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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Winslow

Selecting the right consultant for your project

There are many instances in business when your organization does not have the resources and/or expertise to execute a project. Enter the consultant. The consulting industry is healthy and thriving, not to mention expensive and competitive. There are consultants for almost any function you can think of in a business from management to accounting, to engineering. All you need to do is type what you are looking for into the search box on the Google machine and you will have dozens of firms to choose from. So, what do you do next? How do you select “the right” consultant?

The first step is to assess your problem and what help you need. Ask and answer these questions:

- Do you need someone to give you advice or are you looking for someone to own the entire project?

- Do you have someone with promise, but lacking experience that you would like the consultant to mentor and teach?

- Do you need specific targeted knowledge or someone who can help in several areas?

- How long do you expect the engagement to last?

- Is it necessary for the consultant to be onsite often? Occasionally? Always? Never?

- What is your budget for the consultant?

- Do you need a team or just a single person?

Without knowing the answers to the questions above, you won’t know how to assess the different options available to you.

Another important step is to ask your own network for recommendations. Firsthand experience with a specific consultant is best. Second best would be experience with the firm on more than one occasion. Great consultants tend to flock to great consulting companies, but that is not always the case. Individual consultants are generally pretty good if they have the experience, expertise, and time for your project. Individuals tend to be more independent and creative in their solutions. Consultants with big firms are sometimes more rigid in their approach because the firm needs to be able to control their image in the marketplace and allowing their consultants to freelance solutions can jeopardize that.

Always ask for and check references. You want references for projects similar to or the same as your project. Being the first project that a consultant tackles of a certain type is not a situation you want to be in. Ask questions such as: Did the consultant deliver what you asked for? Did the consultant deliver it in the timeframe promised? Did you encounter any problems with the project and how did the consultant handle them? Did the consultant stick to the budget that was agreed upon? Would you use this particular consultant again?

Another important factor is to interview the consultant that will be helping you. Beware the “bait and switch” tactic that some firms use where they tout their great experience and knowledge referencing their senior consultants, but then propose a more junior consultant for your project and tell you it is more cost effective and they have access to the senior consultant. Junior consultants may be appropriate for some projects and they may be able to do more complex projects as well, but you can expect that they will end up costing the same or more in the long run because they are learning on your dime. A senior consultant should be more efficient with their time, be better at solving problems (because they have seen that problem or something similar to it before) and can even be more cost effective in the long run.

When interviewing the consultant, think about if you were interviewing them to be an employee at your company. They will need to get along well with others in the organization. Ask open ended questions that require more than yes or no answers. As an example, instead of asking “Have you ever been an owners rep for a biotech lab construction project” ask “Tell me about a biotech construction project you have been a part of, what was your role, describe how you performed that role, and what was the project outcome?” or instead of asking “do you like working independently or on a team”, ask “describe your approach to finding a design firm for our project”

It is also important to discuss the consultant’s fee. Will they charge for their time spent travelling to your site? Do they charge by the hour or based on deliverables? Would they be willing to work for a flat fee per week regardless of the hours spent? Are expenses included or will they be passed through to you and will they have a mark-up? Will you be able to contact them outside of regular business hours if needed and will that be charged at the same rate or an overtime rate?

The best way to structure a fee is whatever makes sense for the client, not whatever the consultant wants to do. It should be a negotiation, not a “take it or leave it” approach. Think about how you will need to process the invoice when it arrives. Do you need to know how the consultant spent every minute of their time or are you OK with a summary? Will you require a detailed timesheet, a weekly summary report, or something else? Remember, whatever you ask for, the consultant will probably charge you for and that time is not spent moving your project forward. Also ask how administrative fees are charged. Some firms include it in the consultant rate, but others allow accountants, IT techs, or HR personnel to charge time to your project. You need to know about that and agree to it up front so it can be accounted for in your budget.

Lastly, try to find time to sit down in a more relaxed environment over coffee, a beer, or lunch to get to know the consultant. Get a feel for the intangible connection you have with them. Will you enjoy working with them?

After doing all of your homework and selecting the consultant, you need to get all the details in writing. That can take the form of a proposal from the consultant, or a contract written up by your legal team, or a combination of both. Be sure to include specific scope language, specific fee structures, expectations around reporting, and terms and conditions of invoices and payment. Make sure both parties sign it and get the a copy of the final document.

A consultant on your project is often the best approach, but selecting that consultant is incredibly important to the success of your project. Choose wisely and you will be happy you took the time to select the right person. Choose poorly, and your project may not go smoothly at best, or you may end up in litigation at worst.

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