When your company faces an IT project that requires more technology skills than the business has in-house, it's often time to bring in an expert IT consultant. But once you decide to bring someone on board, that brings up a second challenge: How to find the right consultant to work with your business.
The best process, according to several CIOs, IT analysts, and consultants, is to do lots of careful research; ask relevant, detailed, and tough questions; then go with your gut to find the best person who can mesh with your team.
Start by talking with your peers
"If you’ve been in this business as long as I have, your Rolodex is a great tool for getting recommendations" about talented consultants, said Jim Andreoni, the CIO and vice president of technology for Milwaukee, Wi.-based Goodwill Industries of Southern Wisconsin and Metropolitan Chicago.
Asking peers for advice on consultants has been critical over the years, said Merv Tarde, the CIO for Dallas, Texas-based Interstate Batteries. "I belong to several different CIO organizations and I ask others who they use," Tarde said. "I ask them 'Have you made any mistakes here?' so that I don’t have to repeat their errors."
Jesus Arriaga, the CIO and president for CIO Strategic Solutions, a consultancy in Los Angeles, said that recommendations let you begin the selection process with real-world experience from others. "I'd rather work with a known entity that has success working for someone I know than go with someone who is completely unknown to my peers," Arriaga said.
A critical step: Define your project early
IT analyst Rob Enderle of San Jose, Calif.-based Enderle Group, said, "One thing that will screw you up is you go looking for a consultant before you know what the problem is," Enderle said. Disaster often awaits those who leave out this crucial step.
Before you begin the consultant selection process, clearly understand the goals of your project, said Phillip D. Farr, the CEO of IT consulting firm Farr Systems of Dallas, Texas. "Before you can choose the right consultant, you need to know what you are trying to accomplish," he said. "First, define precisely what the needs are for the business and what IT needs to support."
At the same time, though, don't be too narrow in your needs analysis, said Dan Olds, an IT analyst with Beaverton, Ore.-based Gabriel Consulting Group.
"Don’t tell the prospective consultants what's wrong," Olds advises. "Let them help you figure the problem out after you tell them the symptoms. It's like when you take your car into the shop. You think you’ve got a problem with a tire and tell them to fix it. But it might actually be a problem with a shock absorber or with a spring. You could have them just fix your tire, but you're just going to have the same problem again."
Perform detailed due diligence
The basic due diligence work you do for any business decision is certainly not to be overlooked when hiring outside help, the experts agree.
That means checking with local business and technology groups, and doing detailed informational searches using Google, LinkedIn, and even Facebook.
“Get references from prospective consultants, especially when they’ve done similar projects for others,” says Andreoni. “You want to go out to those references and see something live, to check out the projects they’ve done with your vendors. That also lets you see the good, the bad, and the ugly with their projects done for others.”
Approach the review and selection process as you would any critically important purchase for your business or a service on which the business’ success will rely.
Conduct background checks on candidates, said Enderle, and be sure they have wide experience in the work you are asking them to do. "If you did the initial search right, whoever recommended them to you probably gave you that kind of information. You don’t want a consultant who is going to learn about it on your job. That gets pretty pricey."
And here's a tip from Goodwill's Andreoni: Give extra points in your selection process for vendors who are local. The idea, he said, is that local companies work harder for your company because their reputations are much closer to home. "I have a bias for consultants within a 15-mile radius," he said. "You can't always get that, but you know they're very word of mouth businesses. That means something to them because you can let people know if they are a good guy or not a good guy. They have to be even more responsive to you so that you can be one of their success stories."
Ask prospective consultants the right questions
Farr recommends two key questions to keep in mind when hiring a consultant. "First, is this individual or company qualified, with the education, experience, and proven track record to do what I want to do?" he said. "If not, they are wasting my time."
"If the answer to the first question is yes, then the next question is 'Do they have the motivation, communications skills, management experience, and perceptual skills to do this job? And are they motivated to do it?' When I get 'Yeses' to those questions then I know have a group from which to choose."
