As I listened to Dave, a small business owner, I noticed a pattern starting to emerge. This was the third time he hired a consultant to do something for his company, and it was the third time he felt burned.
"It's like I was sold a bill of goods," he said. "I'm really getting tired of making this mistake."
Dave's mistake? He failed to check his consultant's references. Even worse, he really got along well with his consultant - at first - and so he failed to get a contract outlining responsibilities, deliverables, and timelines.
The result? Dave paid plenty of money for very little in terms of results.
On the other side of the coin is Janet. Unlike Dave, she checked her consultant's references. And she insisted on a signed contract detailing what would happen, by whom, and by when.
Was Janet happy? Surprisingly, no. The results were only half of what she expected.
Talk with Janet and you'll hear that the consultant's suggestions were taking more time than she wanted to give.
"We have a business to run," she'll say. "We don't have time to be doing all these things he wants us to do."
Janet's mistake? Short-changing the process her consultant recommended. Her addiction to urgency and thriving in chaos led to her abandoning her commitment to growth.
Like many others who hire consultants and then ignore or only partially follow recommendations, the Janets of the world find their consultant's recommendations too time consuming or too costly. Or, they just plain think they know better - after the process of selecting the best consultant and investing potentially tens of thousands of dollars to solicit expert advice.
Doug Strand, an engineering consultant in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, compares such behavior with ignoring what a doctor tells you.
"It's like when a person goes to the doctor and says 'I'm in pain.' The doctor writes out a prescription, but the person doesn't take the pills."
Strand says the ultimate irony is when that person says the doctor is no good because the pain hasn't gone away.
Perhaps you've seen companies do this same thing.
Is there a way to avoid these problems? Thankfully, yes. What follows is a list of suggestions that may prove helpful the next time you need to hire outside help.
1. Observe to see if the consultant listens. A consultant who fails to ask good questions is like a doctor who writes a prescription without finding out what's wrong.
This type of consultant usually owns a hammer and sees every problem as a nail. Whatever solution is proffered probably won't meet your needs.
In concert with a consultant's ability to listen is your ability to explain what's going on. You'll need to clarify the problem (plus any tangential problems) and what you expect the consultant to do for you. They're consultants, not mind readers.
2. When selecting a consultant, try to identify three who could do the job. Settling on one without comparing what's out there can lead to less-than-stellar results. Each should be willing to talk about your needs (without charging a fee) and draw up a written proposal. Be sure to ask for the following:
- Names and credentials of those who will do the work
- History of the company
- Their perspective on the issue you face
- What they will be responsible for doing / providing
- What you must provide them
- Realistic timelines
- Their fee structure
3. Stay in regular communication with the consultant during the assignment. Don't assume that just because you have a signed contract your solution is in hand. Ask questions and get answers. Let them ask questions of you; and give honest answers.
For the best results, involve a balanced group of people to track activity and results; not just you and the consultant. More people means more accountability, so long as it's not an impossible-to-manage number.
4. Don't let stubborn managers scoff or discount your consultant's work. They'll set a tone that everyone on their team will follow, and it's hard to kill the negativity that follows. Such attitudes are equivalent to sabotage. Make it your firm policy that you hired a consultant for a reason, and that you expect all managers to support the effort.
Bottom line: Practice due diligence and then don't abandon the effort. In other words, do not be a Dave. Make sure whoever you hire can provide what you'll need. Also, don't be a Janet. Work closely with the consultant to make sure the advice you wanted - and are getting - is implemented.