As a business owner, you may have arrived at the beginning of Q2 with a renewed sense of purpose for tackling some nagging or pressing issues. Whether your issues are at the strategic, tactical, or operational level, a good consultant can help you develop a clear view of the overall business model and strategy, diagnose issues of profitability, identify areas of risk, and suggest opportunities for improvement. But, as we know, not all consultants are created equal, nor are all businesses and business owners. And with so many consultants to choose from, it can be daunting for any business owner to identify and hire a consultant whom they can trust and who can deliver results. Given our years of experience supporting business owners, we offer some advice for ensuring that the time and money spent working with a consultant is worth it.
Be Clear on the Benefits You Seek
Successful consulting engagements are built on a solid foundation, and if you have a hard time articulating your company’s future vision and what you want to achieve, it will be hard for any consultant to help you. The baseline for any conversation with a potential consultant is a clear vision for your company and some specific goals for the engagement.
Your mindset is also a crucial part of the engagement. First and foremost, owners must be ready to invest the time and money to make changes. Yet, sometimes when speaking with potential clients, we discover that what is holding them back is not just a sales or operational obstacle, but rather a voice inside their own heads. Self-doubt and other negative emotions often lead business owners (and others!) down a circular path, making changes and then retreating from them. If this is your pattern and you feel “stuck” internally, a business consultant may not be what you need. In these cases, we recommend that someone first work with a business coach to explore the personal, internal reasons why a business might not be growing.
Know when the Time Is Right
Sometimes a business owner needs a one-time injection of outside advice to get them past a particular barrier. This is different than needing a guide to help take them to the next level. Both types of consulting help are available. In these cases, business owners will want to be clear about the scope and length of any possible engagement, so that the consultant understands the client’s expectations and can propose the right kind of engagement.
For those entrepreneurs who are just starting out, much support and guidance is needed. As we’ve emphasized in previous blogs, it is impossible for a business owner to be expert in every aspect of running a business! Yet, hiring a consultant with your precious cash reserves might not be the right move. There are a number of free or low-cost ways to get the mentorship you need at this stage. Most municipalities have business incubators and accelerators that offer tons of free support, and there are many reasonably-priced online and in-person classes to choose from. In our experience, places like SCORE, Women’s Business Centers such as the Maryland Women’s Business Center, and Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) are reputable and valuable sources of free or low-cost support for those just starting out. Look for these and other similar resources in your area; and of course, be wary of the people/places who promise the world or a quick fix.
Choose the “Best Fit” Consultant
We would be remiss if we didn’t say that there’s always a slight risk when hiring a consultant. But, there are definitely things you can do to hedge your bets. In our experience, finding the “best fit” consultant is contingent on a number of variables and factors:
- Ask for referrals: This point probably seems obvious, so it’s worth emphasizing that, if possible, you want to ask people in your same situation for a referral. Someone in a different stage of business development or a different industry might know good consultants, but those consultants might not be the right fit for your situation.
- Take advantage of free consults: Most consultants offer a free consultation. Take this as an opportunity to see if you could see yourself working with the person. Results are obviously the primary goal, but good communication is a very important part of getting good results.
- Conduct reference checks: Any consultant should be happy, and readily able, to offer client references. Ideally they can give you someone to speak with who has contracted with them for a similar type of engagement. Talking with a client is a great way to understand what it’s like to work with that consultant in a real-life situation.
- Have a budget in mind: While this might be hard to gauge from the get-go, you should have some idea of how much you’re willing to spend monthly for the results you want to get from the engagement.
- Evaluate and assess: When speaking with the consultant, pay close attention to how they communicate, and if they seem to understand your issue and have a clear idea of what they can and can’t do for you. Ask for case studies about similar situations they’ve handled. Ask specifically about their deliverables and outputs. Some consultants have a defined approach that they use with all clients, while others adapt their approach to your situation. One approach is not necessarily better than the other; regarding the former, just be sure that their approach will solve your problem.
Go “All In”
Our last (and probably best) advice for working with a consultant is to go “all in.” Often people think that they will be able to turn the project over to the expert and walk away. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The consultant will require your time, attention, and commitment to the process. They will need you to show up to scheduled meetings and to do your homework. Equally important, they will need you to be transparent about your issues and obstacles. Remember, all a consultant can ultimately do is advocate for changes to the way your business operates. As a business owner, you’ve got to be ready and willing to stretch outside of your comfort zone to make those changes happen. That’s when you get real results.