7 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Consultant

Why not hire experts to tackle the parts of your business that are outside your expertise? Here's how.
March 29, 2012

As a small-business owner, you know your product or service well. But you may not know quite as much about marketing, branding or sales. You may not be an expert in human resources and public relations. So why not hire consultants to tackle those parts of your business?

Sounds great, but some entrepreneurs hire the wrong people because they don't pay attention during the interview process, says Lauri Flaquer.

“A lot of people give more thought to buying an expensive piece of clothing than to hiring a consultant,” says Flaquer, founder of Saltar Solutions, a branding and marketing consultancy in St. Paul, Minnesota. “They just ask, ‘What do you do?’ and then hire with little thought.”

“Don’t hire someone just like yourself," she says. "Bring in someone with different skills who can really help move your business forward.”

Flaquer suggests seven revealing questions to ask during the interview.

1. What’s been your biggest success as a consultant?

Look for yourself and your company in the answer. Is the candidate’s response a good measure of success in your eyes or are you confused as to why they think it is a success in the first place?

Follow up by asking, "What is your second-biggest success?"

“A lot of times, consultants may have a formulaic answer to the first question, but might have to really think about the follow-up,” she says. “The second success should be different from the first.”

2. What’s been your biggest failure?

You're looking for the person to take ownership of a shortcoming, not blame someone else for it.

“Admitting failure is a strength. The important thing is to be honest and accept responsibility,” Flaquer says. “After they answer, ask them what they learned from the situation.”

3. What will need to happen to make this engagement a success?

A good answer is when the candidate tells you that the engagement will only succeed with the help of both parties—you and the consultant. Be wary of a consultant who says she can handle it all on her own. You don't want someone to take your business in the wrong direction without knowing your business strategy, she says.

Follow up this question by asking what you, the client, must do to make the engagement successful. Get specifics.

4. What additional courses, classes, retreats or extra learning have you found helpful?

“You want someone who is aggressively seeking higher knowledge, who is on the cutting edge,” Flaquer says.

5. Do you use a formal program to help your clients or do you come up with it as you go along?

It’s best if they have a formal program, she notes, because that program can usually measure success in a tangible way.

But what if they don’t have a program and tell you that each client receives a customized strategy plan?

“I still think it is important to have a basic system to go on and show to a client,” she says. “From there, the consultant can take the basic system and adjust it for the client. That system can give you an idea of some of their strategies that may work for your business.”

6. Are you a specialist in your area?

The right answer is, "'No, I’m a generalist that knows about a lot of industries,’" says Flaquer.

“Being a specialist is a liability, not an asset,” she says.

Flaquer believes that specialists just mimic what your competition is already doing. Generalists are able to pull ideas from other industries into your consultant/small-business relationship.

7. How do you think you can help me?

Save this for the last question and expect a somewhat detailed response, specific to your business.

Flaquer says, “You should leave the interview excited, like you can’t wait to dive in.”

Do you have any additional tips for hiring a consultant?  Comment below.

Photo credit: Courtesy Saltar Solutions