When consultants are needed, and how to establish this

5 key considerations

We have all heard of DIY jobs gone wrong, people who ended up paying much more than they would have if they had used an expert from the beginning. In some cases, even an expert is not able to rescue a mess… a self-executed haircut leaving you with little hair to work with, cannot be remedied easily by even the best! That there is a role for experts is certain.

Covid-19 has created very challenging conditions for businesses. Now more than ever, spending money is the last thing any business owner or decision-maker wants to do. So when investments are made there must be no doubt as to the value it will bring. In this piece, we’ll suggest key points on how to go about establishing the case for using consultants and being sure you’re getting value for your spend. 

The use of the right consultant, able to deliver real value through aligned deliverables, should translate into tangible value. And this business case is not only the client’s to establish but also benefits from the consultant’s inputs. A good consultant should, first and foremost, have no problem to prove her worth to you. Too often, the sad reality is that there are many empty promises and sales pitches made by hopeful (or even greedy) consultants, which end up being expensive mistakes for their clients.

The role of a reliable expert with real insight, experience, and know-how in a specific area will bring tangible value and advantages to your business – benefits you could not bring about yourself. Fear of being the victim of glitzy and expensive consultant sales pitches with no good outcomes, should therefore not prevent you from obtaining the real business advantages that you might need to keep you going or growing.

This piece will suggest criteria you could use to determine the value that you can expect from the consultant’s deliverables. The occurrence of the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in very difficult market conditions for businesses. Speaking about growth under such conditions might seem to some like missing the point when the struggle for survival is more paramount to where some businesses find themselves at. It is obvious any businesses will scrutinise their expenditure and will come up with an understanding of essential spend to keep the lights on, and then after that whether they can afford to invest in anything more than the essential operational expenses to achieve growth. Simple as it might sound, it can be difficult to make a differentiation between what is ‘essential’ and what isn’t.

Whilst compromising any level of your offering and dropping service or product standards is a benchmark that is easy to understand, it might be more difficult to know what your competitors are planning. If your strategy currently is merely keeping the lights on it could give your competition exactly the advantage that they have been seeking. As a business owner or a key decision-maker, how then do you navigate through these complex issues?

Also, if you already have made changes in investments for your business, how do you ensure that you are getting maximum value out of these, and not spending on something that is not going to bring you what you had hoped for? Whether it is to plan for the general way forward or a specific issue in your business that needs focus our attention, it might be worth considering getting an expert in the form of a consultant, to assist.

Below are 5 key points to think about as you decide on whether you need the assistance of consultants in your way forward:

  1. Do your homework

If there are areas in your business that you are not all that familiar with, then the first task is to get your hands dirty and become very comfortable with these. If you have a sense of an area that requires intervention, then you’ll need to do as much of the assessment work yourself first to get as thorough an understanding as is possible with what’s at your disposal. This includes taking into account all the existing knowledge and information already available in your business. Take stock of all the contributors of information and look at it from a people/process/technology framework.

Consider the specific area firstly from a strategic perspective, then lower down to a tactical, and eventually to an operational level. After having drawn up such a ‘matrix’, you should at least be able to plug in all the information at hand and come up with a likely market impact, and a customer view with regards to the issue you are considering. Localising and assessing it in this way, will not only provide you with rich information but will illicit key questions that you might need to focus on in more depth. And, information is found everywhere: interrogate your hard data, interview your managers and staff in this specific area of your business, and try and find out what other information or useful advice there might be outside of your organisation.

In this last step, you can research case studies, other person’s experiential advice, and reach out to your existing network of persons you have already. Social media and interest groups are a great way to get to this information.

  1. Get your basic definitions and understandings clear 

Once you have pulled together a view that you think fairly represents the scope of the item you are dealing with, spend some time to try and turn it into a framework that could lead to an operational plan of action. You have to have a very clear understanding at the end of “what good looks like” and “definitions of done”. These key definitions can make or break any intended value proposition and end it disappointment and disagreements of whether the job was done as contracted, or not.

There are many tried and tested frameworks publicly available that have been developed by well-known consulting specialists to get you started. Look at frameworks by consultancies such as Gartner, McKinsey, Bain&Co, Deloitte, Harvard Business School, and Boston Consulting Group to name but a few. Irrespective of the actual model you go with, the end goal should be to have a better understanding and definition of the problem you need to solve or the changes you need to implement.

This must as far as possible include actions you want to take, with clear and measurable parameters around each to measure progress, and so enable you to establish a business case with actual expected financial benefits. You should have formulated at least a basic view of the resources you already have available to you which can be used to achieve your outcomes and the gaps where you require help.

