Do you know how many consultants it takes to change a light bulb? Five. One to change the bulb and four to tell him how much better they could have done it.
One of the biggest complaints about consultants is that they tell clients what the clients already know and then charge an arm and a leg for it. That can be true – if you choose the wrong consultant, or choose one for the wrong reasons. But conversely, a consultant can provide a lot of value if you know how to choose them, and hire one for the right reasons.
I’ve played on both teams. For 12 years I worked in corporations that hired communication consultants and for 12 years after that I worked as a self-employed communication consultant. Now I’m back on the inside and work with consultants from time to time. Based on my experience, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to hire a consultant to help you with your communication projects:
- Be clear about why you are hiring a consultant. Do you simply want a “yes-man” who affirms everything you are doing is right? That’s not a good reason to hire a consultant. Getting a fresh, third-party perspective can add value, however. So can the addition of someone with capabilities your staff doesn’t have. Draw up a specific scope of work that clearly states the value your consultant brings to the table.
- Hire a consultant with corporate experience. I’ve always been wary of consultants who have done nothing but consult. A consultant really can’t understand how corporations work unless he’s spent significant time inside of one – on the payroll. Even then, it’s important for a consultant to become immersed in your organization and to understand its unique culture, protocols, practices, etc.
- Hire a consultant with practical communication experience. Has she ever developed a strategic communication plan? Has he managed an intranet or a publication? Have they conducted a communication audit? Find someone with the depth of practical experience that will enable them to view your program from a well-grounded perspective. It’s easy to suggest a new series of face-to-face meetings, but does the consultant really understand how that would play out? You want someone who has been there and done that.
- Hire a consultant who asks a lot of questions. A good consultant will ask more questions than you do. Her advice and recommendations should come only after she asks a lot of probing questions. The greatest value a consultant brings to your organization is a fresh perspective, and that comes as a result of deeply understanding the problems and challenges your communication program faces.
- Hire a consultant with an affable personality and straightforward delivery. The stereotype is those four consultants who tell you how much better they could change the light bulb. This is entirely subjective, but personality counts. Find someone who puts others at ease, but whose friendliness is genuine. You don’t want to feel as if they’re only being nice so they can sell you a bill of goods. Their delivery style should be straightforward – absent of jargon and consultant-speak, with a minimum of diagrams and other “products.” Trust your gut on this one – if you can have a conversation with him without cringing, that’s a good sign.
- Hire a consultant who will tell you when the emperor has no clothes. An easygoing personality is important, but that doesn’t mean your consultant should be a pushover. You want someone who will be honest about what she observes. Again, a fresh perspective is a consultant’s most valuable offering. Be sure your consultant has the confidence and the wisdom to point out things that aren’t working and areas for improvement.
- Hire a consultant who will work for a project fee rather than an hourly rate. From the consultant’s perspective, agreeing on terms is one of the most difficult parts of the arrangement. It’s especially difficult to estimate the amount of work that a project will entail, so estimating a project fee can be challenging. However, if you hire a consultant by the hour, you are paying only for his time, which is a commodity. Instead, the focus should be on the value the consultant provides in terms of experience and knowledge. Settle on a project fee and then you won’t be watching the clock all the time. At the very least, arrange a fee for a limited but specific period of time and agree to revisit it at some point in time when you can assess how the project is going.
Do you have experience working with communication consultants? What are some other tips for making the experience a productive one?