When should you hire a consultant? Simple–when you need to solve a problem that your staff cannot fix. A consultant can help you train current staff, give you a temporary extra body during busy times, give an outsiders’ view of current work, give you an expert to help you when you need someone to oversee a project or departmental area, help you review an area of business if you are expecting change, help you get a new area of business off the ground for a couple years while training internal staff how to handle the work long-term after phasing out (or staying on in an overseeing capacity).
It can be helpful to see a consultant as outsourced personnel, bringing you expertise and helping you fill a role in which no one in your organization has knowledge. Consultants can work on a project basis, hourly or on a monthly retainer. The billing will depend on the type of work you embark on. From a consultant with 15 years experience, I think that when starting work together, the consultant should:
- Be honest about her experience in a new project. Take on challenging work, but know that is okay to say “no” to a project completely outside her area of knowledge.
- Clearly outline the project, the expectations, the deliverables and the costs in the proposal.
- At the start of a project, it is important to agree how best to communicate progress with the client. A weekly email, monthly report, in-person or phone meetings–various clients may have different needs, but they should be reasonable.
- Be timely and thorough in communications throughout the project.
- Be fair and impartial in assessments of reviewing current work, if that is the assignment. I know from experience that it can be intimidating to have a consultant review current work and business practices. An less-than-ethical consultant could shade the results with a clear intent to phase someone out and insert themselves into the role, but this is wrong.
- If hours or time will exceed the original proposal, let the client know so there are no surprises. Be prepared to give your client a breakout of the time and work spent on any project.
- Be honest with yourself about the bandwith of work you can take on. A harried, overworked consultant who cannot focus enough time on each client is a sure way to make mistakes, lose clients.
I think that the client has responsibilities throughout the project as well.
- Be clear in stating the goals at the front-end of a project, which will allow the consultant to be as thorough as possible in her proposal.
- Reply to requests for information in a timely basis.
- Know that the scope of a project can change. Once a consultant starts delving into a project, there may be underlying issues that need to also be addressed. The consultant and client should discuss if the work might need additional time, expense, or breadth.
Both the consultant and clients should work together as a team to complete your project. Forming a partnership and building trust will ensure that goals are met on schedule. And know that occasionally a relationship doesn’t work. End those smoothly and professionally when needed. Your paths may cross again.