As an independent IT consultant, I help organizations improve their businesses through the use of technology. Most of my client engagements have been very successful. But when things don’t go as well as expected, I like to try to figure out why so that I can avoid those pitfalls the next time.
The easiest things to fix are those that I can control. For example, forgetting to submit regular status updates to the right people or not getting enough information prior to the project to make an informed proposal.
But I’ve also found several things that businesses can do to ensure that everything works smoothly. Regardless of what type of consultant you’re hiring, the following tips should help make your next consulting engagement more productive.
Find the right consultant
Sometimes you need someone who can provide highly specialized skills and can get a project done quickly and expertly; sometimes you need someone who can help support a business process over a longer period of time. Sometimes you need a high level strategic thinker; sometimes you need a hands on "doer".
To be sure, a highly specialized expert is capable of providing long term support, and many strategy-focused consultants still have hands-on skills. But these people have developed their specialized skills because that’s what they enjoy doing the most. Which means you’ll get the most value from them when they can use their finely tuned skills to the fullest.
Similarly, people who enjoy supporting processes over time are generally very detail oriented and take great pride in their service levels. They can certainly do well on shorter term projects. But doing something quickly and handing it off to someone else can leave them feeling incomplete.
By understanding what your true needs are, you can hire the consultant with the right focus for your project.
Have someone internally be accountable for their results
One client of mine is very exciting to work with. They are very energetic, growing, fun, and open to new ideas. But there is nobody at the company who is accountable for anything I do.
Now, I know that sounds counter-intuitive. "I" am the consultant, and "I" should be accountable for what I do.
Well I am accountable. I provide them high quality services in a very timely manner. And I oftentimes do extra work "off the clock" for them. It’s a price I’m willing to pay because I like working with them so much.
But when I deliver something to them or ask for feedback I get no response. Or I get a "thank you, we’ll look at this" and then no follow up.
If you pay an invoice for "X" and "X" didn’t meet your needs or you’re not using "X", then you had no internal accountability. When you have somebody internally who is accountable for the results of the money you are spending on a consultant, then you will get more value from your consultants.
Set clear expectations and review them regularly
This is really pretty basic. Make sure your consultant knows exactly what is expected of them. Remember, you as the customer must explain your needs to the provider. They can’t read your mind and guess at the relative priorities of 3 competing requests.
Also, you have to review your goals with the consultant on a regular basis. Especially on longer term engagements, projects can stray off track if not tended to carefully. Ancillary things tend to pop up over the course of a project and your consultant may have the skills to help with them. But if you’d rather have them focus exclusively on the project, then it’s your responsibility to shield them from such demands.
Demand excellence and then share in your success
If you are paying a premium price for a consultant’s skills, then you should demand excellence from them. That’s a no-brainer. But many companies don’t understand how to go about doing this.
Think about what resources you are providing the consultant. If they are developing an application for you, are you making the right people available to define the requirements? Are you making your employees devote the proper time to test the application?
Think about the constraints you place on the consultant. Are you requiring them to do things in a specific way that may impact their ability to deliver the best solution? Are you placing any hurdles or roadblocks in their path? Are delivery timelines challenging yet realistic?
Think about how you are compensating the consultant. Are you willing to reward the consultant based on actual realized returns from their efforts? Have you made the right commitments internally to make this an attractive option to the consultant? If you’re paying an hourly or fixed rate, do you require the consultant to provide free support for 30-60 days after the project?
A consultant who is properly supported, has the right amount of flexibility to use their skills fully, and is financially motivated to provide the best solution will be much more valuable to your organization.
Provide feedback directly and make appropriate referrals
Finally, take the time to let your consultants know how you’re feeling about their services. Most consultants take great pride in their ability to exceed their client’s expectations. If they’re not doing that, then they prefer to know it right away so they can make adjustments.
Make sure your consultant knows up front that you make referrals for them based on their performance. Most consultants work through word-of-mouth, so a recommendation from a satisfied customer is extremely valuable. When the project wraps up, if you are happy with your experience, do you best to make those qualified referrals in a timely manner. If you do this, you can be certain that your consultants will go the extra mile to make sure they exceed your expectations.