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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wisdom: The challenge of choosing a great consultant

Should your business hire a consultant (or consultants), and if so, how do you decide whether you need one, and if you do, who is the right person for the responsibilities?
The answer is you most likely will achieve some incredible value from consultants -- if you choose the right one.

Great consultants bring wisdom, practically framed, to your business. They've "been there, done that" and -- if they've earned their stripes through enough years and grey hairs -- seen enough business cycle ups and downs to be able to read the tea-leaves of the current environment accurately. (Conversely, however, a very youthful consultant may be the best person to hire if you wish to connect with technology, new media, or youth markets.)

The problem you have in selecting a consultant, however, is that the best marketers of consulting services are often NOT the best consultants. The bonafide success and fame of the widely known experts means, if you can get any of their time, it will be very expensive, or distilled through underlings who may have been trained in their systems, but don't have consultants' own magic leadership abilities and insights.

Similarly large consulting organizations -- and many freelance consultants -- will trot out tried and true (but boring) business planning and procedure methodologies, almost as if they are lifted from the textbooks. In part they are right -- the basics are the same, regardless of who you use or pay; you'll probably be educated in a planning/systems process, SWOT analysis, and the like, and these templates apply for everyone.

Word-of-mouth referrals, of course can be excellent sources of insight into the quality of consulting services, especially if these relationships are built through your relevant trade organizations and groups (where smart consultants make a business of networking effectively). The advantage here is that the consultants you use really understand your specific business -- and, yes, there are differences between a residential roofing contractor and a multi-city architectural practice!

You can of course elect to contract with a general business consultant, or hire specialists for specific responsibilities/problems, or use both approaches. A good generalist consultant (with knowledge and understanding of your specific business sector) will be the best, in my opinion. You could supplement the consultant's resources with other services.

How much should you pay? Here things get a little interesting, because I think you can 'pick the brains' for about 60 to 80 per cent of the consultant's real value for free! Most good consultants offer free seminars, inexpensive books, and other resources which distill their thoughts and approaches to business in an easy-to-understand format, and they are usually available for some basic free phone or email consultation. It is simply good business for them to provide these services -- they know that they may impress you, and build enough of a relationship with you, that you will contract with them. (Incidentally, this is how i would work with the big name or famous consultants, people like Michael Gerber or Jeffrey Gitomer: Buy some of their books, perhaps, read the free stuff on their websites or e-letters, but don't rush to spend thousands of dollars for their more complex and expensive programs. You will be far out of their league, I expect, to get really powerful direct and immediately relevant insights for your particular business from them.)

Finally, remember that even the best consultants are not always right, all the time. Be willing to trust, and accept the advice, of consultants you respect, but bring your own thinking into the process; listen, respond, consider, and reflect, then act.

(A personal plug: Could I be a qualified construction marketing consultant? No one has paid me for the service yet -- so maybe it is a little premature. Then again, I'd be happy to work on the condition that you pay only if you are satisfied that you receive real value. You can reach me by email at

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