Setting up your independent consultants for success: Key strategies and tips
External expertise, whether freelancers, consultancies or agencies, can deliver transformational outcomes to an organisation. However, for this to happen the procurement process and engagement model needs to be executed correctly. We have summarised the top six things clients need to think about when sourcing and working with consultants.Do this well, and the chances of successful outcomes increase dramatically.
- Be clear about your objectives – carefully scope and structure your project accordingly
As a buyer, you must be clear about the overall objectives to define the scope and specific deliverables. Internal stakeholders, as well as your consultants, need to be fully aligned to ensure maximum success. The real expertise gaps that you would like to improve through external support need to be considered, phasing the project to de-risk as well as ensuring specific IP developed in the project is your own. Strong consultants can deliver great inputs, but you do not want to be at the mercy of a partner whose objectives are not always fully aligned.
- Link the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ – the importance of implementation expertise
Advice on strategy (what) must be reinforced by execution (how) expertise in that particular area. You would not learn how to fly by someone who has never taken off and landed a plane successfully. So why would you rely on a team of smart but inexperienced MBA grads, steered by a partner spending two hours a week on the project unless they can prove that they can successfully implement their recommendations? Other than in truly blue-sky, innovation-type projects you should be careful hiring advisors that do not have credible implementation expertise.
- Do not miss out on the specialist consultancies and agencies
Many large client organisations are trying to reduce their list to a small number of preferred service providers. The idea behind this is to negotiate better rates and improve service levels from the biggest brands. This can backfire from a cost and quality perspective. The specialist firms often possess deeper expertise with more senior teams and are more customer-centric. Additionally, most will be better value than the industry giants (often 30% or more) as you are not funding their brand building and overheads. The most successful clients have procurement strategies that allow for hiring specialists as well as big brand consultancies. It’s a false economy to save 20% of big brand consulting firms rack rates if that means missing out on the specialist firms that can deliver outcomes that knock the ball out of the park. Procurement teams and management need to look at both sides of the equation – the cost of the consultant and the expected results. The reason this is difficult in practice is that the cost is known, but results hard to quantify – and even more so before the project has started 🙂 – but you need to trust the logic and move away from rewarding procurement teams solely on cost savings on big brand firms.
- Check that you get what it says on the tin
When you go through your procurement process to select your consultants, do not just focus on the brand, the glossy decks and the impressive partner leading the pitch. Make sure that you meet the day-to-day project manager and speak to their previous clients. You are not buying the brand, you are paying for the delivery team. You should not accept illustrative team profiles for your project. However, to be able to demand a specific project manager or team you must be ready to move quickly as the consultancies cannot earmark resources for long. If you are looking for individual freelancers, like with firms ensure you do your vetting and reference checking to avoid any surprises.
- Ensure knowledge transfer to your team for long term gains
You should figure out how to involve and transfer knowledge from the consultants to your team in the best way.
Too often hand-over and skills transfer are afterthoughts and executed in a rushed manner.
Different initiatives lend themselves to different skills knowledge transfer approaches, but to ensure lasting success of your projects and to achieve the best long term ROI on your consultancy spend, you need to get your team deeply involved. It is learning on the job from the best (it beats any conference or training course!) and one of the best investments staff can make in you. Which brings us to our last point…
- Do not become consultant addicts
Not every problem requires hiring external experts! Challenge yourself as to whether you need the expertise or resources in-house. If you decide to go external, ensure your structure and initiative in an efficient way as well as knowledge transfer is built explicitly in the objectives and deliverables (see points 1 and 5 above).