Choosing a Consultant


Some organisations rarely use consultants, while others will not make a move without them. This tip seeks to help you choose the right consultant when you decide that you need one.

The consulting industry is spread across a spectrum from process consultants to expert consultants.  To use a metaphor, the process consultant is a pilot and the expert consultant is a mechanic.  The plane can’t fly without either of them but each has a very different role.

Both types of consultants can add value. There are occasions where both are needed, but often only one is required.

Process consultants

If you are not exactly sure what the problem(s) is (are), call a process consultant. They will help you navigate your way to a better place.  Remember the apocryphal words of Robert A. Humphrey, “an undefined problem has an infinite number of solutions”.

Process consultants use a range of tools – such as project management, group facilitation, audit or evaluation – to introduce a new paradigm to your staff. In that way, your staff will be able to solve problems for themselves in the future.

This approach is usually both careful and gradual, and can be frustrating to someone who has not worked with a process consultant before. They are best suited to ambiguity, and so-called “wicked” problems.

Expert consultants

If you have a well-defined problem, call an expert consultant. They will roll their sleeves up, break out the spanners, and solve your problem.

Though they may transfer skills to your staff, the expert consultant’s instinct is to solve the problem as quickly as possible, install a turn-key solution, and move on.

This approach is appropriate for well-defined narrowly-focussed specialised problems, but not in all cases.

Scoping the consultancy

If scoping the consultancy is straightforward, then you probably need an expert consultant.

The less successful you are in defining the problem(s) and scoping the consultancy, the less likely you are to engage the right consultant, specify the consultant’s task, and use them effectively.

In that case, a process consultant will help you define your problem(s). The effort expended may seem wasteful but it will deliver manifold benefits, and determine if other expert consultants are required

Finding the right consultant

consultationIrrespective of whether you need a process consultant or an expert consultant, it is important to decide what type of consultant is best suited to your needs and your budget.

You will come into contact with many consultants, with most wanting your business and most having a solution for you. The following may help:

  • Speak to your colleagues; word-of-mouth referrals may need vetting but they are often a good source of relevant advice
  • Look for evidence of project management skills, realistic schedules and appropriate costs; remember that a consultancy is a project
  • Check the consultant’s references and ask what jobs were done for each referee; if looking for a process consultant, technical expertise is not necessarily useful
  • Ask the consultant about failures; an honest consultant will admit failures and will understand why they failed
  • Ask how the consultant plans to involve your staff, particularly if you want skills transfer; that should be one focus of the discussions
  • Be suspicious of any consultant who will not talk much about bringing your staff in; they may be trying to sell you a “pre-packaged” solution that may or may not fit your organisation
  • Expect a consultant to exhibit a high “listening to talking” ratio; in listening, the consultant is demonstrating respect for your situation; a talker will not suddenly become a listener after you have hired them
  • Expect a consultant to give specific examples, not generalities; if the consultant shows experience with problems similar to yours, this is probably the person you want.
Agreeing a contract

You need a contract to help ensure the consultant’s performance. The consultant needs a contract to validate performance and to ensure payment.

The contract should cover terms and conditions including the rates, work hours, tasks to be performed, and method of payment. There should also be a cancellation clause with reasons and conditions for cancellation for both parties specified. This minimises surprises on both sides.

Contract pricing

Your goal is to get the project scope completed within the timeframe and budget, but there is no easy formula.

All projects are unique, so each one is a balancing act between these three aspects. Only you can determine the relative importance of each so, keeping that in mind, only you can determine the contract pricing framework.

Fixed price contracts are useful when the tasks are well defined, and the budget is inflexible. They force consultants to stick to budget, or lose money. However, this may lead them to scrimp and save when perhaps you wouldn’t want them to.

Hourly/daily rate contracts are useful when the tasks are not well defined and the quality of the end result is critical. They allow the consultants to do what is required to complete the project. However, you will need to make sure that they do not “milk” the contract.

Retainer contracts are not common but are useful when you require the consultant’s services very quickly, usually for short intense periods, spread over longer periods. It is like consulting emergency insurance. The retainer ensures the consultant’s availability with a rapid turnaround time.


A consultant can be a valuable extension to your company for specific tasks. Through their objectivity, consultants are sometimes able to accomplish what you can’t see clearly or make happen yourself, and become an invaluable resource once a clear working relationship is built up.

However, you are the ultimate doer in your organisation. A consultant cannot solve all the problems or do all the tasks that management needs to handle.  Use a consultant when it is clear that you need to, but be aware of the risks and costs, and go ahead only after the fullest advance planning and careful selection.

And if you’re not sure, contact the Hub.  When you’re ready to talk, we’re ready to listen!