Also important, said Goodwill's Andreoni, is to ask to talk to the actual consultants who will work with your team. Don’t rely on the remarks from the sales people who want you to hire their company. "Go beyond the sales account executives and meet the first and second level consultants to be sure that they are going to be there for you," Andreoni said. "Get to meet them face to face and give them a bit of a quiz on what you are seeking. Test them on IT knowledge that you do know so they will reveal to you what they know."
Be sure to ask the consultants if they will commit to training your staff so that when the consultants finish the work they will transfer their critical working knowledge of your project to your people, he said.
And don't forget to ask about Service Level Agreements (SLAs) to be sure that you get the quality of services that you are paying for, Andreoni said. "I always look for the SLA on how they are going to stand by their product," Andreoni said. "I wait for them to bring them up because I think that when they do it says something about their sense of feeling comfortable providing their services."
Ara Trembly, a Bellmawr, N.J.-based independent IT consultant, said one thing that you shouldn't do is give prospective consultants a blank slate. "Sometimes people will call a consultant in and say 'Things are a mess, what should we do?'" he said. Consultants often play to their own strengths and offer what they want to do rather than what your company needs, Trembly said. "Consultants are like anyone else. They need direction. If you have a clue when the consultant walks in your door you're going to be way ahead."
Find out if the prospective consultants have deep experience in the work you want to do, said IT analyst Enderle. "Big services organizations can be expensive. They'll typically throw bodies at you to help, but not necessarily people who have done what you want to do," he said. "If they give you a green team, it's going to suck. You want to find someone who used the team and you want to validate the team before signing them. If they won't give you the people that you want for your project, then go and look for another firm."
Seek a good working match
Comfort is huge when signing on with an outside consultant to guide your business, said Jeff Kaplan, principal analyst with Wellesley, Mass.-based analyst firm THINKstrategies. "Projects can last a long time," so it's important to work with someone you can connect with, he said. In some way, the relationship is like a marriage. “You need to know this is someone you can feel good about working with. Feelings are important. A lot of decisions get made based on feelings."
Kaplan recommends that you take the time to truly consider such an approach. "Shut off all of your business instincts and think about what kind of person this is. Ask yourself: Is this someone I would like to have sit down to dinner with my family? It’s a business relationship, so that might seem superficial, but you want to have that level of comfort with somebody who is working so closely with your business."
At the same time, be sure potential consultants can get along with your existing vendors. You don't want them to be too close so that there's bias toward the vendor's products, but at the same time, you don't want them warring with each other on your dime, Enderle said. "Avoid like the plague anybody who has a history of not working well with your vendors," Enderle said.
A good way to find such good working relationships is through your existing connections with other consultants, said Tarde of Interstate Batteries. "Once you form a relationship with an outside consultant, I can guarantee that they know other consultants and they can recommend others when you have projects where they can't help you," he said.
If vendor relationships are important, get referrals from those vendors. Candidate suggestions may come from relationships with software and hardware companies that can suggest consultants when experienced help is needed for new software modules or other issues, Tarde said. "That has helped us tremendously," he said.
Talk to multiple candidates
When doing your consultant search, take a broad look at a host of candidates – perhaps five or six of them – recommended Gabriel's Olds. "Don’t limit yourself, and keep an open mind," he said. "Don’t go to someone who just has one tool in his bag. If you start your search too specifically, with consultants who have deep expertise in just one field, then you might not get the range of other experience you may need."
And don't let consultants steer your needs solely based on the products they might be selling, he warns. "Look for fixes rather than products," Olds said.
You'll know you are on the right track when the consultants you interview begin offering services that sound similar. "When you start to see duplicate fixes, then you can stop your search," Olds said. "Then you've probably exhausted the range of potential solutions out there."
Don't forget to help others
By the time you've met consultants, reviewed them, vetted them, and selected one, you'll have a wealth of useful information, Enderle said. So when you've found just the right consultants for your company, consider helping others with such decisions by reporting your findings on IT bulletin boards and with peer groups.
"When you find someone who does what you need, find a way to mention them on social networks, good or bad, to help others," Enderle said. "The more that you are known as a source for such information, then more people will share useful information with you, too."