5 Tips for Choosing the Right Consultant
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Consultants can be a tremendous resource — or a total waste of money. Here's how to make sure you enlist the right expert-for-hire, and that you get the most value possible from the engagement.

A recent survey by The Alternative Board,1 an executive peer advisory coaching network, found that 71 percent of small business owners who had used a business coach rated the coach's positive impact on their business as a 7 (out of 10) or higher. Interestingly, only 18 percent of respondents who had never used a business coach rated the potential impact on their business as a 7 or higher. That disconnect suggests that business owners underestimate the value of a skilled business consultant. But, to ensure you choose the right partner for your needs and that you get the most out of the engagement, you need to do some legwork. 

1. Clearly define your objectives.

Why are you enlisting outside counsel? Perhaps it is to address a skill gap or to help you tackle a challenging business problem. Document this need in as much detail as possible. That will help you create a clear job description for potential consulting partners and define precise deliverables that encourage accountability.

2. Ask your network for recommendations.

Eighty-five percent of small business owners polled by The Alternative Board1 reported that personal referral is the most reliable way to secure an effective business consultant. "The best way to find a consultant is to talk to other business owners who hired consultants for similar needs," agrees Kris Putnam-Walkerly, president of Putnam Consulting Group. "Ask them who they used, the results the consultant helped them achieve, and, most importantly, if they would hire them again." She also suggests turning to professional associations for recommendations.

3. Do your own vetting.

Glowing recommendations aside, you have to confirm that the business consultant's personality and approach will complement your own. Remember, you will be spending a significant amount of time together.

It is important to meet with potential partners in person, and to ask them questions about their qualifications and philosophies. Ask each of the candidates to describe case studies, and how their skills will benefit your business. "Do the consultants ask insightful questions? Are they listening to you, or do they spend the entire time telling you about their magic process? Can they explain how they work and what you could expect from them? Are they upfront and confident about their prices? If someone has a hard time talking about money, they might not be as professional as they seem," advises Brandi Olson, president of Brandi Olson Consulting.

4. Put everything in writing.

When you are ready to move forward, make sure details, including total cost, objectives, performance metrics, timelines, and expected results are clearly laid out so there is no confusion or surprises. Depending on the project, the cost structure could be a flat fee, a pay-by-the-hour engagement, or even performance-based compensation.

Putnam-Walkerly suggests informing your business consultant about your preferred working style and documenting that, too. "Let your consultant know how, and how often, you want to be kept apprised of progress. You might want weekly phone calls or monthly email updates," she says.

5. Trust the process.

If you've spent the time finding and vetting a qualified professional, trust that they know what they are doing. "This person has likely helped many organizations with similar challenges and has developed a process that allows them to do their best work," says Olson. "If you start feeling the need to micromanage, it's probably a sign that you need to slow down and revisit the project goals and process so that everyone is on the same page."

1. The Alternative Board: Small Business Pulse, September 2015
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