At best, consultants can bring invaluable expertise to your business. But at worst, they can feel disconnected and underutilized. Here's how to keep your consultants productive.
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There comes a time when growing your company means seeking outside expertise. "You can't do it all," says Carrie Shores, co-principal and founder of Larson Shores Architects, which is based in Oakland, California. "You'll find that your true passion and skill set aren't always in doing everything yourself."
But hiring full-time staff for niche needs isn't quite on target, either. It wasn't for Shores. So she tried something different. She brought in a collection of experts – or consultants – to manage different parts of the company while she and her partner focused on their own strengths.
When her firm needed website design, for example, it hired a graphic design firm; for copywriting, it hired a public-relations firm; for bookkeeping, it hired an accounting firm. With only three full-time employees and more than 10 ongoing consulting relationships, Larson Shores is a living testament to the value of these outside resources. Shores says: "There's a real revelation and clarity of having used professionals, and seeing the added value they brought to our business."
How do Shores and her partner John Larson get the most out of their network of consultants? As in many other business associations, forming personal connections and building trust are key. Shores says that sustaining genuine relationships with her consultants guarantees that they will work together and make her company a priority.
Shores's suggestions are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to working with consultants efficiently. We've spoken with consultants, employers, and other experts in the field about what to look for in and how to work best with this uniquely important set of business advisors.
Getting the Most out of Consultants: Don Your Detective Cap
No matter how in-depth your initial interview with a potential consultant, you're going to want to know more. One simple trick to using interview time efficiently is that since he or she is technically an "expert" in a given field, the consultant should be able to present a convincing argument about the value to be added to your organization. Just ask them for their pitch about why working with them would benefit your business.
Next, it falls on you to thoroughly vet the merits of that person's purported expertise. One method is to interview past clients, which can uncover a lot of details that the consultants themselves might be unwilling to expose. Shores says that being diligent and seeing what past clients say can go a long way to determining whether that person will be successful in the long run. She can recall a situation where she hastily and "naively" chose a consultant without finding out how many clients the person retained. That relationship soured.
After you glean this feedback, though, the process becomes a bit trickier. Consultants work hard to preserve longstanding, credible relationships with their clients to uphold their reputations. Suraiya Ahmed, president of the Professional and Technical Consultants Association, says that a consultant must also be willing to expand the horizons of your business. In essence, this means seeking to deliver beyond the task he or she is brought in to complete.
"What you're looking for is really a package deal," says Ahmed, who also founded Spectrum Insights, a consulting firm based in Union City, California, that specializes in small-company performance. "Not just a veteran consultant, but one who has either a network of connections or a bucket of expertise."
She suggests looking for referrals, scanning the person's background, and even using social media to see if their personal qualities align with your own. Individual LinkedIn profiles can be particularly useful when whittling down a pool of prospective hires. "Social networking speaks out more than what the resume and what the clients talk about," she says. It's imperative to look at the credibility of a person beyond his or her organization, she says, as the "ethics and values of a small business should meet the ethics and values of the individual consultant."
Getting the Most out of Consultants: Be Clear From the Start
In her ongoing quest to deliver more than just the norm, Ahmed requires her clients provide a preliminary plan outlining each party's vision. This helps to ground the focus of the business and provide the foundation for what she calls "continuous improvement" down the road.
Apart from this clause and other general independent contract terms, Ahmed and her consultants association recommend negotiating three essentials before signing an agreement:
Optimizing the relationship you have with a consultant really comes down to setting expectations. Darlene Crane, who has been a business advisor for more than two decades, says that conflicts arise most often when the values on one side are different from what the other originally anticipated.
Instead, from the start, create a communications structure that allows for changes in standards and fluidity of ideas. The consultant must remain flexible to the ever-growing needs of the client. Likewise the business should remain open to change.
"If you create that expectation that the consultant might bring in some wild idea, then you're ready for it," says Crane, who built and operates the consulting firm PCI Crane Consulting in Oakland, California. "If you haven't set that expectation, then it comes as a conflict."
This understanding, Crane says, plays a huge role in producing a desired result in the end. Disagreements, conflicts, and misunderstandings will inevitably crop up during the process. But adjusting and preparing for them during contract negotiations will only make everyone's lives easier once they do.
Getting the Most out of Consultants: Lose the Ego
Speaking of making everyone's lives easier, one of the last things you want to hear from a consultant is to back off. It's important to recognize that you bring in consultants for needs that you as a business owner could not fill yourself. It's healthy to hire smart, so you can trust that they are going to do their jobs. Likewise, you should stick to doing yours.
"You have to have the courage to find the right people," Shores says. "You have to be willing to give up some of that control and some of that money and use other people's expertise."
In fact, one of the reasons you put up the cash to bring in an expert is to challenge you to think in new ways. The consultant wouldn't be of very much use if she or he advised you to keep everything the way it is.
"I don't need a consultant to tell me what I want to hear," says Jeff Mercier, director of operations of BOPI, a marketing and sales firm in Bloomington, Illinois. Instead, Mercier looks for consultants who challenge his business with new ideas with the greatest potential for future reward. "Consultants can take a ton of work off of my shoulders, which I enjoy, but they also need to challenge me to ensure that pockets aren't only being lined."
Started as a printing company in the late 1940s, Bloomington Offset Proccesses expanded its services last decade into sales and marketing communications. In order to adapt successfully, and bring on new employees and clients, the company relied on a slew of consultants to aid every facet of the business. Mercier says that maintaining friendly relationships with consultants has been an instrumental factor in the company's sustained success.
"We've taken a view that our consultants are friends," Mercier says. "We continue to challenge them and they can, with those challenges, display new performances that they otherwise may not have used if we just speak to them on task-based solutions."
Due to this relationship, Mercier says the consultants will move forward with the business as it grows. He even invites critical consultants to serve on the company's executive board – an increasing trend among small businesses looking to change direction. Quarterly business reviews provide a good litmus test for what progress has been made and some of the challenges they continue to face. He knows the team will give honest responses because of the honesty he projected to them from the start. "It really all comes down to communication," he says.
Communicating often and honestly can only improve your consultant's dedication. By building those relationships and lending a friendly face to your organization's name, you can ensure your consultants will stay committed to bringing you long-term success.