- What happens if I'm not satisfied at the end of the project?
A mediocre IT consultant will start talking fast about money-back guarantees. A smart one should assure you that it won't come to that because you'll get regular progress reports during the project and be able to make adjustments as needed.
- Are you doing the work?
The person making the sales pitch may not be the one installing your system. Ask how many consultants will work on the project and what their qualifications are. Some firms train newbies on the job, which may be fine as long as there's a senior engineer on duty, too. If you're talking to a one-person shop, make sure there is a backup plan in case the consultant can't finish the job.
- Do you have alliances with software or hardware vendors?
A consultant may have skin in the game if you buy from a certain vendor. Look for one who will put your business first, not his wallet. Ask if he'll present a range of products from different makers and explain the pros and cons of each. Make sure your consultant is up front about any commissions he'll get from the sale.
- Have you worked with smaller companies in my industry?
Consultants love to tout projects with big blue-chip clients, but what matters to you is that they understand the technical needs of smaller companies with smaller budgets. They should also know your industry--especially if there are regulatory requirements for data.
- What will I learn from you?
This question will help you gauge whether the consultant has an exit strategy in mind--or plans to hang around accruing billable hours, says Michael McLaughlin, a principal at MindShare Consulting in Portland, Oregon. Confident IT providers won't have a problem sharing what they know so your staff can manage without them. On-site training, full documentation of the system, and collaboration with your IT team are all a must.
- Who is the project manager?
Be wary if there isn't one. The project manager's sole job is to get your work done on time and on budget, both of which are critical to your business. Make sure that the person is easy to reach, recognizes your needs, and can talk to you without slipping into indecipherable jargon.
- Will you support the system after it's implemented?
Some tech consultants, especially sole proprietors, move on to their next project and become difficult to reach. If a consultant offers long-term support, nail down the specifics before signing a service contract. Don't get passed off to a third party.
- What don't you do well?
No consultant can solve all your IT needs, so be skeptical of anyone who says he can. The answer to this one also lets you know if you'll have to hire more techies to take care of other parts of your system.
- How much are you going to cost me?
Insist upon a flat fee for the project and set up a payment schedule that hinges on the consultant reaching certain milestones. You might, for example, pay 30 percent up front, a portion each time a goal is met, and the balance upon completion. Get at least three bids for the work, and ask each consultant to break down the costs for labor, equipment, and training. A good consultant will tell you that this is his best estimate and that if the scope of the project broadens, he'll explain why and negotiate the fee. "The really good ones will say, 'If the scope diminishes, I'll knock money off," adds Patrick Cook, of the Small Business Technology Institute.