You, Too, Can Learn to Love Consultants…

franmelmed Fran Melmed

People love to hate consultants. Not as much as they love to hate lawyers, but consulting’s a younger profession.

The animosity’s not terribly surprising, given that consultants are such easy targets. Cases in point:

They wear Dockers like they’re this year’s fashion statement. Their 100-slide sales presentations turn your conference table into a see-saw when slapped down. We have them to thank for incentivize and other nonexistent words. They come. They spiel. They charge. (Nothing changes.) They leave.

I jest, but these behaviors are real, even if exhibited by only a minority of consultants. And they’re
met by equally matched dysfunction on the company side:

Bringing in consultants as the voice of wisdom because internal opinions aren’t valued or aren’t spoken for fear of repercussions. Paying consultants for their advice and then not heeding it (or not paying for it and angling to get it). Considering consultants to have the answers, not just some of the answers.

Loathing and stereotypes aside, companies will continue hiring consultants because there are times
when bringing them in makes sense—if your company has limited resources or a compressed time frame, or needs particular expertise, for example. To avoid all of this unhealthy finger-pointing, I’m staging an intervention and equipping you with the must-knows to be savvy consultant consumers:

  1. Know why you’re bringing one in. If you’re clear from the get-go what the need is, you’ll
    be better equipped to scope what you’re buying. A familiar complaint leveled against consultants is that they stretch projects, growing their fees by expanding the services they’re providing. There can be legitimate reasons for this, as an experienced consultant sheds light on factors you haven’t considered. Even so, as the buyer you must identify the need and the budget and express them clearly. Then find the Saturns of the consultant world and deal with those who’ll outline what they’re delivering, for how much, and what they’re prepared to stand behind. Otherwise, scoping projects becomes a game with each side withholding information or trying to outsmart the other.

  2. Remember: Cheapest is not the best selection criteria. When you select a consultant based on price
    tag alone, you’re doing yourself a real disservice. Cheap is different from competitive, and cheap cheats you. Cheap doesn’t account for an investment in understanding the company’s culture, goals, and inner workings. Cheap doesn’t account for quality. And cheap certainly doesn’t register a willingness to listen, customize, tweak, and respond versus provide cookie-cutter “this worked elsewhere” advice.

  3. Don’t fall into the star-struck or passive observer camp. You may bring in a consultant because you lack expertise or need the perspective and wide-lens view that consultants have from working with multiple
    clients. But being a “yes man” to a consultant simply because you believe he or she holds the answers neglects your team’s knowledge and understanding of the situation. Similarly, sitting on the sidelines and soaking up his or her buzzword acumen does little to expand your knowledge and address practicalities, like how’s this going to work in our real world? The best consultant-company teams collaborate, learning from one another and teasing out a
    workable approach through conversation, disagreement, and resolution.

  4. Measure the results. We’d all love an ace in the hole every time we implement something, but
    reality is that initiatives require fine-tuning once they move from the design incubator—that is, your project team—to your employees. Yet companies are often wary of committing themselves and their dollars to measurement. No matter how you slice it, implementing is not accomplishing. As part of any consulting engagement, clearly identify what will be different and how you’re going to measure it, then earmark budget for the effort
    and subsequent adjustments. Remember, ROI is the single best way to make yourself (and your consultant investment) look smart.

As HR professionals, you’re the buyer or entry point for most consulting engagements. You own the opportunity to get it right. These are my top-line thoughts for doing so with confidence. What
would you add?