Tips for making the best use of your consultant
By Nilooka Dissanayake
Sensible clients. Ah, that would be the dream of any consultant! Unfortunately, a dream that too often turns into a nightmare giving a bad name to both clients and consultants.

"Criticising consultants is very fashionable," says Milan Kubr in "Management Consulting, A Guide to the Profession" published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). However, don't fall into this trap without knowing what you are talking about. In referring back to this dome of a book, a sort of a Bible for Management Consultants, I found an interesting section which I would like to share with you. That is: The Client's Ten Commandments.

Isn't it funny how no one talks about horrible clients? No one that is except consultants! Just so you can become a model client, here are the Client's Ten Commandments:

* Learn about consulting
and consultants!
* Define your problem!
* Define your purpose!
* Choose your consultant!
* Develop a joint programme!
* Cooperate actively with
your consultant!
* Involve the consultant in
* Monitor progress!
* Evaluate the results and
the consultant!
* