How-to: Getting the most from a consultant

There are times when a consultant is brought in, and the results are stunning, with clear gains; and other times when it seems like the only gain is to the consultant’s bank account. How can managers make sure their engagements are all in the first group?

First, before bringing in an outsider, explore the skills, resources, and knowledge of your own staff. Your employees may be able to contribute ideas and information that make a consultant unnecessary for the moment, and you can reserve outsiders for the most “value-added” services.

change tools

One of the biggest problems is that old saying, “Give a child a hammer, and everything will need hammering.” Many consultants have a limited toolpack, and apply a few methods to all problems. If a consultant does mainly surveys, they think you need a survey. If they do mergers and acquisitions, they think you need another company, even if the last four M&As failed. When your financial advisors start thinking they can help you to do anything with financial tools, it’s time to get other ideas.

Successful consultants are often salespeople first; it takes skill to sell intangible services. That doesn’t make them the best at delivering the goods. The best people for actually making a difference have a large pack of tools, and will refer you to other people if they cannot help. Those who are less capable will sell what they have to sell.

Watch out for consultants who are too distant from your front-line employees. The best change efforts, even those including marketing or mergers, rely on the front-line employees for their efforts and their ideas. An aristocratic  consultant who treats executives far differently from their own (or your) employees is not likely to be your best investment. Even processes such as the balanced scorecard, which are top-down in nature, bring in front-line people.

Try to look behind sales spiels and “schmoozing,” to see how skilled and honest the consultant is; you’re not looking for a salesman or a drinking buddy, after all. Watch out for “one size fits all” products, and people who try to sell services you don’t need. You can often work with consultants to handle many parts of a project yourself, and only tap their skills where necessary, which not only drops the cost but also gives your people more skin in the game, which is likely to increase the odds of success.

Finally, seriously consider a process consultant. They can be very useful in making your own team work more effectively. It may be the most cost-effective consulting method, and can help you to use your resources more effectively to make other consultants (and future consulting projects) unnecessary. That should be the goal of any consultant; most importantly, it should be the goal of yours.

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