Practical Advice for Selecting the Ideal Consultant

Okay – You’ve decided that engaging a consultant is right for you (Should I Use a Business Consultant? )and now you want to make sure you get the most from your investment  (Maximize the Return on Your Business Consultant Investment ).

There’s a broad range of perfectly competent consultants out there – from loose networks of individual experts, to small ‘boutique’ companies, to large highly mechanized consumer survey houses, to the management consulting giants.  Here are practical guides to selecting the ideal consultant for your unique situation.

1. No single consultant is best for every situation.  Determine what sort of insights you need to address your business problem or opportunity:

– If you need to understand the desires and motivations of your customers or the strategic thinking of your competitors, you’ll need the experience, professionalism and high level contacts of individual experts or boutique agencies.

– Candid, off the cuff comments and opinions of potential customers?  Boutiques that specialize in group interview techniques (eg focus groups and their on-line analogs) or on-site surveys (mall or in-store intercepts, for instance) can efficiently orchestrate the complicated logistics of execution and documentation.

– If you need deep statistical analyses across thousands of potential customers, then you need the survey construction and administration infrastructure, and analysis expertise of the specialized survey houses.  In addition to the Big Name consumer and political survey houses, there are lots of perfectly competent boutique agencies who can execute statistical surveys (often at significantly lower cost).

– Need the horsepower (and the aura of credibility) to work with Top Management on major acquisitions, restructuring, or high risk, high Dollar initiatives?  The well known Big Names in management consulting provide the breadth of resources and experience, and the high level name recognition, that are often required to successfully sell and execute game-change initiatives.

Industry insider or consulting generalist?  In many cases, the breadth of experience and perspective of a talented and experienced generalist consultant – and their lack of industry specific preconceptions – will provide superior results.   Sometimes, however, there’s no substitute for an industry insider, someone intimate with the technical nature of your project and the idiosyncracies of the people they must interview.

2. Locating and screening candidates and selecting the right one – Get suggestions and refs from people you respect, within yours and other companies; search business networking sites like Linked-In; look for guest authors of interesting articles in business magazines, scientific or trade journals, on-line blogs, etc; search the web for ‘market research consultants’ and the like.  Armed, thus, with a list of potential consultants, it’s your responsibility to dig deeply enough to confidently answer two questions:

– Does this consultant clearly understand what I need, have the skills and experience to accomplish the necessary tasks, and the business acumen to interpret the results in terms that a useful to me?

– Can I develop a productive working relationship with this consultant, and will the candidate’s personality and ‘style’ engender a sense of confidence within my company?

Here, there’s no substitute for talking with the candidates – probably more than one extended, searching conversation.  You’ll pose open-ended questions – to describe how the candidate has approached similar projects, to suggest alternative approaches to your situation, to outline their range of experience across companies, products and markets.  When you’ve narrowed your list, you may want to talk with one or two of their former clients, to confirm your good impressions.

Next step – and next blog post – planning and managing the consulting engagement.

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