For years, people have run into doctors at social events and the next thing you know they're going on about their aches and pains, looking for free advice. Most people know this is bad form, but it raises the question of where to draw the line between conversation and consulting.
A consultant is someone who offers professional advice or services for a fee. A doctor is a consultant. A lawyer is a consultant. Engineers can be consultants, as are some management specialists and training designers.
Even pest-control specialists, plumbers, and lawn-care experts are consultants.
Some overlook the price consultants pay to gain their expertise and the time they invest to hone their craft. Whether through intentional or unintentional oversight, they discount the consultant's value, failing to consider how much more effective, efficient, and profitable they can become by implementing a consultant's advice.
Martha Buyers, a columnist for The New York Daily Record, has it right when she says, "independent consultants bring value wherever they go. Unlike the old adage 'you get what you pay for,' with an independent consultant, you get much, much more."
From a business viewpoint, anything that makes an organization more effective or more efficient has value. Unfortunately, too many business people try to weasel valuable information out of consultants and not pay for it. From the consultant's perspective, such attempts can be awkward, and even insulting.
I'll never forget the example set by Gordon Smith, who gave me my first business opportunity when I was just out of the Navy back in 1987. Gordon was then the owner of Gordon Smith Advertising in San Diego, California.
Someone took us to lunch one day, trying to get free advice from Gordon about how to set up an advertising campaign. Gordon tactfully danced around giving an answer several times, but the person kept pressing. Finally, with his snow-white hair testifying to decades of experience, Gordon said, "You know, Bill, people pay me for this advice. This is how I make my living."
Gordon knew what this man needed to create a solid, successful campaign, but why should Gordon just give that information away? Why should he invest years of his life studying what worked and what didn't only to give away that valuable knowledge without any compensation?
The real issue is "how much was Gordon's information worth?" Would it be worth paying $2,000 to learn a profitable strategy instead of making a $10,000 advertising mistake? Even if Gordon took only ten minutes detailing the do's and don'ts this man needed to hear, paying two grand to avoid losing ten - and come out ahead in the end - would certainly have been worth it.
Such is the value of a consultant.
According to Buyers, "the value that a good independent consultant brings to the table far outweighs [the] fees, no matter what the size or scope of the project."
Flexibility is a key value. You don't have to pay employee insurance, maintain 401K plans, or do all the employee-related paperwork with consultants. Plus, you simply let them move on after their assignment. There are no lay offs or severance packages involved.
Time is another key value. You don't have to take months screening and interviewing applicants. Hiring consultants means getting top-notch specialists on the spot. These people don't just read "consulting for dummies" and suddenly become subject matter experts. Their expertise comes from years of practice and experience.
At least that's usually the case. Sometimes a consultant simply isn't qualified. For example, the recent popularity of "life coaches" has created an entire army of life coach consultants, many with little or no training, certification, or experience. Well-qualified coaches exist, you just have to do your homework before hiring one. This is one example of why it's a good practice to check the qualifications of any consultant.
So when should you hire a consultant? A report sponsored by PriceWaterhouseCoopers provides four fundamental reasons why organizations should bring in outside experts. They are:
1) People – access to specialist skills or additional labor
2) Process – to use a tried-and-tested methodology
3) Perspective – to get independent or innovative input
4) Politics – to validate a decision or push through an unpopular change
Expert advice and help you receive in these situations can save you hours, days, and even months of time; not to mention the dollars, effectiveness, momentum, and peace-of-mind you gain along the way.
Bottom line, if a consultant chooses to share information with you, consider it a gift. As I mentioned earlier, it's bad form to expect it for free. The worker is worth his keep, even if his work is being a source of information.