CONSULTANTS Using Consultants – The myths and the must-dos

Everyone knows how important it is to select the ‘right’ employees – and what can happen if the process is not rigorous. Recall Canadian John Davy, who was appointed Maori TV’s first chief executive and jailed after it was discovered he had falsified his CV.
Most companies have and apply rigorous recruitment processes to select their employees. Why is it then that the same rigour is not always applied to the selection of business consultants?
Are business consultants less important than employees? Hardly, since they generally provide advice that often has major impact on business performance. Or perhaps all business consultants are guaranteed to deliver the right results? Again, that beggars belief.

Myths about consultants
* Myth 1: Consultants are the same as contractors. Not so: contractor is there to do specific and defined job. consultant is an adviser, collaborator, specialist who can help when the client does not know the specific solution.
* Myth 2: Always start by deciding what you want the consultant to do. Not so. If the client can decide exactly what to do and how to do it, the solution may be to delegate the task to an employee or contractor.
* Myth 3: Consultants charge like wounded bulls. This is very narrow way of thinking. What counts is the difference between the value added and the costs incurred. Often much of the value added to the business is not measured but the costs are highlighted.
* Myth 4: Consultants must be very experienced in their clients’ type of business. Experience can be useful, but dangerous too. Having the same experience as the client may lead to mirroring the client’s thinking instead of challenging and applying broader rationale. Real objectivity is often difficult for people within the organisation. Consultants need to know enough about the dynamics of the client’s business but will never understand the full complexity as well as the client.
* Myth 5: New Zealand is different when it comes to consultants. Yes and no. There are far more similarities than differences. The key is to understand the differences. New Zealand consultants tend to broaden their specialities due to the relatively small market, with the attendant danger that they “don’t know what they don’t know” in these broader areas.

Overseas consultants
Some businesses believe that an overseas consultant is, by definition, better than any home-grown alternative. This is patently not the case. Overseas consultants will often cost two to three times as much, and not be as available for follow-up work. global perspective, however, and/or additional in-depth experience in particular market may be important to balance the essential local knowledge and experience.
Selecting the ‘right’ business consultant is often more difficult in New Zealand because of the more limited pool of local consultants. However, experience shows that it is rare situation where an appropriate New Zealand-based consultant cannot be found. The trick is to identify the right process for the situation and then apply it rigorously.

A rigorous selection process
The critical starting point is for the client to not assume he/she knows the solution. This leads on to the first step in process that should result in selection of the right consultant.
1. Preparation: The client should form initial views on the issues and desired results whilst heeding Myth 2, and form views on what sort of specialist adviser could assist. If others in the business are to be involved, include some of them in the selection pro-cess. Develop an initial set of criteria to assess consultants against.
2. Search: There are many sources:
a. Contact the professional body that covers that particular speciality. For instance, if the speciality is within the spectrum of management consulting, contact the Institute of Management Consultants NZ (IMCNZ at
b. Contact one or more of the larger consultancies. Ensure you meet the consultant who will be doing the work rather than marketing person.
c. Contact colleagues for suggestions, but bear in mind the caveat noted above. Ask questions to ascertain their suggestions are really relevant to the situation.
d. Make several phone calls to people who may either know of an appropriate consultant, or as ‘head hunters’ do, ask if anyone else they know may be able to help.
3. Shortlist: Draw up shortlist of consultants to talk with about the requirement. It may be necessary to reveal some confidential information, so ensure at the outset that the consultant is bound by set of ethics or professional conduct.
4. Interviews: Discuss the following points with each consultant, noting the consultant’s job should include helping to define the problem and solution, not just solving one the client defines?
a. Does the consultant have ‘sufficient’ experience and capabilities in the area required?
b. What approach would the consultant advocate? Recognise that the consultant may form different view to the client; this should be discussed at length to ensure meeting of minds based on similar values and understanding.
c. Discuss what methodology would be applied, and how well suited it is to the specific needs. For instance, is it framework that will be used by an experienced consultant as guideline, or methodology developed for international use to be applied more by rote?
d. Discuss the option of starting with small assignment as first or scoping phase for the main assignment. This has the merit of ‘learning to live together’, and may identify different approach to provide the best outcome.
e. Is there rapport between the consultant and the client such that they will be able to work together in collaboration? Note this may include members of the client’s team.
f. Ask about fees and who would be working on the assignment. Never fall for the old ‘partner does the marketing and juniors do the job’ approach.
g. Ask about the consultant’s firm, but bear in mind it is the individual on the job who is of overriding importance.
5. Shorter list: Review the initial selection criteria based on additional information from interviews. Draw up another shortlist of consultants. If none of the consultants are appropriate, start the process again – the information gained so far will be useful.
a. If tender is not required and only one consultant is considered appropriate, ask the consultant to produce brief proposal covering the proposed approach, roles of people involved (including from within the business), the deliverables against time line, and fees.
b. If more than one of the consultants is considered appropriate, ask each consultant to produce proposal generally as outlined above, but with additional detail that will enable comparison against the criteria. Ensure each consultant knows how many are being asked to propose – normally three should be maximum.
c. If tender is required, follow the requisite tender procedures.
6. Selection: Select the ‘right’ consultant against the criteria. If there is only one proposal, check carefully it is fully consistent with the discussions and requirements. Provide honest feedback to unsuccessful consultants.

There are numerous variations on this basic process, in particular for large assignments that need project management disciplines. It may then be appropriate to involve specialist on project partner selection and project management, and to proceed through Registration of Interest (ROI) and Request for Proposal (RFP) process.
Rigorous application of this process should ensure sound selection. But clearly this is just the start. Getting the best out of relationship between client and consultant that results in the optimum outcome is often very different from the way most businesses work with their employees and other suppliers, but that’s another story…

Peter Senior CMC is management consultant and president of IMCNZ.
Email: [email protected]

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