How To Select A Consultant – The Three Imperatives

As a manager many years ago when faced with my first challenge of selecting an external consultant, I found myself all at sea. Fortunately for me, I intuitively hit two of the three selection targets. The project was to produce a communication video, so it was relatively easy to see and compare what each consultant had previously produced. I had a number of consultants to choose from, but finally chose the one that I felt most comfortable with and whose work impressed me most. The project was successful and in the process, I learned a lot.

Since that time, I have had to employ a number of consultants, I have been a consultant myself for almost 20 years, and I have worked with many other consultancies both large and small. The following suggestions for selecting a consultant are based on my experience as a manager and in the consultancy field.

What are the three targets that one must hit to successfully select a consultant? (Note; I am using the term “consultant” to refer to either one person or a consultancy firm). Firstly and most obviously, the consultant must be able to actually do the work. Secondly, the consultant must be able to fit in with the people in your organisation and particularly those who will be working on this project. Finally, if the consultant is good, you should always improve your own knowledge as a result of the project.

1. Can the consultant do the work? Seems obvious, but there are some traps. For instance, I remember when starting out as a consultant in partnership with another (who was also new to the role), submitting a tender for a fairly large job and being selected in the final few for interview. Individually, we’d had some experience in the type of work, but not as a partnership, nor had we worked in the prospective client’s industry. We won the job. Why? The client saw in us some creativity and freshness that was not evident in our competitors. However, this was an unusual client. Normally, I would not suggest taking on a consultant (like us) who has not had the depth nor breadth of experience in the project. So, unless one of your criteria is “freshness”, in terms of selecting for experience here are some tips:

o What are your specifications? Be very clear on the outputs you will require in the project. These should always be measured in terms of quality, quantity, time and cost. Use these output criteria to compare consultants.

o Who has recommended this consultant? Check their references – ask for the contact of the last job they did. When checking references, use your above “output criteria” as a guide.

o Are you looking for someone to implement solutions to a problem you have identified, or are you looking for someone to help you identify and clarify the problem? Or both? Sometimes it can be useful to split the project into these two parts.

o In discussion with the prospective consultants, do they really give you the time to say what you want before jumping to conclsuons? If they appear to “have all the answers”, chances are they do not listen very well.

o Does their suggested solution appear to be specifically designed for you or is it a “one size fits all”? Be wary if it is not specifically designed to meet your project criteria.

o Do they explain the things they can’t do as well as those they can? This is always a good test of integrity, truefulness and reliability.

o Is their initial response to your request up to your quality standards, sufficiently detailed (but not overly so) to make a decision, and within your time expectations?

o Does the consultant have depth of expertise in the subject matter and breadth of expertise in its application?

o Ask the consultant what is unique about him or her? What makes them stand out from all the other consultants you might choose?

2. Secondly, will the consultant fit in with the people they will be working with? This is a critical implementation issue, as whilst they might be able to do the work, if they can’t work harmoniously with the people, the results will be less than optimal. For instance, we once worked on a major government project (total budget in excess of M$43) where the client continually kept us at arm’s length (for example, on a residential workshop, we were not encouraged to eat or mix socially with the client project leaders). We met the output requirements for the client, but had we been allowed to work more closely with the client, they would have received a lot more value added service. In this case, the client should have selected another consultant.

The following tips will help ensure you get the right client/consultant match.

o Is the consultant likely to be able to gain the respect and trust of your key stakeholders?

o Could you trust this person (people)?

o What is the process they will use? i.e, How will they work within the organisation? How will they be seen? Try to visualise the consultant working with you and the other people as they complete the project. Will it work? Is it likely to be a good partnership?

o Who specifically (from the consultancy) will be working on the project and what will be their role? For example, will the people you are interviewing be carrying out the work? Be wary of consultancies that have “front people” that win the jobs, then send in less experienced people to do the work.

o Ask the consultant to describe what a “good working relationship” looks like to them. Is the description the consultant gives you of a “good working relationship” likely to be, and to be seen to be, a partnership?

