The increasing need for businesses to adopt the contingent workforce has meant that for many organisations there will be uncertainties when hiring independent business consultants and freelancers. This extended piece breaks down, step by step, the ideal methods and best practice for how to choose a business consultant based on criteria specific to your needs.
Why hire a freelance business consultant?
The first thing to consider is why you need an external consultant and what has prompted you to start the search for a consultant. One of the reasons you might consider hiring a consultant is being overwhelmed by the amount of work in the business. This could arise out of a seasonal increase in work, high turnover, new business opportunities and much more.
There may also be a piece of work outside the area of expertise of your current team members. You may also require immediately and don’t have the time to upskill an employee.
Additionally, a project your team has been working on for quite some time might not be getting the type of results you had expected and you now require a fresh perspective to find the problem or solution.
You might require a services consultant to support you in growing the business, changing the direction or business strategy of the organisation, without the need for choosing a consulting firm. You might want someone with significant experience and more exposure with growing businesses and/or changing direction, as well as someone whose primary role is to do this in your particular industry. A consultant should have the expertise and a focus on the latest trends and what works and what doesn’t.
A study conducted by The Bloom Group (2013) surveyed executives on the types of consultants that they used. This highlighted the range of areas in which a consultant or freelancer can be used.
The most important element in considering a consultant is to know why you are hiring one. If you have considered the above reasons to hire one and have determined that you have a business need for a consultant, then the next step is to evaluate what you need from a consultant and the scope of work to be completed.
Clarify The Scope Of The Work
What does success in the project look like to you?
In order to determine what a successful project means to you, determine what is the ideal end result. Having a clear idea of what success looks like means that you can guide the consulting arrangement according to what you want to achieve rather than what you want to avoid. You may have done a gap analysis and identified a project need from this information, however, you also need to know if there are other things you wish to add to the project requirement. It is also important to do an analysis of who in the organisation will be positively impacted and what they will be doing differently as a result of the project. Identifying these factors will support you to create the most accurate project brief and hire a suitable external consultant. If you need help with this, consultants are excellent at recognising broader business issues and it might be worth engaging with one to assist in scoping your project.
What timeframes are you working with?
Establish what the earliest and latest the project dates by which the project must be completed. This can be done by reviewing previous projects which were similar in nature or reviewing case studies of other organisations that have gone through a similar project to yours. It can also be achieved by reviewing a similar internal project which could indicate the length of time you would expect this project to take.
What is your budget?
Before identifying a suitable consultant, you will need to undertake some evaluation to understand how much the organisation can invest. Although independent business consultants can be far more economic than business consulting firms, consultant rates can still vary by thousands of dollars, so it is important to identify what finances are available for the project, prior to shortlisting consultants.
What are some of the anticipated challenges of this project?
A few of the things you may need to evaluate are if there are any policies, processes, laws or systems that will create challenges for the consultant and prevent success on the project. Identify if there will be any employees who may cause setbacks on the project, or if there are clients or customers who might resist consultants working on this project. Anticipating challenges in advance will support in finding a suitable consultant that can effectively support your team. It may also give you an understanding of what your timeline will look like and any potential delays.
Create a document outlining the scope of the project
Once you are clear on what your requirements are for the project, put it in writing. This document can then be used to obtain internal approvals for the project to go ahead, as well as to communicate with potential consultants. You might already have a request for tender or request for proposal template that you would use.
Get Clear On The Type Of Consultant You Need
What level will the consultant be working at?
Understanding what organisational level the consultant will be working at will support you in identifying someone with similar past experiences, and whether they'll be suitable for the primary role. If a consultant has only worked with emerging leaders, and your project involves working mostly with your executive team, you will need to ensure that the consultant is confident in communicating and relating to your executives. The same applies if the consultant has mostly worked with executives, and your project is mostly working with team members, the consultant will need to easily relate to your team members and understand how to respectfully communicate to your them.
Who will work with the consultant and what are the team dynamics?
Some project teams require a particular personality or consultant to be able to bring out the best in the team and the project. If the consultant will mostly be working as part of a team, then it is important to review the team profile and find a complementary style to work with the dynamics you have. If the consultant will primarily work on their own, then you will require someone who is comfortable working solo and will not require many directions from others. The type of consultant with the required technical skills set but without the relationship building skills will find it difficult to work productively with your team. Additionally, a consultant required to work solo most of the time who doesn’t function well solo, will not be able to successfully deliver your project.
Who would be a good cultural fit for your organisation?
Some organisations have a very strong culture, which only a few consultants will be able to relate to. If you have a highly technical group which requires an evidence base for all of the work proposed, ensure that the consultant is able to communicate such evidence, and will seem credible to your team and organisation. Other factors you may consider are the language and communication style of your organisation if it is male dominated or female dominated. These are just some of the factors to consider when evaluating if the consultant selection you make is a good cultural fit for your organisation. Even though the right consultant will be working with your team on a short term basis, the more accepting your team is and the more influential the consultant is, the easier it will be for the consultant to understand the unspoken rules of your organisation and to achieve success on the project.
What qualifications does the consultant require?
Consider the educational, technical, IT and industry knowledge that your external consultant requires in order to ensure the project is a success. Some consultants may be able to articulate themselves well verbally, however, you will also need to assess that they meet your other requirements.
