Hiring a Consultant: 3 Common Mistakes and 5 Great Questions

People intuitively understand that there is value in an outside perspective. How much value, however, is largely dependent on whose perspective you get. The difference between good and great is often counter-intuitive, and a consultant’s value can be tough to decipher in just a meeting or two.

Finding the right consultant was Bellrock’s challenge when we decided to rebrand. You’d think that being in the profession ourselves, we’d have known how to hire a consultant. As it turned out, we were as naive as any small business. After all, like most of you, we had never done it before. We made a few mistakes, and learned some important lessons, which we now want to share with you.

3 Common Mistakes Businesses Make When Hiring Consultants

1. Being impatient to “get going” instead of allowing the consultant to learn about your business.

We totally made this mistake. How arrogant of us. Thinking your business is unique but simultaneously wanting them to start implementing the new brand strategy yesterday. Remember, consultants can’t give good advice if they don’t know enough about you and what you do.

Anyone who advises you to make changes before they have thoroughly analyzed your business should not be trusted.

2. Seeking specific industry expertise.

We didn’t make this mistake, but we see it all the time. Sometimes you should seek deep industry expertise; for example, when you are developing a bleeding edge product or when your industry is changing dramatically. Typically, however, you know your industry better than an outside advisor – even one that specializes in your industry. Instead of seeking a confirming opinion, you should be seeking information you do not already have and that usually comes from someone who has worked in a broad spectrum of industries.

3. Thinking once you know WHAT to do, you can easily implement it yourself.

Typically, the “what” is relatively straightforward (you need better communication, tighter project controls, a cleaner sales process – that kind of thing). It’s “how” to do it and make it stick in your unique environment that a good consultant can help you learn. Most people know what to do and have even tried a time or two. They just couldn’t get it to stick.

5 Questions to Ask When Hiring a Consultant

Consultants all have their differentiators, value propositions, and elevator pitches…but everyone kind of sounds the same. Beyond going with your gut, what can you ask them to help you decide who to hire?

1. What is your goal for this project?

Consultants should be able to articulate their goal – and it should be aligned with yours. What you do not want to hear are process-oriented goals, such as “our goal is to put in this software / develop job descriptions / hire a manager / reorganize your company.” Instead, you want to hear about results; “our goal is to improve margins / increase communication / set up your business so it can run independently of your involvement.”

2. What is your communication process?

A successful consulting engagement requires regular, efficient communication. You want to know what they are doing all the time, but don’t want to be over burdened. Make sure they have a process that works and that they can explain to you. This will increase your comfort and confidence and make the changes more likely to take root – because you’ll know what to follow up on.

3. Do you charge for your efforts or our results?

Consultants who charge strictly for their time (hourly) are fine, as long as their goal is to produce results, and you can measure their progress towards those outcomes. A word of caution – don’t look for the least expensive service provider. The dollar amount on the invoice is relatively small compared to the time you and your staff will be investing. If they claim that you won’t have to invest a lot of time into the process, well, that could be trouble too. How will you make the changes stick if you weren’t involved in their design?

4. Can I speak to a negative reference?

If consultants tell you every project has been successful, they are either lying or inexperienced. The real question to ask is: how did you handle a project that didn’t go well? Management consultants work with people – they require you and your staff’s best efforts in order to be successful, and sometimes those efforts aren’t there. Don’t look for a 100% success rate. Look for a 100% reference-able rate.

5. What is your quality assurance process?

Consultants should have a process to deal with complaints every step of the way. In fact, great consultants will ferret out any problems before you have to bring them to their attention – so ask them what their process is for doing so.

Why Do People Hire Consultants?

Nothing beats an outside perspective when it comes to improving your company’s results. There are three broad reasons you might decide to bring in outside help.

  1. Expertise
  2. Speed
  3. Perspective

At Bellrock, we looked to outside help for all three. We had no graphic design expertise in house, we wanted the process to move quickly (but were busy with our own jobs and couldn’t devote enough time to do it ourselves), and we wanted an outside perspective on what might appeal to our clients. We’re thrilled with the results of the process, and even happier we learned so much along the way.

Bellrock is a management consulting and change management firm where remarkable is expected. If you found this article valuable, don’t be stingy. Share!

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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