3. Thirdly, will you be able ot learn from this consultant? One of the reasons you hire a consultant is that you (or your organisation) does not have the depth nor breadth of experienece to successfully carry out the project. One of your aims should be to increase your own experience through this project. For example:

o Why did you decide to employ a consultant? What were the gaps you could not fill internally?

o What will you be likely to learn from this consultant?

o Will you increase your knowledge of both process management (how the consultant works) as well as content management (their area of expertise)?

o Will the consultant strengthen and support your role in the organisation?

Finally, if all of your criteria have been met and you cannot decide between two apprently equal consultants, consider setting them a small task or part of the project to complete as part of the selection process. For example, some years ago we were in competition with another large consultancy for a sizeable project with an initial budget in excess of M$1. The client could not decide between the two of us, so he asked us each to undertake a small project (for which he paid us both), which would ultimately become part of the larger project. When we each completed the small project, he had an excellent idea of both our capability and the manner in which we worked. After all, isn’t the final selection criterion is actually trying the consultant out?

Oh, yes. In case you’re wondering, we won the job!

Copyright © 2006 The National Learning Institute

Bob Selden has been a consultant since 1987. Prior to th

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Managing Consultants

“An expert is someone who lives more than 50 miles out of town
and wears a tie to work.”
- Bryce’s Law


The need for outside contract services is nothing new. IT-related
consultants have been around since the computer was first introduced for
commercial purposes. Today, all of the Fortune 1000 companies have consultants
playing different roles in IT, either on-site or offshore. Many companies are
satisfied with the work produced by their consultants, others are not. Some
consultants are considered a necessary evil who tackle assignments
in an unbridled manner and charge exorbitant rates. For this type of
consultant, it is not uncommon for the customer to be left in the dark
in terms of what the consultant has done, where they are going, and if
and when they will ever complete their assignment. Understand this, the
chaos brought on by such consultants are your own doing.

IT consultants offer three types of services:

Special expertise – representing skills and proficiencies your company is currently without, be it the knowledge of a particular product, industry, software, management techniques, special programming techniques and languages, computer hardware, etc.
Extra resources – for those assignments where in-house resource allocations are either unavailable or in short supply, it is often better to tap outside resources to perform the work.
Offer advice – to get a fresh perspective on a problem, it is sometimes beneficial to bring in an outsider to give an objective opinion on how to proceed. A different set of eyes can often see something we may have overlooked.
Whatever purpose we wish to use a consultant for, it is important
to manage them even before they are hired. This means a company
should know precisely what it wants before hiring a consultant.


Before we contact a consultant, let’s begin by defining the
assignment as concisely and accurately as possible; frankly,
it shouldn’t be much different than writing a job description
for in-house employees. It should include:

Scope – specifying the boundaries of the work assignment and detailing what is to be produced. This should also include where the work is to be performed (on-site, off-site, both) and time frame for performing the work.
Duties and Responsibilities – specifying the types of work to be performed.
Required Skills and Proficiencies – specifying the knowledge or experience required to perform the work.
Administrative Relationships – specifying who the consultant is to report to and who they will work with (internal employees and other external consultants).
Methodology considerations – specifying the methodology, techniques and tools to be used, along with the deliverables to be produced and review points. This is a critical consideration in managing the consultant. However, if the consultant is to use his/her own methodology, the customer should understand how it works and the deliverables produced.
Miscellaneous in-house standards – depending on the company, it may be necessary to review applicable corporate policies, e.g., travel expenses, dress code, attendance, behavior, drug test, etc.
Many would say such an Assignment Definition is overkill. Far from
it. How can we manage anyone if we do not establish the rules of the
game first? Doing your homework now will pay dividends later when
trying to manage the consultant. Assignment clarity benefits both
the customer and the consultant alike. Such specificity eliminates
vague areas and materially assists the consultant in quoting a price.


Armed with an Assignment Definition, we can now begin the
process of selecting a consultant in essentially the same manner
as selecting an in-house employee. Choosing the right consultant is
as important a task as the work to be performed. As such, candidates
must be able to demonstrate their expertise for the assignment. Certification
and/or in-house testing are good ways for checking required skills
and proficiencies. Also, reviewing prior consulting assignments (and
checking references) is very helpful. Examining credentials is
imperative in an industry lacking standards. For example, many
consultants may have a fancy title and profess to be noted experts in
their field but, in reality, may be nothing more than contract
programmers. In other words, beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Ideally, a consultant should have both a business and technical
background. True, technical expertise is needed to perform IT
assignments, but a basic understanding of business (particularly your
business) is also important for the consultant to adapt to your
environment. This is needed even if you are using nothing more than
contract programmers.

