Eight steps to hiring an SMB IT consultant

As your business grows, your information systems can become stretched to the limit. Hiring an IT consultant to keep your systems on track or up to date can help solve your problems, as long as you hire the right one. The range of expertise and cost of consultants varies greatly. One of the biggest challenges is sifting through consultants and creating the most cost-effective IT plan.


Here are eight tips for finding the ideal IT consultant for your business:

  1. Hold those calls. Plan ahead -- long before the consulting project begins. Hold off calling a consultant until you settle the big issues, such as the project objective, scope, desired schedule, project organization and whether or not the work could be done by internal people instead.

    Insist on agreement among the leaders of your business for project support. Many small and midsized business owners use consultants to backfill for capabilities they don't have. Before calling a consultant, explore the possibility of hiring permanent employees to fill gaps in your current capabilities.

  2. Be wary of "diagnostic" projects. Many consultants will offer to diagnose your problems for a small fee. Too often, though, the diagnostic project is a thinly disguised way to eliminate competition. You may gain value by going this route, but you may miss a better alternative. Look at all your choices before letting any consultant begin work, whether it's paid or free.

  3. One size fits none. IT consultants bring clients their skills, tools, and, often, preconceived notions about how to tackle IT issues. Some offer tailored approaches, while others use prepackaged solutions.

    In preproposal meetings, find a consultant who understands your business needs, not just your technology requirements. Great consultants don't just take orders -- they engage you in a give-and-take conversation to develop a business solution.

    Don't overlook intangibles,
    such as the consultant's attitude, motivation, candor, talent and fit with your company's culture.


  4. Find the perfect fit. Once you receive a consultant's proposal, start your selection process by checking references. It's unlikely a consultant would list a disgruntled client as a reference, but dig into the consultant's work style and competence. Ask questions such as, "If you hired this consultant again, what would you do differently?" Or "What one thing did the consultant do that made a difference on your project?"

    Don't overlook intangibles, such as the consultant's attitude, motivation, candor, talent and fit with your company's culture. Even the most skilled consultants will waste your time and money if they cannot work with your staff.

  5. Ask three burning questions. When you meet with a consultant to review a proposal, evaluate the people and the approach, not the firm. Conduct a rigorous interview with each consultant.

    As part of your interview, ask three questions:

    • What is your exit strategy? Learn in advance how the consultant plans to wrap up the project.

    • What will our people learn from you? Will your team's professional skills grow as a result of working with the consultant?

    • What don't you do well? The answer to this question gives you a measure of the consultant's honesty and points out weak spots you'll need to strengthen.

    If you get evasive or unclear answers to these questions, find another consultant.

  6. Strike the right balance. Putting together an effective project team is a balancing act. Find the right mix of skills from your organization and the consulting team. The full-time number of consultants should not exceed 50% of the total number of project team members, especially on large projects. You want the benefit of outside expertise without giving up control of the project. Otherwise, consultants may make decisions that should be made internally.

    Accountability can also erode if the number of consultants grows, causing slower decision making, schedule slips and inappropriate expectations of consultants.

  7. Implement the 30-60-90 rule. For any project lasting longer than 90 days, implement the 30-60-90 rule: Plan to reach a major milestone -- demonstrable results -- every 90 days to help focus your consultants' efforts. You should measure progress toward the 90-day milestone with a comprehensive review of the project at the 30- and 60-day points. These reviews give you an opportunity to assess the performance of the consulting team and make adjustments as needed.

  8. Unleash their motivation. IT consultants grow their businesses through successful projects. They are motivated to help clients succeed and often put a client's interests ahead of their own. But to get the most from an IT consultant, think of it as a partnership, not a vendor relationship. Projects succeed when the client team and consultants work toward a common goal in a collaborative and trusting environment. Creating that environment is a shared responsibility between client and consultant.

Michael W. McLaughlin is the co-author, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, and the editor of Management Consulting News and The Guerrilla Consultant newsletter. Find out more at www.guerrillaconsulting.com and www.managementconsultingnews.com.

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