In the second of three blogs, Jake reflects on the process of choosing a consultant.

Jake Fox joined Whitecap Consulting six weeks ago, straight from finishing his undergraduate degree in Entrepreneurship and Management at Lancaster University. He has looked to gain strategy consulting experience before moving on to a Masters degree in Finance and Economics for Development, in September.

F2ullSizeRenderIn a short amount of time, Jake has been through quite the learning curve, gaining insight into the consulting process.

This three part series has been written by Jake, based on his views about the consultant-client relationship,examining the role of the consultant, and the effective running of the consultant recruitment and management processes.

Part 2 – How do I choose a consultant?

Consultants are problem solvers and valuable advocates during periods of change.

If you’ve identified that you could benefit from hiring a consultant, the next step is to choose one.

The right consultant can add enormous value to your organisation. But the wrong one can be a costly mistake and risk reputational damage. This article suggests ways to help you choose the right consultant for your needs.

Set out your criteria for choosing a consultant

Before you advertise a post, you should have a clear idea what qualities you are looking for in a consultant.

Once you have established your priorities, develop a weighting system of the attributes that can be used to write the assignment advertisement and person specification, and rank potential candidates during the selection process.

Also, it’s worth remembering that the decision to take on a project comes from both client and consultant. An honest first discussion may identify that the requirements of the project do not match the consultant’s expertise. Its important to have that level of honesty and openness from the beginning.

Use your networks and get recommendations

Contacts and networks are a great place to start when looking for a good consultant.

Seek recommendations from peers and business networks, such as your local or regional branch of the Chambers of Commerce, Institute of Directors (IoD) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

Online business networks, such as active LinkedIn groups, can also provide recommendations from your peers.

Is a consultant’s sector experience important?

Some might say looking for a consultant with sector experience is an absolute must. Whitecap views it differently. Nobody knows your market better than you do. While sector experience can be useful, it’s not the sector experience that necessarily matters.

For example, if you work in the financial technology sector and seek only a specialist FinTech consultant, you might miss out on a better consultant with the breadth of experience that comes from working across many different sectors.

While Whitecap Consulting is experienced in working with FinTech and financial services, we have also worked with software technology, B2B2C, B2C marketing, consumer retail, online retail, education and manufacturing companies – to name a few. Consultants bring the process, structure and strategy to deliver successful projects and campaigns whatever the sector. Rather than looking for sector specialism, it can be useful to seek examples of work undertaken by consultants across different sectors.

Consider the cost

The cost of hiring a consultant is an important consideration, of course. But the real decision to be made is around return on investment.

The consultant selection process should include an open and frank discussion about how fees are charged and what the costs will be. It is then up to you to negotiate a price that is fair for both parties.

Whitecap recommends agreeing on a day rate cost, this way clients only pay for the work achieved each day and are not overcharged for the whole project (from a rough estimate in first discussions.)

Does the location of a consultant matter?

To really ‘get under the skin’ of your business and understand it, a consultant will usually need to spend time onsite with you, speaking to employees and building a complete picture of any issues and opportunities. However, much of their services could be delivered remotely. Many of our client relationships at Whitecap involve a lot of communication via phone, email and Skype.

The level to which a consultant needs to be embedded in your business will determine how important it is that they are based close to your location, particularly if you will be covering their travel costs.

Make sure a consultant has excellent communication skills

A good consultant will need to communicate effectively with people at all levels of the organisation to really get to know your business culture.

They should be articulate and have the flexibility to quickly adapt their communication style and tone accordingly. They should be asking insightful questions that show their understanding and get the answers they need to identify and understand any issues, while also being respectful and courteousness.

Your chosen consultant should be able to develop effective lines of communication with all stakeholders, and have the confidence and ability to be able to influence at senior and board level. But be wary of a consultant who is too pushy or overbearing. The most important quality is the ability to listen, understand and ask the right questions.

Check the consultant’s creative problem solving skills

In it’s ‘5 essentials of choosing a consultant’, Entrepreneur quotes Marvin Bower, the patriarch of McKinsey & Company:

“Mental equipment: the successful consultant has outstanding analytical skill and the ability to synthesise his thoughts readily in reaching conclusions,” Bower wrote. “He is a quick and effective learner; imaginative and creative.”

You might want to devise some standard situational style questions to ask each consultant in a face-to-face initial meeting. A consultant’s answer to challenging competency style questions can offer real insights into their analytical and problem solving abilities, as well as their motivations, approach and process of working.

In the Whitecap Innovation Series – a collection of articles looking at the enablers, success factors and strategies for innovation, we highlighted how innovative companies deliver better returns than their peers.

If you require a new solution to an old problem, a consultant with a proven track record of providing innovative solutions is likely to have the creative problem solving skills necessary to fulfil your brief. But if you simply need a specified job doing quickly in a particular way, an innovator might not offer the solution you expected. It’s about understanding what you want from a consultant – and briefing them effectively.

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Find out more about Whitecap Consulting and our expertise from previous projects by reading our Case Studies. Alternatively, for expert content on a range of topics, visit our Blog.

Whitecap Consulting is a team of specialist consultants that work with organisations to help to shape their business and marketing strategy.