In terms of remuneration, you normally have two options: an hourly
rate or a fixed price. For the former, be sure the work hours are
specified, including on-site and off-site. Many clients are
uncomfortable paying an hourly wage for an off-site consultant. Under
this scenario, routine status reports should be required to itemize
the work performed and the time spent. However, the lion’s share of
consulting services are based on a fixed price contract. Here, the
role of the methodology becomes rather important. Whether you are
using “PRIDE” or another Brand X methodology, it is important the consultant
and client both have a clear understanding of the project’s work
breakdown structure, the deliverables to be produced, and the review
points. From this, an effective dialog can be communicated in terms
of managing the project. Further, the methodology becomes the basis
for the preparation of estimates and schedules.

After examining your candidates, it now becomes necessary to
balance the level of expertise against price. Sure, a senior
person can probably get the job done in less time, but perhaps
the costs may be too high for your budget. “Expertise” versus
“expense” becomes a serious consideration at this point.

Whomever is selected, it is important that a written agreement
be prepared and signed. The agreement should reference the Assignment
Definition mentioned above and any other pertinent corporate
verbiage. Very important: make sure it is clear that the work
produced by the consultant becomes your exclusive property (not the
consultant’s). Further, the consultant shouldn’t use misappropriated
work from other assignments. Finally, add a clause pertaining to
workmanship; that the consultant will correct at his/her expense
any defects found; e.g., defective software, data base designs, etc.


The two most obvious ways to manage consultants is by having
them prepare routine status reports and project time reports. Such
reports should be produced on a weekly basis and detail what the
consultant has produced for the past week and detail his/her
plans for the coming week. You, the client, should review and
approve all such reports and file accordingly.

A methodology materially assists in tracking a consultant’s
progress. As a roadmap for a project, the methodology takes the
guesswork out of what is to be produced and when. Without
such a roadmap, you are at the mercy of the consultant. Along
these lines, I am reminded of a story of a large manufacturing
company in the UK who used one of the large CPA firms to
tackle a major system development assignment. The system was
very important to the client, but lacking the necessary in-house
resources to develop it, they turned to the CPA firm to design and
develop it. Regrettably, the client didn’t take the time
to define the methodology for the project and left it to the
discretion of the CPA firm. The project began and the CPA
firm brought on-site many junior staff members to perform
the systems and programming work. So far, so good. However,
considerable time went by before the client asked the senior partner
about the status of the project (after several monthly invoices). The
senior partner assured the client that all was well and the
project was progressing smoothly. More time past (and more
invoices paid) with still nothing to show for it. Becoming
quite anxious, the client began to badger the consultant as
to when the project would be completed. Finally, after several
months of stalling, the consultant proudly proclaimed “Today
we finished Phase 1….but now we have to move on to Phase
2.” And, as you can imagine, there were many more succeeding
phases with no end in sight.

What is the lesson from this story? Without a methodology roadmap,
it is next to impossible to effectively manage a consultant. The
project will lose direction almost immediately and the project will
go into a tailspin. The only person who wins in this regard
is the consultant who is being paid regardless of what work
is produced. Instead of vague generalities, you, the client,
have to learn to manage by deliverables.


My single most important recommendation to anyone considering
the use of outside consultants is simple: Get everything in
writing! Clearly define the work assignment, get a signed
agreement spelling out the terms of the assignment, and
demand regular status reports.

I am always amazed how companies give consulting firms
carte blanche to perform project work as they see fit. Abdicating
total control to a consultant is not only irresponsible, it is
highly suspicious and may represent collusion and kickbacks.

There is nothing magical in managing consultants. It requires
nothing more than simple planning, organization, and control. If you
are not willing to do this, then do not be surprised with the results
produced. Failure to manage a consultant properly or to adequately
inspect work in progress will produce inadequate results. So, do
yourself (and your company) a favor, do your homework and create a
win-win scenario for both the consultant and yourself.

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