specific consultants fit your bill. The first question you should ask, regardless of what the consultants’ website or business card proclaims is, “what’s your specialty?”  You are looking for an answer that precisely fits one of the areas of expertise you identified in the previous question.

Dismiss consultants who cannot articulate their specialty clearly and precisely, whose specialty contains a multitude of ‘ands’ (We’re experts in leadership and personnel retention and increasing sales and reducing costs and…), or who try to deduce what you’re looking for before answering.

Excellent consultants know what they do, develop expertise in a focused area and can express their value before pressing for more information.


5. How are their clients better off after they leave?

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Similarly, a superior consultant will be able to tell you the benefits they deliver at the end of a typical project. Look for outcomes in their answers, not for process. A great answer sounds like “our clients are able to gain higher level project work, and deliver profitably on their projects knowing compliance and safety are systematically managed within their business”.

Bad answers run the gamut from “Our clients end up with much better safety systems” (so what?) to “We use our five-step process” (so what?) to “What was it you were hoping to get from this project?” (nice try).


6. Do they have an outstanding approach? 

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In instances where you are dictating the approach and the consultant is a pure implementer, this question doesn’t apply; however, on all projects for which prospective consultants are recommending an approach, evaluate their proposal on the following criteria:

Understands Requirements 
Does their approach demonstrate powerful understanding of what is truly needed to deliver your desired outcome, or is wishful thinking involved? A consultant who suggests your systems can be switched overnight with no hiccups is either overconfident or naive.

Excellent Change Plan 
Most improvements to your organisation will involve a human factor that must be managed. A consultant who only deals with the technical side of things, even for something like an IT upgrade, won’t deliver long-lasting results.

Appropriate Timelines 
If you are looking for a decision or a plan, does the timeline fit your needs? If faster results are of value, has the consultant offered to compress the timing? In contrast, with implementation type projects, is the consultant recommending sufficient time for the changes to stick? (Most consultants promise too much implementation excellence with too little time to ensure results.)

Does the approach include advice and input long after the deliverable? For instance, if the client is implementing a cost reduction project on the plant floor, they should be around to make adjustments as needed if their recommendation creates unforeseen problems.

Backup Plans 
The very best consultants include contingencies in their approach for any major exigency. Most projects don’t go as originally planned and you want a consultant who has already thought through how to work out the most likely problems.


7. Do they exhibit the right characteristics? 

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While the needs of every project differ, a few characteristics should always be in place. These include:

Experience delivering your desired outcome 
If their other clients have achieved what you hope to achieve, you are on safe ground. If not, let them do their learning elsewhere.

Willingness to push back 
A consultant who kowtows to your every command is of little value. You’re paying for expertise; therefore, demand a consultant with a point of view, strong rationale, and the willingness to support their position. A consultant who doesn’t exhibit backbone during the interview process wont manifest it later when they should be alerting you to dangers you’d rather not acknowledge.

Great consultants are available for you when you need them and you are well within your rights to expect a fast turnaround from most consultants.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to like your consultant. If you are going to jointly develop a solution then it’s important that you respect each other and your communication is excellent. While the consultant doesn’t need to be a buddy, pass them by if their style will inhibit your organisation from hearing, accepting and adopting their recommendations.


8. How likely are they to succeed? 

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Success means you achieve your desired outcome. There is no 100% certainty your consultant will accomplish your goals (although they may check off all the tasks on a project list). For any consultant you may hire, estimate how likely success is. Don’t however attribute your company’s failings to deliver on your side of the deal as a reflection of your consultant.

Get some data and use your judgment rather than assuming the project will deliver as planned. And be realistic with your own organisation’s capabilities within the project – are you expecting too much of your team? Unreasonable expectations of your own company’s capacity to progress the project may well put the project in jeopardy, so make sure you are realistic when assigning tasks.


9. Is the risk-adjusted ROI acceptable? 

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After you answer the previous question you can calculate the risk-adjusted return on investment (ROI) on the consultant. You should already have a good estimate of the value of your project and by factoring in the likelihood of success you will know the risk-adjusted value.

Let’s say your leadership development project is estimated to deliver $1 million in value. You are considering hiring a coach for $85,000 and you estimate there’s a 75% chance the project will live up to your expectations. The risk adjusted ROI is 8.8 ($750,000/$85,000). Any risk-adjusted ROI above a 7.0 is typically a better investment than you’ll get from other uses of your money.


10. Are they the real deal? 

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Ask for evidence of qualifications, certifications and accreditations. Expertise comes with a mixture of experience, higher education, industry credibility, and accreditations. If you are paying for this person’s advice and service, make sure they are not new to the game, and they have qualifications at the appropriate level.

Ask for evidence of insurance cover – consultants should typically be holding public liability and professional indemnity.

Finally, ask for references - at least 5 of them. The references may not change your mind on whether to hire the consultant, but they could help you re-evaluate your estimate of success or prepare for quirks that were not apparent during your interviews.


Some of the information for Questions to Ask has been extracted from ‘The Executive’s Guide to Consultants’ by David A. Fields, as well as from the monthly columns he writes for CNN Money, Investor’s Business, Business Week and SmartMoney.



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