Q. I am thinking about engaging a consultant to help me with some challenges my small business is facing. Do you have any recommendations for how to choose the right consultant?
A. First, we congratulate you on your willingness to reach out for help. Too many small-business people aren’t willing to ask for help when they need it. When selecting a consultant, we suggest that you follow five simple, but important, guidelines:
Unimpeachable character: First and foremost, an effective consultant must be a person of the highest character. He or she must be the consummate professional. The consultant must be willing to put the best interest of the client ahead of his or her own interest. For example, the consultant must be willing to tell clients things that they need to hear, but may not want to hear — even if doing so means that the consultant loses business. The consultant must care deeply about her or his clients.
Solid experience: A good consultant should have experience with the challenges or opportunities you and your company are facing. She may not know your specific company or industry, but you and your people know your company and your industry quite well don’t you? What the consultant brings to the table is experience in addressing the types of issues you face.
Creative problem-solving skills: You will want the consultant you engage to be an outstanding problem-solver. After all, you are hiring a consultant to help you solve problems (or take advantage of opportunities).
Marvin Bower, the patriarch of McKinsey & Co., essentially founded management consulting and in the process grew the firm from a fledgling enterprise to a global operation. He outlined his criteria for an outstanding consultant. Bower wrote, “Mental equipment – The successful consultant has outstanding analytical skill and the ability to synthesize his thoughts readily in reaching conclusions. He is a quick and effective learner — imaginative and creative.” A McKinsey partner with whom we worked said, “Marvin had it right, you’ve got to start with raw horsepower.” When choosing a consultant, make sure to hire superior problem solvers.
Outstanding communication skills: A good consultant should be articulate. He should possess unusually strong communication skills, both orally and in writing. Of course, communication is a two-way street. Perhaps, more important than his ability to speak articulately and write eloquently is his or her ability to listen. No matter how smart a consultant is, he won’t be able to help you improve your business until he or she fully understands the challenges you face. This will never happen until the consultant listens to you.
Excellent interpersonal skills – Simply put, for any consultant to be successful in helping your company, a trust-based relationship is going to have to develop. You will need to be comfortable revealing the intimate details of your business. The relationship between consultant and client is not unlike the relationship between a doctor and patient. Without complete candor, the consultant will be hindered in his or her effort to help your business. Chose a consultant with whom you can develop this kind of professional relationship.
The right consultant can create tremendous value. The wrong consultant can destroy value. Following these five guidelines will help ensure that you engage the right firm.