If you need to hire a consultant for your small business, it can be a daunting task. You may need the services of a lawyer, an accountant, a software designer, a graphic designer or a network engineering company. Or maybe you just need a trainer for a week to teach your staff better customer service techniques. Whatever your consulting needs, you can make your project more successful, with a few simple guidelines.
1. Be sure to interview a number of consulting companies and service providers before you choose. You’ll find that your perspective changes as you talk to more people and, while the first company may be the one you choose anyway, you’ll feel better having looked at more options. You wouldn’t buy the first house you saw with your realtor, would you?
2. Write down your expectations and preferences. Even the simplest thing can be a deal breaker if it is something that is important to you. Ask them how they deal with their clients, how many times a week they talk to their clients, if they work onsite or in their own office, whether they produce written reports to keep you updated on status and activities.
3. Ask for references on similar projects and call the references with a list of questions you want answered. Don’t just let the conversation go in any direction. Be sure you get the information you need to make the decision. Don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions about the consultant. For example, did the consultant bring the project in for the same price, and on the same schedule as the customer was originally quoted? If not, why not? If you are calling a consultant just because your friend used them, don’t take that reference as ‘good enough’. Do your own homework and research. You’ll be happy you did.
4. Spend some time documenting your requirements, and planning the project. Be sure your expectations are well-conceived and reasonable. Don’t look for someone to complete a year long project in three months. You may find a consultant who will say they can do it, but you are bound to be disappointed with the results.
5. Include your personal preferences for working style in your expectations. Do you prefer someone who talks a lot and keeps you in the loop, or do you want someone with a no-nonsense approach who says very little, but gets a lot done?
6. Will you need the consultant to work with other staff members? Are there people in other offices they will have to meet and with whom you will expect them to work closely? If so, include those people in the interviews so that everyone agrees on the consultant you choose. If you have the final decision, be sure your staff understands why you chose a particular consultant. You don’t want this to turn into a power struggle.
7. If you expect resistance from your staff when you bring in an outside consultant, don’t sabotage the project upfront. Be sure the consultant knows what the issues may be and that they are prepared to address them. Be sure the person or company you choose can deal with controversy and recognize and defeat problems without turning them into arguments or being undermined in their progress on the goals you have set for them. Don’t avoid dealing with your problems by giving them to an outsider, or you will fail every time.
8. Find out if the type of project or work you are planning to give this consultant is their specialty or just a side line. You want someone who knows what they are doing and you want to be sure that the staff they assign to the project are equally as skilled.
9. Plan for the interviews and keep notes on your findings so you can get together with your staff and discuss each candidate after the interviews are complete. You would be amazed at how quickly we forget just who promised what deliverables, when we are talking to three, four or five companies or people about the same project.
10. Sign a contract. Be clear about the terms and conditions for the budget, the schedule and the tasks you want accomplished. Have a lawyer draw up a standard contract for your signature so that the contract will consider all obligations and be enforceable if the consultant does not deliver the goods.
These are just a few of the things you should consider when selecting a consultant. If you give it some thought, I’m sure you can come up with more. The most important thing is to choose the consultant as if you were hiring a person on your staff. Make sure you can work closely with that person and that you feel you can develop trust with them. You may feel you don’t have the time for this level of scrutiny, but your project will be more successful if you approach the process in this way.