How to seek expertise: Take care when choosing a consultant

Companies are increasingly hiring outside problem solvers to supplement their internal expertise.

But with new consulting companies hanging up their shingles every day, how do you choose?
These consultants can have an enormous impact on the business – for better or worse. The right consultant can bring just the expertise needed at a critical point. But the wrong consultant, or a poorly managed one, can be a drain on time and money or even lead the company in the wrong direction.
Here are some tips for working with them effectively:

  • Know what kind of expertise you’re buying. Some consulting companies are specialists in a particular area such as implementing strategy or in technology and systems. Others are so large they can send an army of MBAs to completely re-engineer your organization. Make sure what they do is what you need.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to several consulting firms, thoroughly question each of them about their proposals. Determine the firm’s philosophy, who they’ve worked with in the past and the kind of results they’ve had. It pays to call the people on a consultant’s reference list.

  • Beware of the “one-trick-pony.” Sometimes a consultant will have a bag of tricks that he or she force-fits to solve every problem. Like the old saying, “If all he has is a hammer, every problem will look like a nail.”
  • Be clear on the problem to be solved. Identify the results you’re looking for. Do you want some recommendations on a plan of action? Do you want to identify a market for your new product? Do you want a conflict resolved? What should it look like when it’s done?

Describe the problem, not the task. In other words, stick to the operational facts rather than your pet theories about them. It’s the consultant’s fresh approach you’re after, instead of hiring a “pair of hands” who will merely confirm your own prejudices.
For instance, several years ago, I was called in to develop a training program for a group of managers. After meeting with the owner and several other managers, it became evident that training wasn’t going to fix the problem they described. As I dug deeper to find out the true nature of the problem, I discovered that they had been using training programs for years in an attempt to change the managers’ behavior. Even though they hadn’t seen any improvement from past training programs, they had never considered any other methods. In the end, it was a change in some of the systems and rewards that did the trick.

  • Set up a clear set of expectations about how the relationship will be managed. Find out how the consultants plan to work. Find out who will be assigned to the project and if they are partners, associates, or subcontractors. Determine which person or team of in-house people will be responsible for working with the consultants and establish clear expectations about how that will be done. Don’t make the mistake of assigning the consultants to someone who has little organizational power.

If you are the insider who is managing the consulting project, plan to meet with the project leader at least once a week as the project rolls out. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can turn over the problem to an outside consultant and wash your hands of the matter.
Several years ago, I was frustrated with a business owner who brought our team in to help him change the culture of his plant. Among other things, he needed to re-build trust and create more open communication with the union employees. We became extremely frustrated when he wouldn’t become engaged with his employees or meet with us. Improvements were made but they fell far short of where they could have been.
If managed well, a consultant/client relationship becomes a partnership where both parties can learn from and profit from working together.
Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee-based executive coach, organizational and leadership development strategist. She has a track record spanning more than 20 years working to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Email your question to Joan at and visit to search an archive of more than 1,500 of Joan’s articles. Or contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500.

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