Selecting The Right Consultant For Your Business

If you need help but are concerned about adding staff, a consultant may solve your problems. Here's how to pick the right one.
May 20, 2011

If you're concerned about increasing staff but have a glut of projects that require immediate attention, a consultant can be your best resource. However, selecting a consultant is very different from hiring an employee. Here are some questions to ask yourself and tips to keep in mind when selecting the right consultant.

1. Should I use a consulting company or hire an individual consultant?

If you are using an individual consultant or independent contractor, then find, evaluate and choose the consultant yourself. If you use a consulting company, it does the vetting for you. A consulting company's job is to ensure that background checks and drug testing are done and that you are presented with the best available slate of candidates. The consulting company can become an approved vendor by having the appropriate insurance and security measures in place. Our company takes the added precaution of ensuring our consultants stay within IRS 1099 guidelines.

2. How do I get started?

Whether you hire a company or an individual, be as specific as possible to match the skill set to your needs.

  • Identify your needs. To find the best person, define the project requirements and deliverables. Ask yourself, “What do I really need done?” Do you need someone who can prepare and deliver a presentation to senior-level executives? Do you need someone with experience in your specific industry? We find that ex-employees or people who have worked in the industry make great candidates. Little training is needed and they navigate the company without much help. Women who left the workforce after maternity leave often return for very specific consulting projects.
  • Select and interview the candidate. A consulting company performs the initial screening interview. If you are on your own, you must perform this first step as well as schedule time for in-person meetings with your team and other project members.
  • Check references. Again, a company will have checked references for you. Don’t just ask for references; follow up with a phone call, unless your policy dictates written communication. Where possible, get a direct supervisor and a colleague to give different viewpoints.

3. Don’t be afraid of a senior person performing a junior role

If you are new to selecting consultants, it can be daunting to consider a person with more experience than an employee in that position would have. The tendency is to ask why someone would want to perform a lower-level assignment. Remember, this is not an employee. This is actually one of the best things that can happen, if you use it as a learning experience. A senior person will deliver superior value on that assignment. They are there to do whatever job is required and can give you valuable assessment, feedback and guidance in as short a time as possible. Why they want this project can be as simple as it fits into their current schedule.

4. Per-hour billing may cost you a lot less than fixed price

Small businesses like to manage monthly expectations with a fixed budget. However, charging by the hour for a seasoned consultant can be a cost effective means of staying within the budget. You are billed only for hours worked. If you get an estimate of hours, you can come out on top. Sign off on the billed hours before invoicing so you both agree on completed deliverables. This style also allows you to ramp up hours when needed and decrease it in slow times. For example, you can put more hours into strategy and planning and be very tight on execution. Traditionally, travel and entertainment expenses are separate.

5. Understand the culture and dynamic of your team

The consultant must work well within your organization. If you are a jeans-wearing company and you have a suit-and-tie consultant, your team’s perception of them might hinder getting the job done. If your team comes into the office daily, your consultant might need to have some face time with them to be a part of the team. Get buy-in from team members. The objective is to foster a friendly, pleasant working relationship between your team and the consultant.

These are safe guidelines, whether it’s the first time selecting a consultant or something you refer back to regularly. Add your own findings to the checklist as you gain experience and understand what you want and need in a consultant.

OPEN Cardmember Sandi Webster is a Principal of Consultants 2 Go, a management consulting company that provides affordable marketing and analytic consultants to Fortune 500 and mid-size companies.