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Alex Silberman

Consultant's Corner
Alex Silberman

How to successfully hire a consultant


by Alex Silberman


Consultants fill immediate needs, are easily engaged and disengaged as opposed to hiring and firing, and can help businesses get over many humps and solve many stubborn problems. Although well and good in theory, the overwhelming experience in hiring consultants is tepid at best. This is because most hiring managers simply don’t know how to appropriately identify and retain qualified consultants, project managers, or technicians, and in all fairness, we consultants don’t make it particularly easy.


In this feature, we'll explore why the use of consultancies is generally disappointing and how to successfully leverage and identify the right external resources for the right job.


Some of the more common Problems:


1. Consultancies are generally unregulated (anyone can call himself a consultant), and consultants are often confused with project managers, technicians, or the certifications of the day (PMP and ITIL are popular ones today, where SixSigma was last year).


2. True consultant certifications are beginning to emerge, but are fragmented, underutilized and little understood by hiring managers and consultants alike.


3. Many consultancies rely on frameworks that are generally foreign to most businesses and force organizations to adopt methods and language that usually are only for the consultancy’s good.


4. The streets are flooded by laid off workers that brand themselves as consultants to make themselves more marketable.


5. Consultancies often try to be all things for all possible problems and pronounce mastery in matters where they have little or no subject matter expertise.


If you've encountered some of these problems when considering consultancies, the following steps will insure that your next experience goes well:


When you need a consultant is the worse time to find one


When you wake up with a toothache, would you rather call your dentist or start hunting around to find a dentist? Trying to find a practitioner when you already have a problem means you have two problems.


The sales cycle for a consultant can be long, and most consultants will be happy to meet with you, share their expertise and credentials, and learn about how they might help you, even if you don't call them for a year or two (or ever).


Just as a tax attorney may think she's good at other things when she just may be a fantastic tax attorney, consultants do not have the monopoly on being good at everything. Rely on your peer network to get recommendations on consultants they’ve used (and for which projects), and develop relationships with those consultants.


These proactive steps are inexpensive insurance and are real time and money savers. Meeting with prospective clients also allows consultants to make business connections that extend normal networking circles, which can be a real perk. My firm has been recommended more than once by prospects that never used us because we were able to connect them with other prospects and clients. While not a direct a way to get business, it benefited all of us.


Establish a Rolodex of prospective consultants with different skills for the different areas and projects of your business so that when your back is against the wall, you are not scrambling.


The dreaded Master Services Agreement


Many consultancies will not be engaged unless you sign their master services agreement, which is their effort to protect themselves and explain what they are responsible for and what your recourse is.


When in the middle of a firefight, this document and subsequent negotiations can be a real distraction, and place you at a disadvantage. Superb and confident consultants will offer a simple money back guarantee if you are not satisfied with their services, and not drag you through 20-page statements of work, many attorney revisions, and a loss of weeks.


If you cannot quickly establish a level of bilateral trust with a consultancy, walk away. The consultant must believe you will not frivolously extend engagements unreasonably, and you must respect the consultant's time because you believe she is providing measurable value and expertise. If either of these elements is missing, walk away; your project will be a greater disappointment in the long run if you don’t.


Know what you're getting


Consultancies obviously mark up their fees to cover their (a) overhead, (b) their profit, and most importantly to you, (c) the 'consultant's' salary.


Every business is entitled to seek whatever profit they deem appropriate, but understanding a consultancy's profit structure will help you determine whether you are getting a warm body, a technician, a project manager, or a true consultant. If a consultancy is not willing to disclose this (which they don't have to), walk away.


Just as a consultancy has the right to privacy, you have the right to know whether your $200-an-hour consultant is really a $60-an-hour technician with a freshly minted PMI certification, or a $180- an-hour senior project manager with 20 successful projects under her belt.


There is absolutely nothing wrong with filling temporary staffing needs with people that have certain knowledge so long as they are not called consultants, much like there is nothing wrong with getting a band aid from a street vendor as long as he doesn’t call himself a doctor.


Get resumes of prospective consultants and ask how many projects they will be working on simultaneously. Asking for summaries of like projects is also fair game depending on the engagement.


Understand how your consultancy works


Is the consultancy a PMI shop? Are they fans of SixSigma, ITIL, ISO, SAS? Are they SOX specialists in your industry? Are you a private company not bound by SOX, but doing business with public companies that are required to only do business with SOX compliant partners? Are there shades of gray among all these? You bet!


It’s critical to understand how much of what framework or process will be applied to your engagement by a given consultancy. Unless the engagement is for staff augmentation for an already defined and well managed project, the manner in which the consultancy works will have a major impact in the success or further derailment of an initiative.


Most projects benefit by the appropriate application of the appropriate amounts of the appropriate combination of frameworks and techniques. Very few projects lend themselves to being successfully led by any one framework. Listening to recent converts, it’s a wonder how any project was completed before Six Sigma!


Just a sidebar that the World Wide Web, the entire open source movement, the mouse, and the fastest aircraft ever flown were all completed without a single all encompassing framework or approach. Focusing on the fastest aircraft example, Lockheed designed, built and flew the SR-71 outside of normal management and financial review, in what is known affectionately as a 'Skunk Works'.


If you are now annoyed because when you’ve hired consultants, you’ve generally gotten disappointing results, follow the preceding steps. You will go a long way toward ensuring your next engagement with a consultant is a success.


The Dark Secrets Behind Hiring a Consultant

Featured Blogger Alex Silberman


Alex Silberman has been managing diverse, complex problems involving people, processes, technology and an ever changing landscape for 20 years. He has held C-level positions in a variety of fields and is the founder of Chief Information Solutions (www.chiefinfosolutions.com), a management consulting firm headquartered in Millburn, New Jersey.


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