At some point, your organization may realize they need an outside expert to help them with a particular problem or to build a core group of skills internally.

There are several approaches to consider; decide which one works best for your particular situation. A permanent solution is to hire an individual for a particular job or role, especially if the work can sustain additional headcount over time.

A more flexible approach is to use transitional or temporary resources, such as consultants to fill gaps in skills, knowledge and work force requirements. Hopefully, Human Resources (HR) has helped with completing a skills matrix and those gaps are readily identifiable.

While it may seem expensive initially to use a consultant, over the long term, it can be a more cost effective approach.

Why Use a Consultant?

Using a consultant allows companies to buy expertise when they need it without the burden of carrying additional overhead for years to come. Expect to pay a premium for acquiring skills just in time.

Consultants are responsible for investing, developing and keeping current their professional skills. If you had to cultivate and retain those same skills in your own organization, consider the investment it would take in people, time and expense.

Know Your Problem

Some companies are not sure of what their problem is and try to use consultants to gain clarity. Do not expect a seasoned consultant to spend a lot of time helping you to define and solve your problem without an engagement.

If you do not know the problem, commission a consultant to help you figure it out otherwise you may miss the opportunity to work with a top-notch consultant who thinks you are just fishing for a free solution.

To Generalize or Specialize

There are consultants who are generalists – they use broad businesses practices and have general knowledge in several disciplines. Companies who believe they can save a few dollars by using a generalist in place of a specialist are sadly mistaken and often spend more money by the time the project is done.

Generalists can assist you with large-scale systematic problems that cut across different functions. They often understand the big picture and can serve as translators between different businesses or functions.

Specialists possess a high level of expertise in techniques or have in-depth knowledge on a particular subject or topic. It is more common for companies to engage specialists because they recognize the specific skills that are missing and want to bring it in-house.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your problem require a broad based, general business approach?
  • Are there requirements for specific training or specialized knowledge to understand and/or solve the problem?
  • Are there parts of the solution that may require you to work with both types of consultants?

Test Ride or Experience

New consultants sometimes wait a long time for their first assignment because companies may not want to take the risk of engaging them on a project without a record of accomplishment.

Consultants will often provide services at a discount rate until they are established or have some testimonials behind their work. This may be an opportunity to engage a high quality individual at the beginning stages of their business.

Use some caution, as not all consultants are exceptional. The first few years are the “weeding out” period for them.

Questions to consider:

  • Is the problem solvable by a new consultant who may be on a learning curve?
  • What degree of skill is required to be successful?
  • Is the project small enough to test the new consultant without overwhelming them?
  • Is there a benefit to having someone who has seen it/done it many times and in different situations?
  • Are the consequences of not getting it right or done on time significant?
  • Does the consultant have the right level of resources in place to get the work done?
  • Has the consultant worked with limited resources?
  • Can the consultant work independently?

Working under the umbrella of a corporation and working solo are very different scenarios. Determine if you are a training ground for the consultant or if they are ready to do business with you.

Qualifying the Consultant

Recommendations and referrals play a key role in determining if you have a quality consultant. Ask people in your company who may have used similar services, network within your industry or with an outside professional organization for a referral.

How serious are they about their business? What kind of legal structure do they use? Are they incorporated, in a partnership or do they operate under a DBA? Some major companies require a legal entity with accompanying proof of insurance.

Conduct due diligence on how they represent their business through written or oral communication.

  • Do they have a website or blog?
  • Are they social network savvy?
  • How do they present their value proposition?
  • Does their approach resonate with you?
  • What companies have they worked with?
  • Is there an easy way to contact them?
  • Do they have endorsements from some of their clients?
  • Is the process clear?
  • Do they demonstrate or discuss outcomes that are similar to what you are looking for?
  • Do they work with the type or level of clients who are similar to you?
  • Do they have time to work with you?
  • Is there chemistry?
  • Do their fees reflect the value you will receive?

What professional training and accreditation have they acquired over their career? There are a number of cottage industry accreditation programs, ask questions to see if the certifications meet the standards you have personally established.

Transferring of Knowledge & Skills

If the consultant is working on a project that builds skills in your workforce, determine if their process addresses transfer of knowledge. A consultant’s goal is to help your organization, not become apart of the organization. They recognize building capabilities internally is essential to client satisfaction.

Questions to ask:

  • Who needs to build their skills?
  • How will the consultant teach the skills?
  • How will the company test the knowledge and application of the skills?
  • What future projects can we begin to use these skills over the next six months?
  • Do we need additional training or a refresher?

Ignoring skill transfer will cost you more in the end. Invest in the extra steps to embed those skills in your workforce.

Once you have selected a few consultants to consider, the next step is to know what questions to ask them.