The right way to find a consultant – 6 basic steps

If you are managing a manufacturing firm, you are well aware of the range of capabilities needed to operate your business at the highest levels. Lean practices need to be deployed in manufacturing for cost-competitiveness, speed and efficiency. Long-time customers are cutting jobs, and new customers need to be found. Even with an experienced staff, you need an expert to help you jump start these initiatives. Taking smart steps to find and hire the right consultant can make the difference between mediocre results and great results that will propel your business.

The Great Lakes TAAC has helped hundreds of small and mid-size manufacturers connect with consultants, designers and trainers on a range of projects. This blog post shares our best advice for making your project go well, in 6 basic steps. (Spoiler alert: much of a project’s success has to do with you.)

Step 1: Define goals

The best first step for finding the right resource is defining well what you need. Understanding your goals for the project, what you hope to attain, and what help is needed is vital. For instance, you may have set a goal to generate 50% of sales from new accounts. That is not enough to hire a consultant though. You first need to understand your current-state marketing and sales efforts, and what new resources will be needed to diversify. Do you need market research to identify new customers? Do you have the necessary website and social media tools to reach new customers? Does your sales team know how to sell into new markets? At this more detailed level, you can define a meaningful project with specific goals, such as a market research report, Internet marketing plan, or sales training.

  • This process can be iterative as you meet with consultants. You may better understand your needs after talking with people who ask good questions. Better project definition early on will help you with your selection process.

Step 2: Identify potential consultants

Four people at a table having a meeting

Reach out to professional colleagues, industry associations, local schools and economic development groups to find potential consultants. It is likely you have professional or personal contacts that have tackled the same project. They will be able to give you firsthand recommendations of people to consider. Your CPA firm or legal advisor may also know of resources, especially if they work with similar firms in your industry.

For a cold search, LinkedIn is probably a safer bet than Google. You can search by keyword, location and past titles and employers. This may be particularly useful if you are seeking a specific technical expertise.

The Great Lakes TAAC has worked with many consultants in the past and often recommends consultants for our clients to consider.

Step 3: Bid the project

Once your project is well defined and you have consultants to consider, create an RFP document (request for proposal) and send it to your list of consultants. Provide some background, scope, and expected outcomes. Sharing the same scope and goal for the project with each consultant gives everyone an opportunity to respond. Give a timeline for your evaluation and selection, and be sure to give each respondent a chance to discuss with you, ideally in person on site.

  • By bidding, you are not aiming to select the “lowest cost”. The goal is to find the best overall fit for the project. Cost is only one factor to consider.

Step 4: Evaluate and score your options

When making your selection, you will evaluate the written proposals along with your impression of the consultant through your interactions. Your in-person impressions matter as part of the process. But don’t simply make your decision based on information packed presentations, such as an eye opening presentation on Internet marketing. Good presentations are great, but you need to know specifically at this point what the consultant will provide. Is it training? How many hours and for how many months? Is it a new website and Internet marketing plan? Who is writing the website copy? What will the consultant provide each month for your Internet marketing? Get the job tasks a la carte so you can focus on what you need. Be sure to have a total expected dollar amount and timeline. Have milestones to evaluate progress. Have a timeline. (More on this in GLTAAC’s next blog post)

Importantly, the evaluation of proposals should include a scoring metric to help rank options. The scoring can be simple, such as 100 possible points across key measures. For example: 45 – experience, 30 – understanding, 15 – timeline, and 10 – price.  Ideally, have three team members score proposals separately. Based on our experience at GLTAAC, it is surprising how often different people will score the proposals similarly. This builds confidence in your selection and gives a quantitative measure for discussion.

  • For a bigger project, it is worthwhile to ask for references. This is appropriate when you’ve narrowed your options, are satisfied with the proposal, and are seriously considering hiring the consultant. The consultant’s past clients are busy people, and they’d only care to request their reference if they are being considered for a job.
  • Be wary when someone says they can’t share their approach or process because it’s “proprietary”. An experienced consultant should be able to walk you through how they will work with you without giving away any proprietary methods. To be fair, any materials a consultant uses in their work (such as questionnaires or work tools) need not be shared. But if they can’t describe their process, they probably don’t have their own work approach well defined. A technical project in engineering or science will have more proprietary elements.

Image of two young businessmen using touchpad at meeting

Lastly, you need to be involved. Good consultants are evaluating you as well. Look for someone who asks good and challenging questions. A good consultant wants you to be successful, they need to know how they can help, and they need you to be involved. Understand what resources you will need to provide. Is it training? Make sure your team is available. Is it a strategic marketing plan? Make sure your sales and marketing people are ready to contribute. You should understand your organization’s role in the project through the selection process.

Step 5: Create a contract

Once you have made your selection, make sure to include the appropriate details in the contract. At this point, the scope of work, timeline, and cost should all be understood from the proposal. Were some proposal details clarified in a follow up phone call or meeting? Putting the details in writing helps avoid confusion, and billing will be clear. Set specific milestones so that you can evaluate progress.

Step 6: Moving forward

Be sure to thank the other bidders and offer feedback if appropriate. Were there other strong candidates? Be sure to keep good resources in mind if others ask you for a suggestion. Recommend them to others.

With a little investment of time and effort up front, you’ll find the right fit and have a much more successful project. The benefits to your firm can be enormous, and your people will get more out of the project.

Now that you’ve selected your consultant, have a look at GLTAAC Project Manager, John Antos’ post “How to Work with a Consultant.”