Monday, April 21, 2008

So You Need A Consultant

Consultants are like a bit like members of the opposite sex, you can’t live with ‘em and you can’t live without ‘em, at least so it seems. As important as they are to our business lives there is a dark side to engaging with consultants, especially those you do not already have familiarity with and trust in. Possibly the biggest gripe is that some are excellent “bait and switch” artists. Their proposal and client management teams are sophisticated, smooth, and excellent at their jobs, which is to sell you services. But they aren’t going to be the ones actually doing the work. When you get the call telling you that a new Account Manager is being assigned, or see inexperienced faces working on your project, then you may have reason to be concerned. But, not all consultant experiences are like that, and most of the responsibility for a successful consultant relationship lies with guess who? You guessed it, you hold the key. The question is, how do you avoid falling into a trap like the one described above?

Lock in the team. When interviewing consulting firms require that they bring all proposed team members to the meetings. The initial one or two meetings will be focused on top level marketing and you should expect to see only senior representatives on the other side of the table. But when you take the conversation to the next level you should be insisting that the “in the trenches” people be present and that they be the prime contributors to the meeting. That way you can judge their strength of personality, how their style aligns with yours, and their depth of knowledge. Make it clear to the marketing team that this front line engagement during the proposal and evaluation process is mandatory. Once you have accepted the team members include a contractual commitment that they remain on your project with any changes to the team being at your sole discretion.

Check references thoroughly. Naturally you are only going to be given references that are expected to provide positive responses. Again, the burden is on you to drill for the information you really need. Script the most important questions and use them as a staring point. Ask probing and open ended questions. Ask about the same issue from different perspectives. I like to get as much as I can from the contact person I’ve been referred to, then ask to speak with a person one or two levels down who has direct experience with the consultant. This allows me to get multiple points of feedback from the same engagement. And, lower level staff are more likely to have worked with the people really doing the work. This tactic helps especially when the consultant’s senior team has developed a very collegial relationship with the senior client.

Conduct a thorough analysis. As with all projects defining requirements is the very first step. Doing so allows you to structure interviews and reference checks so that you get the most valuable information from them. Weighting, scoring, and ranking prospective consultants on each success criteria will give you a good breakdown for thoughtful comparison. Two key recommendations in this phase are to 1) include multiple people from the customer side in the interviews, and 2) be careful to protect your objectivity. You will find that different people have different responses to the personalities being presented, and some will pick up on nuances that others are not attuned to. By letting involved staff participate in this information gathering and analysis portion of the selection process you also begin to build acceptance throughout the team. Secondly, be aware of the great seduction of getting too close to one consultant too soon. Maintain your objectivity throughout and politely sidestep offers of perks during the pre-selection phase. While there is likely no quid pro quo in accepting them, doing so sends a very dangerous signal. Many organizations have hard rules against even small gratuities for exactly this reason. It is better to err on the side of caution and be squeaky clean than to be clean but have to explain how.

Align communication needs and styles. A big part of the personal interview process is understanding how you and the consultant will communicate. Make sure communication styles are aligned and if not, agree on protocols that will meet the needs of both. Just like hiring a new employee, you will want to know if they prefer communicating (both giving and receiving) concepts or detail. If the communication styles of partners at each level are not aligned, then craft processes and agreements that will overcome the mis-matches.

Formalize performance expectations. Put performance measures and deliverables in hard form in the contract and stipulate rewards and penalties as appropriate. Don’t trust a handshake agreement with someone who may not be there a month from now. Decide what is important to you and lock it in. Consultants will expect you to require a portion of their fee be at risk should they miss key deliverables. Make sure you do and that these expectations are crystal clear.

Check your SOX. In today’s environment “compliance” has a whole new meaning. Start by making sure that the consultant’s business is in compliance and then make sure that your own processes and decision path are fully vetted and clean. Craft exit clauses in the event of a significant compliance issue (either direct or indirect) that may hamper the consultant’s ability to perform services or make partnership with them difficult to support in the marketplace.

The fact is that we depend a lot upon consultants, and most of them are good at what they do. Your responsibility is to make certain that you get what you need from them in the manner and time you need it, and to assure that the relationship remains balanced. Doing so will create a win-win for you and the consultant.

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