Making the most of an external consultant’s time

How to get the most out of outside help

Gill Hunt, Founder and Managing Director of Skillfair – the UK’s first comprehensive virtual meeting place (http://www.skillfair.co.uk/) – explains how to get the most out of working with professionals from outside your business.

If you’re looking for a consultant you’ve obviously identified something needs doing which you or your staff don’t have either the skills or time to do. Whether you’re looking for someone to design a new logo, build a new computer system or work with you to improve your business profitability the questions you will have will be generally the same.

Make sure that you first have the answers to these questions:

What will the project, that you need a consultant for, add to your business? Will it increase your revenue, change the way you work, or help you to cope with a temporary high workload?

How important is it to get a really good job done? The short-term costs may seem high but make sure you look at the cost of not doing the work, or the risk of having it done poorly.

What will the end-product of the project be? Simply having a consultant spend time with you is unlikely to produce results. Most people work best when given a clear objective to achieve. Will the output be a report, a program, a training session or something else?

So you’ve worked out what needs to be done. Now you need to decide what skills and qualities are needed to do the job.

What skills are relevant? Although you’re probably not an expert in the area where you need help, try to find out enough to let you ask intelligent questions and decide which consultants actually know what they’re doing. If you have staff who know more than you, use them!

How good do they need to be? In most fields there are different levels of expertise. You need to decide whether you want someone who is competent or someone who is absolutely the world’s greatest expert. Don’t forget to take into account your own staff and their skill levels.

To find the right consultant for your job you need to know where to look and know how to tell the good from the bad

The best way to find a consultant, as with any service, is to ask around your network. Ask consultants you already use and trust, ask your staff and business associates. If that fails there are many other places to look, including;

  • Professional bodies

  • Directories

  • Business Link

  • Web-Sites specialising in matching consultants with clients’ projects (such as Skillfair.co.uk)

Agencies

But are they any good? Whether a consultant is right for you is always a difficult decision. You first need to check that they have appropriate qualifications and experience. Membership of a professional body is a good indicator, although some are more useful than others, and you should always take up references, preferably by phone so you get the full story. Finally, it is critical that the consultant can communicate and work with you and your staff so a face-to-face meeting is a must.

A good consultant will make communication easy for you but its vital you stay up to date with what’s happening with the project and how things are going. That way you can act early if the consultant is being drawn off track or if the results don’t match up to your expectations.

When you brief the consultant make it clear how often you want a progress report and what mechanism is best for you. A mixture of written and verbal reports works best in most situations. Set a reasonable schedule for reporting so the consultant has time to do some actual work as well!

If you aren’t happy with the consultant’s work say so as soon as possible and to their face. The sooner they know there’s a problem, the more chance there is of fixing it and no consultant wants to do a bad job. If you let someone work on a project for months and then tell them its all wrong then you have only yourself to blame.

Make time to talk. If you are pushed for time, delegate the task of monitoring the consultant to someone else, but make sure you talk to them to see how things are going…and either give them the power to act if things are going wrong or be prepared to get involved yourself if its not working.

This should be the easiest part, after all, if you’ve set out with a clear objective for the consultant it should be easy to know when the job is done. But since most consultants are paid on a time and materials basis it’s easy for the work to just keep going.

Is it finished yet? Check the brief you gave the consultant against the progress reports. Have a ‘wash-up’ session to clear up any final points and act as completion for the task. Of course, if your consultant is working to a fixed price at this point you will have to pay up!

What else needs doing? In most companies there is more than enough work needing to be done at any time. If you’ve found a consultant who fits your needs and the work they’re doing is necessary then fine. But if it’s a different kind of work check that the pay rate is still appropriate.

If you bear all this in mind then you should find bringing in outside help can be of huge benefit, and leave you the time to do what your’re best at – running your business.

A good consultant will make communication easy for you but its vital you stay up to date with what’s happening with the project and how things are going.

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