A Test to Weed Out Consultants You Shouldn’t Hire

A Test to Weed Out Consultants You Shouldn’t Hire

Often, executives recruit their consultants the wrong way

We’ve seen a lot of consulting “misses” over the years – polished management products and services that fail to achieve what the clients want. Often it’s because executives recruit their consultants the wrong way.

They usually start the search sensibly – looking for recommendations from respected colleagues or friends, a reputation for cutting-edge work, a portfolio of similar jobs done elsewhere, deep subject-matter expertise, and industry experience. These are all good reasons to include a firm in your initial list of candidates. But once you’ve narrowed down the field to a few contenders and carefully read their proposals, it’s important to test them on two other dimensions:

Compatibility: Dig into how they operate. Have them describe their style of interaction with clients. For instance, do they want your people to participate in the project to learn something about the subject? Do they iterate with clients before framing overall recommendations? Do they suggest starting with a modest project to test the waters? Though most potential clients have strong preferences on these critical issues (one way or the other), they frequently go ahead and hire consultants without asking such questions.

In your search you’ll also want to select people who are pleasant for your team to work with. That means insisting on meeting with the key players who would staff your project (not just the partner who is selling the job) and including the principal players from your side. Any hint of inflexibility or arrogance on the part of the consultant during early give-and-take explorations is a red flag. A word of caution, however: There can be a fine line between “pleasant” and “submissive.” You want a comfortable working relationship – but you also want consultants who won’t back down too quickly when your team members disagree with them.

Results road map: Next, have the candidate firms specify how they plan to help you go from where you are to where you want to end up. Most consulting proposals don’t provide a road map — they simply describe the work the firms will do and the products they will deliver, as in “The supply chain management system that we intend to install will have the following characteristics…” But what you really need to know is how and when that new system will help you achieve your business goals.

For example, if your goals for a new supply chain management system are lower costs and improved on-time delivery, ask yourself (as an individual or as a team) what an acceptable project outcome would look like. Is it the blueprint and implementation plan for a companywide system for production forecasting, purchasing, inventory control, and related functions? A pilot system delivering bottom-line results in one plant or division? Improved performance against key metrics achieved by a certain point in time?

Spell it out for yourself and for the consultants you’re considering – don’t assume that they share your perspective. To ensure that you and the consultants are using words in the same way, request a couple of case illustrations of results – it’s OK if they are anonymous cases – and listen for the details of how and when the consulting product yielded what you want. And ask how they would do things differently in your organization.

It’s hard work to vet consultants before you hire them. But it’s not nearly as hard as suffering through a costly multi-month project that consumes huge amounts of your staff’s time and doesn’t even solve the problems you wanted to fix.

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Harvard Business Review blog post by Robert H. Schaffer and Jonathan Stearn. Join the discussion.

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