What Your Consultant Wants You to Know (but you never ask)
I’ve been both a CEO and a consultant, so I’ve seen from both perspectives what goes right and what goes wrong when a consultant comes in to a company. Generally the CEO or the manager who hires the consultant tells the consultant what he or she wants. Often the manager is frustrated with something that is happening at the company and expects the consultant will have the expertise to “just fix it”. While the manager needs to set the expectations, of course, the consultant rarely gets to voice what he or she knows would make the consulting engagement more successful for both.
Here is what your consultant would love to tell you about making him or her successful working on your behalf:
1. Please Do Your Homework before I Come In
Too many owners and managers hire a consultant and then stop thinking. They present a list of general problems and expect the expert to conjure dramatic results. This approach almost always ends in frustration and many, many billable hours.
Instead, you have to take the initiative and stay involved. Discuss your needs, problems, and parameters in candid terms from the start. Set a budget or schedule upfront for each project a consultant tackles. Save your skepticism (or your staff’s) for the interview process; once you’ve chosen a consultant, give him or her the benefit of everything you know and access to all important information.
One of the biggest costs in hiring outside expertise is bringing the consultant up to speed on your company’s operations. If you can prepare reports and numbers internally, you can help the consultant stay away from data gathering and other basic reporting functions; keep the consultant focused on analysis. You can tabulate numbers yourself; you’ve hired the expert to help you move forward from there. When you hire consultants, keep in mind that their most important skill should be critical analysis and problem solving.
Another point to consider is that many consultants have a steep sort of half life as to enthusiasm for a project. They are consultants because they like variety. In other words, their best thoughts and greatest creativity come early in their relationships with clients. Being prepared from the start allows you to take full advantage of short attention spans.
2. Please let me stay focused on what I came in for and keep the distractions and new requests to a minimum if you want me to stay within your original budget (or expand the budget).
A consultant’s expertise is so welcome in certain environments that they number of projects multiplies beyond the hiring manager’s original intent, but often with their knowledge. The original project may be just the tip of the iceberg of problems within a company, some of which are best solved by a consultant but many of which are best hired within the company after working with the consultant to develop a plan.
Like any outside contractor or vendor, consultant services are a commodity-and consultants want to sell as much of this commodity over as long a time as they can. That’s their understandable inclination as business people. However, it’s your understandable inclination as an owner or manager to minimize the amount you pay them.
The consultant may be right to say there aren’t quick fixes to serious problems, but don’t let that lead to open-ended engagements. Most consultants agree that restructuring involves two phases: a design phase, in which new ways of doing work are fashioned, and an implementation phase, in which the new ways of doing work actually are put in place. Have the consultant schedule these phases. This helps set up an exit strategy for the consultant, which is an important cost control tool. In addition, the consultant will see the project as a limited engagement, rather than open ended.
3. Please set regular times to meet so that I have access to the person who hired me to get clarifications and not waste your time (and not waste my time).
Set regular times to meet (weekly or monthly) when the consultant will review conclusions, answer questions, and challenge you on better ways to run your business.
Make sure these are working meetings. Avoid meetings that turn into administrative updates. By meeting with the consultant regularly, you can compartmentalize-and better control-the amount of time you spend with him or her. It also forces the consultant to be succinct and not draw on too much of your time. In this context, you can expect more from a consultant than from an employee. The consultant’s attention should focus squarely on problems you’re paying him or her to consider, not on operational details.
Remember that you are paying bigger dollar amounts for this help, so you don’t want a consultant to be billing you for time in your office unless you are using that time wisely. Too many times employees don’t understand how a consulting arrangement works – they want the consultant to be available to them during their working hours. Consultants shouldn’t be at your company every day where they can be distracted. They should only be there in order to meet with other people. Otherwise, they need to be doing their analysis in the peace and quiet of their own offices. 4. Please Don’t Kill the Messenger
The manager or CEO who hired the consultant may be very excited at the beginning of working together and feel like he or she just unloaded their burden onto some capable shoulders. Then the consultant prepares an analysis and the recommendations all rely on additional work to be done by managers and employees inside the company. The recommendations may also involve actions that aren’t fun to carry out, such as demoting or terminating non-performing employees. They may call for additional reports or extra meetings. Expect that the consultant will come to some conclusions you won’t like immediately, but they may be the only way to end some long-term problems.
In conclusion, when you keep consultants disciplined and focused, you can use them to great advantage. Be clear on the purpose of hiring the consultant and what you can and can’t expect their work to produce. Up front clarity will lead to a productive and valuable relationship.
Jan B. King is the former President & CEO of Merritt
Publishing, a top 50 woman-owned and run business in Los
Angeles and the author of Business Plans to Game Plans: A
Practical System for Turning Strategies into Action (John
Wiley & Sons, 2004). She has helped hundreds of businesses
with her book and her ebooks, The Do-It-Yourself Business
Plan Workbook, and The Do-It-Yourself Game Plan Workbook.
See www.janbking.com for more information.