I think it’s safe to say that consultants, in general, are a mixed bag. Some bring priceless value regardless of their bill, others are overpaid and contribute little. Ironically (yes, it’s really ironic), when I worked at Sling Media I had a very anti-consultants attitude. Further, in my first few months of running Stage Two we took on some projects that weren’t really strong fits, for a variety of different reasons, and learned a lot from those experiences. Here’s some of my observations on how to best leverage external consultants for your business (small or large):
Don’t: write off consultants completely OR put all your faith into them – both approaches are unlikely to yield the best results. You are better figuring out the aspects of your business that need Real Experts to provide services, and making the right fit.
Do: hire the best you can find. Since you are generally paying a premium to begin with, find the individual/team that gets the best referrals and has the best domain expertise you can find. I highly recommend getting reference checks as they pertain to your own needs. For example, I’m personally extremely knowledgeable about the consumer electronics industry, much less so about, say, tax accounting. If you want to market a gadget, odds are Stage Two is a great fit, whereas if you have the best new tax accounting software on the planet, we might not be the top choice.
Don’t: assume everyone’s experts at everything. Per my point above, you might meet an absolutely brilliant individual with a great background but who has no specific domain expertise. Might not be the right fit for you.
Do: define the project well. While it’s okay to have some generic terms (e.g. “do PR services”) in a project scope, they should all have known bounds. A great example here is on product management – it means different things to different people and should be very clearly spelled out.
Don’t: leave your consultant out to dry. I’ve seen far too many companies hire consultants, then leave them to do their work with virtually no interaction, no access to information or resources, etc. You can’t just spend the money, you have to invest the resources too, or your project will fail, and ultimately contribute to the “overpriced, underdelivering” reputation of consultants in general.
Do: crawl before you run. Get to know the person/team. Consider a multi-staged project. Grab a drink with them, have them meet the whole team they’ll be working with prior to starting the work. As the seemingly-crazy-yet-possibly-wise John Travolta said, Personality Goes a Long Way.
Don’t: create impossible outsourcing projects. I was once asked to be the lead product designer on a fairly complex product, with an 8-hour-per week engagement. If this were being traditionally staffed, there’d be a full-time product manager on board, so how does this get replaced by a far less than part timer?
Do: work with people you feel you can trust. Obviously this is a ‘gut feeling’ but from my experiences
we do well with companies that we build the best relationships with. You don’t want to have to wonder if you can share a certain corporate secret with someone who is materially affected by it!
Don’t: force your new consultant onto the rest of your team. It’s a terrible feeling to be brought in as an expert yet have the people you are working with second-guess you and not really ready to adopt your plans or ideas. Get buy-in and make sure your internal staff is on board with what you are doing, and be sensitive to those who may have aspirations in the same field. Handle with care.
Do: trust your experts. I recall being brought in on a project to help with usability and positioning. Virtually 2/3 of my usability and positioning feedback was completely ignored. Frustrating for me, waste of money for the client.
Don’t: look for a friend. Your friends are there to tell you how great your company/product is, your consultants are there to help make it better. Put on your thick skin and get their honest feedback. If they are experts in their field, don’t take anything negative personally, but use it to make your product stronger. Glass houses…
Guest contribution from Ariel Waldman: Don’t: hire a consultant as your company mascot. There are lots of new “brand name” individuals, just because they work with you doesn’t mean they should be your only public image.
Any suggestions you’d like to share? Comment below, or send in via email or twitter!