Michael Paris
Paris: Management Consultants
Hinsdale, Ill.

Should you ever hire consultants? Could they possibly know more about what your company does than you do? Probably not, unless they are incredibly specialized.

But what about all the areas outside your specialty? That's where good consultants can legitimately help. The right consultant brings four key attributes that help solve difficult problems:

  • A wide variety of experiences.
  • An unbiased approach and an arsenal of techniques that help make decisions more objective and less subjective.
  • Firsthand knowledge of many approaches that don't work.
  • The ability to focus solely on a specific problem or set of problems.

Consultants cost money, sometimes lots of money, and take employees' time. To get the most out of consultants:

  • Clearly define the problem. Make sure the consultant understands your goals, the scope of the work, and any expected deliverables. What do you want from the relationship, and what do you want to be left with?

Remember, it is best if the consultant solves the problem at hand then leaves until another day. All consultants say they are interested in "long-term relationships". That may be true, but a single consulting firm cannot solve all your problems. Each firm has specialties. Find out what those firms and specialties are, and hire the one most suited to your needs, regardless of whether or not they have worked for you in the past.

  • Do not be intimidated by consultants who call on you. If they spend time trying to impress you and your colleagues with their Ivy League education and prestigious firm, then they have failed in their primary mission. Their first visit should be to listen and ask intelligent questions. Clearly, they should have concise responses to questions on their firm's capabilities and qualifications. But on the first visit, they should ask questions about objectives, scope, deliverables, and your timetable so they can turn out a proposal that fits your needs.
  • Make sure consulting firms you screen provide proposals for inspection and review. If possible, have each firm give you a written version of their proposal prior to their presentation. That way, you can prepare intelligent questions. A good proposal states the objectives, scope, deliverables, staffing requirements (theirs and yours), briefly outlines their approach or methods, and gives time and cost estimates. Always ask if the cost is a "not to exceed cost" and what it includes and excludes. Expect to negotiate. If the consultant provides boilerplate instead of the items listed above, show them the door. And show them the door if they say they will gather data, go away, then provide answers to your problems in six or eight weeks.
  • Make sure the consultants who call on you initially are going to be involved with the project on an ongoing basis. Continuity is vital. Some firms call in the "Pros from Dover" to get a job, then staff it with people you do not know and who have never seen your operation.

Good consultants provide continuity and let clients check to make sure that people assigned on a day-to-day basis are capable and understand the approach that is going to be applied to your problem. Some firms provide a free one or two-week audit of your operations. Be cautious. Invariably, these firms find problems that (surprise!) only they can fix. Do not let their solution dictate your problem. Know what you want and what you need.

  • If you're hiring a consulting firm for more than a couple of weeks, think about setting up a management steering committee made of key decision makers in your organization to guide the project through difficult decisions. Include finance people because almost every project should be financially justified.
  • Dedicate someone to work with the consultants. If this is not feasible, appoint a liaison to ensure consultants get the information they need. The liaison also keeps you updated on potential problems and "roadblocks". Remember, there are no good surprises in business.
  • Ask the consultant for a work plan and schedule. Have the plan approved by your management steering committee. Ask for regular reports at four to sixweek intervals to see that the schedule is being followed and they are getting closer to solving your problem. If the consultant is behind schedule, find out why. And is there a plan to catch up? If the consultant is on schedule, what are the next steps?

It helps to keep top management informed about progress on the project. For example, if an approval is needed at the end of the project, management can focus on it rather than the preliminary details covered weeks or months ago.

  • Remember, consultants are people. With some you will have good chemistry and with others the chemistry is not so good. Choose someone you get along with. After all, you will be working with them on a project you consider important. Consulting firms are familiar with this problem. Good firms should have no trouble reassigning the first person and providing a knowledgeable, experienced person with whom you can work more easily.

These guidelines are easily met by reputable consulting firms. They are common-sense, straightforward ideas that you can put to practical use.