6 questions to ask consultants before hiring them

Imagine that your company has decided to launch a new product line in a few months. Or perhaps you’re scaling from startup mode into full operations with a continued focus on growth but need to make sure that your products, services, and business processes are optimized.

Either way, whatever your situation, you’ve decided to hire a consultant to help you through the change process. These are the top questions to ask consultants before hiring them.

1. Why should I trust you?

People ask us this question frequently, and it’s a good one to ask any consultant. If your company hires this consultant, you and your employees will be working with them closely for an extended period of time, and they’ll have access to sensitive company information. As such, it’s critical that you trust them on the five ways that really matter: technical competence, ethical conduct and character, interpersonal skills, transparency, and accountability.

For example, when I’m speaking to someone about CrossGen Solutions and they’re interested in hiring us, I share specific case studies that highlight our track record of success so that they feel confident in our technical ability to complete the project well. However, I also cite specific examples about how we demonstrated transparency and accountability, how we navigated the sometimes-tricky interpersonal situations that arose during those engagements, and how we exceeded the requirements of our engagements to provide outstanding service.

2. What expertise do you have?

Though the especially savvy consultant may have answered this question when asked, “Why should I trust you,” ask it anyway. It’s important to have a clear understanding of a consultant’s key service offerings and areas of experience before you hire them so that you’re well informed about what they do and don’t know.

Oftentimes, consultant teams may have one primary area of focus or expertise, but they have experience in other areas. In my experience as a business leader and project manager, I’ve seen how consultants are more successful when they have a diverse array of skills and knowledge sets from which to draw. Rarely does a management consulting engagement only require one skill set, like project management. More often, managing a larger initiative requires strategic planning and people change management for the initiative to be most successful.

In short, multidisciplined expertise is important because it increases the likelihood of success, and it’s important your company look for such diverse experience in any potential consultants with whom it may work. In fact, it’s so important that when we hire new senior consultants to join our core team, we require them to have expertise in at least two of our key service offerings.

3. What would your approach be for this consulting engagement?

There are many different approaches to management consulting or business process improvement, and none of them are wrong. However, it is important that your consultant have an approach for their engagement with your company and that they’re not making it up as they go. When your organization invests $10,000 to $1,000,000+ for the expertise of a consultant, you want to make sure that the business transformation or initiative implementation isn’t haphazard or half-baked.

One way to ensure that your organization is working with the best team available is to ask for their approach for each of the eight levels of goals that a consultant can help fulfill. Not all consultants may think it is their job to assist with higher-level purposes of building consensus and commitment, facilitating client learning, and improving organizational effectiveness. So, when you ask them what their approach would be to make sure your organization is more profitable and efficient as a result of the engagement, for example, your company will quickly be able to weed through the consultants who won’t be as effective.

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4. How would you describe your services to me using plain English?

At first glance, this question might seem like fluff; you might even be wondering why it matters if potential consultants can explain their services to you without using jargon. However, if a person can teach you about strategic planning and explain it in layman’s terms, it shows that they understand more than the rudimentary steps that they need to follow. They understand the process of strategic planning in a more abstract sense, which according to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Levels is a higher level of subject mastery.

So, to separate out the so-so management consultants from the best, this question is a must.

5. What do your services cost?

This question may seem a no-brainer, but your organization needs to plan financially for any consulting engagement your company might consider. If your organization waits until after the contract is negotiated or signed to ask about pricing, you might be in for a nasty surprise.

For a pre-MBA management consultant, the average firm charges anywhere from $250 to $400 per hour, and it skyrockets from there up to $1,200 per hour. In addition, many consulting firms also invoice their expenses separately, which means that if your company is working with a consultant who isn’t local, your costs might be significantly higher than you might have anticipated.

One way to manage the costs of a potential consulting engagement is to work only with management consultants who are local to your area. Not only will they be less likely to charge travel expenses (or, if they do, they’ll be significantly less), but also you’ll be supporting your local economy by keeping salaries and taxes local.

6. What is your current workload and availability?

Perhaps this is another obvious question, but before working with a consulting company, make sure that they have sufficient bandwidth for your initiatives. If your organization is looking to hire a consultant who is already juggling four out-of-town jobs, odds are they won’t be able to give as much time and attention to your project.

Not only will an overworked consultant not give your project their best effort, which could jeopardize its success, but they’ll also be less efficient if they’re working more than 50 hours per week. As a result, they might end up charging more but producing less. If you’re working with a consultant whose rate is already sky-high to begin with, that’s even more of an issue.

In all, be sure that you’re doing your due diligence when it comes time to bring a consultant into your company. Your organization might be working with this person or firm for quite a while, so make sure it’s the best fit possible.

Tammy Taylor, PMP, is the president of CrossGen Solutions, a business-consulting firm based in Madison that works with local, cross-generational talent. She has more than 25 years of project management experience and is an active member of the Project Management Institute.

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