Consultants: Are They Really Worth the Money?

The past several years have seen a growth in outsourcing and an increase in the number of consultants of varying types. The bad economy has spurred the growth of entrepreneurship as people realize that jobs just aren’t there and start their own businesses instead. The government and many companies see outsourcing as way to reduce overhead costs and purchase services as needed.

The interesting thing is that there is no certifying body or job qualification to becoming a consultant. You’re a consultant if you say you are and if someone is willing to pay you for your services.

So with all the money being spent on consultants, it begs the question, “Are they really worth it?”

Contractor or Consultant?

An educated consumer is my best salesperson. However, many people don’t really know what they are buying when they hire a consultant. I personally make a distinction between contracting and consulting.

Contracting involves the performance of a specific task and is characterized by an emphasis on deliverables and hourly rates. For example, the contractor may be asked to develop a specific plan or report or provide training. While there are exceptions, most of this type of work involves tasks that are well within the capability of the client organization. In essence, the contractor is doing work that the client could be doing but cannot do because of lack of time or resources.

The problem with contracting work is that it is focused on a predetermined deliverable. Further, the deliverable can usually be developed by any competent contractor. This means that the contractor has very little latitude for creativity and hence must compete on the basis of price rather than expertise.

Consulting is something quite different. As a consultant, my goal is to improve my client’s condition. My focus is not on specific deliverables but on the end result the client wants to achieve.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. A client decides that his or her company needs an emergency plan and decides to hire a consultant. A contractor approaches the project by studying the requirements of the plan and estimating the hours required to produce the plan. A consultant realizes that the actual output is not the plan but increasing the company’s ability to respond to an emergency.

This can be a hard sell sometimes. I once lost a potential contract because the client felt that I was asking their organization to do some work. They just wanted someone to revise a plan to meet an administrative requirement.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against contracting work or suggesting that it is somehow bad. I actually do a fair bit of contract work, usually as a subcontractor to a larger firm. But during these types of assignments I am just another member of a team. I am neither particularly challenged by them nor is the client getting the full value I could provide.

Who’s the Expert?

A common misconception is that a consultant must always be an expert in your particular field. This is certainly true in many cases. However, particularly when you’re working with contractors, the individual working with you may not have any real expert knowledge. They may indeed have a background in your particular field, such as being a retired emergency manager, but that does not necessarily translate to expert knowledge nor to any special training in consulting practices.

So who is the real expert? Actually, it’s you. You’re the one with expert knowledge about your field, your organization, and your problem. A consultant brings experience cleaned from working with other clients but will never have the in-depth knowledge that you possess.

The fact is many consultants, myself included, are what we call “process consultants”. Our strength is not expert knowledge in your field but the skill set that we bring to your project.

What this means is that a consultant can guide you through a process that leverages your expert knowledge to help you achieve your desired outcome. We help you build on your organizational strengths to achieve the results you are seeking.

If there is a need for expert knowledge in a particular area, a good consultant will be able to access a network of professionals to find the information you need, much like a general practice physician will consult specialists.

Because many clients don’t understand this concept, they tend to narrow their options by only considering consultants with specific knowledge, experience, and/or certifications. There are times when this is appropriate and necessary but in many cases the demonstrated skill set a consultant brings to your project may well be more important than specific knowledge of your industry.

Working with Consultants

True consulting work is about relationships. What will set one consultant above another is the level of trust that the consultant engenders in the client. If you have the slightest doubt about the ethics of a consultant or his or her ability to help you achieve your desired end state, get someone else.

The relationship extends to how you work together. Unlike a contractor, a consultant is your peer, not a just a hired hand. You’re paying for the consultant’s advice and counsel, so make use of it. The consultant is a guide who helps you through the process to achieve your goals but this means you have to be part of that process. If your total involvement is to review deliverables prepared by the consultant, you are not getting your money’s worth.

This doesn’t mean that you can let a consultant have free rein to do as he or she pleases. It is important to agree up front on metrics for progress. These are not the same as deliverables, by the way. They can be performance milestones or comparative surveys. The important thing is that you mutually agree on how you will define the success of the project and the metrics you will use to demonstrate that success.

Getting More Value

Once you understand these facts about consultants, you can make more informed decisions and get more value for your consulting dollars.

Begin by looking at your project and defining what it is you want to accomplish. Forget the deliverables for the moment. You must first understand your expected outcomes. Once you have done this you can consider whether a specific deliverable is the true measure of achieving that outcome. You can also determine whether you need a consultant or a contractor.

A common mistake is to try and work out all details of the project in advance. Contractors like to see this as it provides them detailed information on which to base their proposal costs. Consultants are not hourly workers – we’re paid for our results, not our time. If you can describe your desired outcome and the value of the project to your organization, we can usually offer a creative solution that would work for you. Again, do not focus on deliverables but on what you’re trying to achieve.

Consider what it is you need in a consultant. Does your project require specific in-depth knowledge of your industry or field or will general knowledge suffice? What skill set should the consultant bring to the project?

As you assess candidates, don’t just look at resumes, certifications, and other projects of a similar type. Focus on whether the candidate has the skill set you want and whether or not you feel comfortable with him or her. For example, instead of asking, “Have you ever done a similar project?” ask how they would approach your project. Past performance on a previous project is not necessarily an indicator that the same techniques will work in your corporate environment.

As you begin the project, establish your metrics up front. It’s amazing the number of times I have had a client look uncomfortable when I ask how they will measure whether I have been successful with their project. They’re uncomfortable because they haven’t really thought about the end result of the project.

So are consultants worth the money? That ultimately depends on you. If you haven’t defined what you want out of the project, then you’re not getting the full value out of your consultant. If you don’t allow the consultant to propose creative solutions, you’re not getting full value. If you don’t trust your consultant and seek their advice, you’re wasting your money and the consultant’s time.

It’s really up to you to answer the question.

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