Consulting Skills

Ten Top Tips for Working with Consultants

by Sarah Thrift on September 17, 2013

top tips

So you are thinking of hiring consultants? How do ensure the impact far outweighs the cost?

Here are my top ten tips based on the observation of hundreds of consulting engagements.

  1. Get really clear on your needs and the problem you are seeking to address. Use this as a way to test different consultants/ consulting organizations. Meet with them to describe the issues you are facing and the ask them to define the problem to be answered. Use this to see how well they understand your issues, how clear their thinking is and whether you have good working chemistry. It will give you precious insights into how they work and may open your eyes to different ways of framing your problem.
  2. Ensure a good cultural fit. The right expertise but lacking cultural fit is just not good enough. Make sure the consultant understands the organization’s culture, including its politics. Without this, they may design a strategy which does not work with the organization’s culture.
  3. Make sure what you are buying will give lasting change. Ask your consultants how they would describe their impact. Get them to give you tangible examples of lasting change for their clients and the reasons for this. Also ask them for examples of where lasting change has not been achieved for their clients, and why.
  4. Agree upfront who will be on the team and who on the team will be responsible for what. This ensures you get the A team, with the right set of skills and experience to meet your needs. It also ensures you have realistic expectations about the extent to which the person who sold you the work will be involved in the actual project. Much better to get these things clear upfront than once you’ve already signed the contract and work has begun.
  5. Agree the deliverables upfront, with any changes to these to be explicitly agreed. Check with colleagues to make sure that the areas of focus will give you the impact you need. Ensure the deliverables are tangible and measurable. Have milestones along the way so you can track progress and swiftly highlight any concerns.
  6. Work together as a team. Work in partnership with your consultant(s). Co-create the solution. This takes time but it is so worth it. It puts you at the heart of the discussions ensuring your consultant(s) really understand your organizations – which helps mitigate poor or impractical recommendations –and means you get to learn from them along the way. It also means you are genuinely the owner of the output. No more PowerPoint decks to get dusty in someone’s drawer, but valuable work done together as a team.
  7. Be demanding of thinking and rigor. This is in large part what you are paying for. Make the consultant(s) think. Ask them challenging questions. Play devil’s advocate. Be provocative. Make sure the consultant(s) explain clearly the assumptions underpinning their work. Continually ask why X, why not Y?
  8. Make time for your consultants, including regular updates, both formal and informal. Ensure regular and 2-way feedback, to resolve issues as soon as they arise. Proactively keep them up-to-date on the big picture, as well as other tactics that connect to and/or have implications for what they are doing. For example — shifts in broader strategies, new insights from the sales team, budget changes, related projects, etc. Badly briefed consultants fail regardless of ability/effort
  9. Request transfer of skills. Effective consultant(s) do not want to encourage dependency and will be keen to discuss transfer of initiatives for the benefit of your business. Make the most of the time you and your colleagues spend with the consultants to learn new skills. Explicitly ask them to design the work with this in mind, so you end up with new skills as well as a solution to your problem as the end of the project
  10. Be bold. Both in your choice of consultants and in the framing of your problem. Let your consultants genuinely explore options. If you want “yes men” find a cheaper way than hiring consultants. This is an opportunity to make a big difference to your organization.