Businesses and business support organisations are making increasing use of consultants.
But, there are also a wide range of consultancy options available to them. Equally for the independent professionals identifying who the best projects with the best clients can also be a daunting task.
Independent consultants need to be able to identify those ‘ideal’ purchasers and the best way to do that is often by the questions that they ask a prospective consultant.
For purchasers of consultancy services these questions are important because it is the best way for them to ensure that they get a return on their investment?
We look at five key questions potential buyers of consultancy should be asking independent professionals when they plan their purchase.
The biggest decisions a company has to consider in relation to a consultancy project, and therefore the ones that will have the biggest impact on the ultimate success of the consultancy project are not related to the choice of consultant or even deciding what work the consultant will do.
No, the most important decisions deal with the relationship between the company as client and the consultant. This relationship is defined before the consultancy starts by the answers the company gives to five questions:
It is the failure of companies and the managers within them to agree what the answers to these questions should be that causes the majority of consultancy project failures.
Why do they need a consultant?
Let’s start by agreeing that a consultant is somebody who possesses specialist skills and knowledge.
Businesses bring in consultants because it is more cost effective to buy those skills for the period they need them than it is to develop the expertise internally.
Make sure that your potential client has clearly defined objectives for you or is prepared for the first stage of the project to be defining the objectives.
If you can’t agree objectives your chances of success are fairly limited and you should consider walking away.
What sort of role should the consultant have?
Companies often forget the importance of how the client/consultant relationship will work.
Good consultants adapt the way they work to match that of their clients, but this may not be what the client wants.
Occasionally a contradictory style may be needed. It is important to define the type of role your client wants you as their consultant to undertake.
It is also important that you explore with them the working style they believe would be appropriate to the fulfillment of that role.
Make sure that you agree with your client the way in which they want you to work and that they are prepared to support you to operate in that approach throughout the complete the agreement. Even when it upsets some of their employees!
What do they want a consultant to do?
Consultants can be brought in to provide:
- Industry specific knowledge, which could help you create a strategy to combat a competitors actions or assess the impact of a technological advance.
- Issue specific skills, which might contribute to you winning a specific contract, or introduce a new initiative</li.
- Professional expertise, which will be applied to a wide range of issues, for a period of time, which is commonly known as interim management
- Networking contacts that will help you enter a new market or identify other people who you might want to employ.
Within these they might want somebody who will:
- Apply their knowledge broadly across a whole project, or somebody who is only going to deal with one specific element of the project.
- Provide an independent opinion, and identify threats that have been overlooked and opportunities that have been missed.
- Give a second opinion that looks at what the organisation needs rather than what the individuals who are involved on a daily basis want.
- Research an issue and provide the information on which you can make a decision.
- Manage a project to completion when employees are being distracted by their day jobs.
The success or failure of a your involvement in their business will depend upon you identifying in the planning stages exactly what they want done, and getting them to be honest with you if they change their mind.
What they should not need a consultant to do?
In the past managers have brought in consultants to rubber stamp a decision that they have already made, but which they believe will be unpopular.
As the consultant you sometimes have to accept that you will act as a clients scapegoat, somebody for the managers to hide behind.
In this situation the company does not need a consultant, it needs new management.
How do they want the logistics and invoicing to work?
Client consultant relationships are most effective when they work together, put the project first, and value what the other brings to that project.
Whilst we might all be embarrassed discussing money, getting the commercial aspects of any relationship right helps to make the relationship run smoothly.
The following general principles are widely accepted as contributing to ensuring the success of a consulting project
Not be afraid of providing too much information to their consultant, who prefers this to a lack of detail
Brief the consultant about the project and the people involved, and should outline the broad criteria used at the selection of the bidder and evaluation stage.
Be open and clear about the expected outcomes from the project and any budgetary constraints which the business case has highlighted.
- When they are appointed confirm in writing the key elements of the way the project will be carried out, including a plan of how the project will be conducted, their understanding of the deliverables, and the client’s expectations.
- Identify any risk factors and agree with the client who is responsible for each risk.
- Flag problems with the project early on, so that remedial action can be taken.
Together consultants and clients should:
- Hold regular reviews on the progress and delivery of the contract and project, and confirm the agreed action points in writing.
- Define the facilities that will be provided for each others staff
- Agree how they will communicate and how often.
- Undertake at the end of the project a joint review to identify what each has learnt from the experience
How will you know if you have been successful?
If a consultancy project has been proactively planned and actively managed this question really does not arise.
The definition of success and the levels of success are defined during the planning stages and clarified as the project progresses to take account of information not known during the planning and events over which neither the client or the consultant had any control.
It is only when the project has been neither, planned or managed that it becomes difficult to assess the level of success that has been achieved and that disputes occur.
It’s a competitive market
The growth in all areas of consultancy is undoubted evidence that a lot of companies are benefiting from utilising the expertise of external professionals, be it on a temporary basis to deal with a short term challenge, or longer term as a cost effective alternative to additional employees.
As more professionals are attracted by the benefits of independent working, you have to accept as an independent professional that you will face a wide range of competitors with a wide range of alternative options.
The best source or work and repeat work is recommendation. The best way to get recommendations is to successfully complete projects on time and on budget.
The best way to do that is to plan how the consultancy project will work and what success looks like.