And here you have the first task for your consultant to help with – to ensure that your strategy, as it cascades down into your business case and concurrent actions you have come up with, are all aligned, measurable, and will actually impact your bottom line positively – all driven by your homework showing your key strengths and gaps. Once this is made available, any consultant deliverable must demonstrate a clear understanding of your business and gap analysis and include measurable indicators and tracking points that will be used to determine the consultant’s value offering, progress, and success indicators. As a business owner or decision-maker, you need not remain in a position where you are unclear as to the actual investment parameters you are making into a consultant, the specific expected benefits, and the indicators used for each of these.

In short, go as far as you can, and let the consultant take care of the areas that you are not able to. A good consultant will provide nothing less to you. Armed with your homework done and your view of your gaps and where you need help, you can now progress to selecting the right person for the right job.

  1. “We’re all equal…but some are more equal than others” 

Once you have prepared a brief, you will have a much clearer view of what you actually need help with. Target consultancy firms that have the skills that you need help with. There is a myriad of specialists and you will need to match the domain of your required area of help, with the skills of a consultant. Once this is done, draw up a checkpoint of criteria that you can use to rate the consultants you will short-list, and include items such as:

  • Demonstrated area of expertise and skills from the consultancy and specific consultants offered;
  • Track record of previous work done matching that which you need, and the outcomes. Ask for references as far as is reasonable;
  • Determine the cost and to what extent your brief will be given a response, to what detail the response goes, and what preliminary assessment work the consultants would like to perform before providing you with a proposal;
  • To what extent the consultant is willing to spend time and effort understanding your specific brief, and asking for more information, to inform a proposal. Ideally, this should not incur costs for you but should be given to you in good faith so that there can be certainty that you are making the right choice and that the proposed consultancy deliverables and benefits are actually realistic and aligned;
  • In the case where an assessment is suggested and not done at no cost, define the level to which the assessment outcomes will be given, then details you can expect, and to what extent moving forward will include guarantees for you;
  • Justification for the number of hours and possible costs that might be needed for coming up with a preliminary assessment, over and above what you have given or can provide on request.

Specifically in the case of implementing new technology solutions into your business, consulting costs should be very negotiable, and many IT and software businesses are willing to offer consultants as part of their implementation and already covered by the purchase price of the tech solution you are procuring. Leverage this to its full extent.

  1. Hope is not a strategy

Once you have gone this far, be cautious to not fall victim to thinking that you can do this all by yourself. Whilst you need to be certain and clear on the expected value that you can expect, it is also not always possible for your business to make available the resources needed to bring about the desired changes and outcomes you envisage, because everybody (including yourself) still have your regular responsibilities to see to. In addition, whilst things might seem understandable and easy on paper, avoid simplifying difficult deliverables such as rolling out a people-change component alongside a big technology implementation to avoid costs, but then ending up with a new system that is not fully adopted and embraced by users and negating the intended value and business benefits altogether.

By interrogating all the aspects of the proposal given to you, both with your internal audiences, as well as with the consultancy themselves, you should be able to formulate a good understanding of the need for every action, the expected cost and benefits driving these, and make important adjustments where needed.

A good consultant with solid experience will understand this, and support it because it provides them with an opportunity to demonstrate their worth and gain valuable information which will enhance their offering even further. What should be avoided at all costs, is to make key business decisions (either going with a consultant’s proposal or doing it yourself and not bringing in help) if you feel uncertain about anything and hoping for the best. Hope is not a strategy – get the information, and make informed moves that can rely on evidence, information, facts, and make logical sense to your business.

  1. Review and adjust 

After having gotten this far, and feeling ready to make an informed and researched decision, you are in a position to know exactly what it is that you are investing in. When finalising the engagement and contracting the deliverables with your prospective consultant, the last point to make is to leave as much room as you can for changes that you might wish to make, without incurring costs. The world is highly dynamic around us, and what is evident and sensible today might be redundant tomorrow. Besides, nobody can foretell the future. Leaving room for changes down the line will inevitably serve you well when you hit unexpected or unforeseen challenges, without critically jeopardising the expected outcomes or success of your endeavour.

Make sure that the proposal you have, is also clear on feedback and progress from your consultant, as often as is practical. This will keep you up to speed and empowered to make critical decisions swiftly and be able to anticipate challenges or blockers to your progress as soon as is possible, in order to avoid getting into situations where adjustments can no longer be made, with no more headspace left to manoeuvre around problems and challenges.