Finding Your Ideal Consultant
Online consulting platforms
Online platforms, such as Expert360 are an excellent way to access numerous consultants in the one platform, these independent consultants are screened in advance to ensure that they offer you a high-quality service or product.
Word of mouth
You may have a membership association or a networking group within your industry that you can call on for suggestions for a suitable consultant. They may even have partners with whom they suggest working with available on their websites. This method is useful as you can get first-hand feedback from businesses who have actually used a particular consultant and what the consultant achieved in the project.
Expressions of interest on your website
Some larger organisations place expressions of interest or request for proposals on their website or through other media channels so that consultants can find them and submit their interest for a particular project. If you were to go down this route, you would need to ensure that your business is accessible to potential consultants and that they can easily access your tender requests. Here is a sample template for a tender request, which could be placed on your website or advertised elsewhere:
Screening suitable consultants
Project scope outline
Using the document you prepared earlier outlining the scope of the project, you can send this to interested select consultants, or have it available on your website, depending on your hiring processes. Having this document means that the consultants can initially screen themselves and ask you clarification questions if needed.
Ensure they meet your criteria on paper
Once the consultants have submitted their proposals, review their details to assess if it is a match for what you are looking for. Check if they previously have done the type of work they are proposing to advise you on and if they have provided you with some examples, case studies or testimonials. Additionally, it’s best to check that they have the required educational and industry background. From the initial proposal, you might also be able to assess if they are a good cultural match for your business. You may also require the right consultant to have particular insurances (public liability or professional indemnity) or member registrations to industry organisations, it is best to check these requirements prior to engaging the consultant or offering a contract.
Set up a telephone or in person, meeting
Depending on which area the external consultant is required, identify people who are familiar enough with the project to meet or talk to the consultant. If the project has organisation wide impact, you may require more than one person to meet with the consultant, and you may have an initial telephone screening and then arrange for a face-to-face meeting if required (depending on the nature of the work, sometimes an online meeting or a phone call is sufficient).
Screen for technical and behavioural requirements
Ask as many questions needed to ensure that you understand the consultant’s background, that they understand the scope of your project and are a suitable match. Did they used to be part of a consulting firm? What is their experience on similar projects? There are many questions you need to be asking. In addition to you asking the consultant questions, also allow time for the consultant to ask you questions they may have. Asking for real past examples is more useful than asking for hypotheticals of what they ‘would’ do in a given scenario. Asking behavioural type questions often have the most impact, in this structure, you would ask about a particular situation, the actions the consultant took, and the results they achieved as an outcome of their action.
Some other questions you might ask of the consultant (if it is suitable for your particular project) include:
- What is your specialty?
- What is your approach to this work, how do you go about the completion of the work?
- What is your diagnosis of the current situation or project?
- What does success look like to you?
- What has been your approach to failure or initial setbacks?
- Have you done this work before, what are some examples?
- Have you dealt with executives before? (if the project requires this)
- How do you go about building the types of relationships required and quickly, in order to successfully complete the project?
- How do you think you could support us?
- Have you worked in our industry before, what is unique about working in our industry?
- Can you pass on your skills to our team so that we become self-sufficient? (only ask this question if it is a business need)
- How do you charge for your services?
- What kinds of documentation or intellectual property will this project involve, and who will own it?
- Explain your terms, is the consultant happy to work on these terms, do they have requirements of their own?
Revise information and data
After meeting with the right consultant assess data from all of your meetings with the consultants and decide which best meets your needs and fits your criteria. You may need to obtain references or testimonials at this point if you haven’t already. Arrange another meeting if required to ask additional questions. Understand if there are any risks associated with using a consultant and the particular consultant that you have identified as being suitable for your project.
Offer the contract to a consultant
Prior to offering a contract ensure that you have obtained evidence of relevant member registrations or insurances. Once you have made this evaluation and the relevant decision makers within your organisation have signed off on the project, you can now formally offer a written contract to the selected external consultant. Have a clear contract in place prior to the engagement, so that you have in writing what each party is agreeing to and what the scope of the project is. This contract would also include a confidentiality agreement, which refers to any conflicts of interest. Create milestones for the project and when you would expect certain elements to be completed (or ask the consultant to produce this). Include this in the contract or written specifications for the project. Below is a simple template for a Table of Milestones.
Throughout the engagement:
- If you need to make changes throughout the project period, put them in writing
- Communicate as clearly as possible when things are going well and when things need to change, and allow for the consultant to have access to you to ask questions
- Work with the consultant along the way, expect to be involved in the process
- The selected consultant will usually already have an approach or way of doing things, unlike an employee you would usually not advise the consultant on how to do the work, rather what to do and when to complete it by
Throughout the engagement, you will also need to continuously improve and evaluate the processes and work carried out by the right consultant. Below is an approach of how you could continuously keep track of your project with the consultant.
The Appreciative Inquiry approach focuses you on what is working really well in the project, it ensures that you communicated the strengths to the consultant, this ensures that the consultant continues to do the things that you value. This approach also enables you to discern what elements of the project need less of a focus or require strengthening.
The Plan, Do, Study, Act model is a simple approach which many people use in various processes. Taking steps to ensure that you understand your project scope and that you hire a suitable external business consultant, will ensure that; your project is successful, that your investment of money and time into their services is put towards the achievement of your strategy and that it can be a positive professional reflection on those involved in the project.
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