Making the Most of Business Consultants

Consultants can play a vital role in assisting a wide variety of organizations in a number of ways. Or the relationship could turn sour with long-term consequences. How do you help ensure the former and avoid the latter? BizVoice magazine has a guest column with practical advice.

Consultant selection
Hiring the right consultant or consulting firm is the most important step in a strong consulting relationship. It is critical that you find a person competent to meet your needs in a way that’s aligned with your firm’s culture.

Your first order of business is to determine what kind of help you require. Then, you can begin your search for someone with the right background. A great place to start is with colleagues – word of mouth is the best type of reference. Universities can also assist in identifying resources in a given area. A third source is other professionals you use – your accountant, attorney or banker. These professionals know your business and may have used (or have clients who have used) the kind of consultant you need.

Once you have narrowed down the list, interview candidates with the same rigor you apply to screening potential employees. Also, in many cases you share confidential information with consultants, so be certain you pick one who is worthy of your trust.

Discuss confidentiality first. Unlike other professionals (lawyers, accountants, doctors, therapists), consultants do not have a common set of ethical standards. Ask that any information disclosed is kept confidential or define exactly with whom it can be shared. If needed, ask the consultant to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Next, provide enough information so that the consultant knows what you hope to gain in the engagement. A great consultant will guide you through this process. It’s also important to learn about his or her background and expertise. Discuss what approach the consultant would take in the engagement, and be open and honest about any concerns you have about that approach.

If you are considering moving forward, ask the consultant to prepare a proposal summarizing the work to be done. It should reflect your discussion and include a clear definition of the scope of the project, your responsibilities as a firm, the consultant’s responsibilities and an estimated budget. This will serve as a starting point for discussing the engagement.