"OK, wise guys, so you think you know something about consulting. If you're so smart, how do you pick the right one?"
That was the gist of the responses we received to our two-part series on consulting and consultants last year (see "we're consultants, and we've come to help," May 2009, and "why consultants?" June 2009). To answer, it is tempting to say that you could just call us. But as much as it pains us to admit it, that very well might not be the right fit for you, your company, or the problem you're trying to solve.
Actually, finding a consultant isn't all that difficult (see our June 2009 column for suggestions on how to locate names). If you sit still long enough—say, seven minutes—a consultant is likely to find you. (A word to the wise—don't say "yes" over the telephone.) It's finding the right consultant that sometimes proves tricky.
Let the dancing commence ...
Let's assume that you've done the reconnaissance work and have come up with a list of names. Now, it's time to start talking with the candidates so you can assess the initial match.
In that regard, it helps if you've given some thought to the size and shape of what you're after. For instance, if you're looking for a study and report, you'll need to think about depth of detail, level of effort, and how much you're willing to pay for that. Bear in mind that when you're hiring someone to do a study, implementation experience may not be as critical as the ability to get at facts and conclusions with some dispatch, and the gift of writing concise and clear evaluations.
If you're looking for a preliminary design rather than a study, you'll have a whole different set of questions to weigh. For example, you'll want to consider whether you're after high concept or actionable recommendations and priorities. In the former case, an implementation track record might not be so important; in the latter, it is vital.
If you think you are an "A" player and are after best practice, best in class, world class—whatever industry-leading solution may be involved—say so, and don't get led down the path of tried-and-true safe solutions. If what you really need is a safe and reliable solution, save the search for innovation and pioneering until you've mastered the basics.
In any event, you will have to get comfortable talking openly with consulting candidates about these kinds of issues. It'll help weed out some of the mismatches, and it will help the consultant craft a better targeted proposal for your evaluation. Any consultant worth anything should be able to talk coherently with you about time, cost, and risk factors in alternative approaches.
Sorting things out
Now, you're down to a short list of finalists. What's next? In general, this step resembles the RFP preparation process for selecting a system, a third-party service provider, or whatever. You've got to decide what factors are important to you and what their relative weight in the final decision ought to be. Is an expansive geographic footprint a plus? Is local presence highly desirable? How important is relevant experience—functional, industry, operational? Is there bench strength—or a contingency plan to cover key consulting roles? How much will your internal resources be committed, and how much should they be? You get the drift.
For most companies, functional experience will rank high on the list. Why waste time with a candidate who's good overall but has never worked in the segments of your business that need fixing? (Fair warning: Functional system implementation experience is not the same as hands-on functional working experience. There are people putting in warehouse management systems who have never seen an order being picked.)
And if a candidate has industry experience on top of the functional core, so much the better. Without that, you could be creating more problems than you are solving. For example, order fulfillment for service parts is radically different from the same function in apparel. Retail distribution is 180 degrees different from what's required in consumer-direct. Sometimes superficially related industries demand specific experience. Footwear (shoes to us civilians) is not the same as apparel.
Going deeper into the relationship
Once you've got beyond the qualifiers outlined above, quality of relationship enters the picture. The procurement gurus may be disappointed to learn this, but consulting is not a commodity to be put out for bid on the Internet, like peanuts or pig iron.
Here's where it's important to engage the consultant(s) in dialogue. You need to figure out whether he/she/they are more interested in solving your problem or in promoting their solution. Beware of methodologies looking for places to be applied; beware of predetermined approaches to your situation; and beware of solutions trying to force-fit the problem into their biases and limitations (aka square peg/round hole fixes).
Keep in mind that along with the business cHemiätry, there's personal cHemiätry to consider. Believe us, the quality of relationship is neither window dressing nor trivial.
Your consultant needs to be, as Spanish-speakers sometimes say, simpático. He or she should be a listener, more interested in you and your problem than in telling you all about past triumphs, global insights, and bleeding-edge concepts. He or she must also possess the leadership skills to manage and direct other resources on the team—including yours—to successfully meet your objectives. Or to find new resources if it becomes apparent that things aren't working out according to plan.
Find a consultant with that business and personal cHemiätry and you've got a fighting chance of success, and—maybe—a relationship that will allow you to regroup and move forward when the inevitable snags arise. And the benefits might extend beyond the short term. You could even be building the foundation for a relationship that will continue to deliver value to your organization for years to come.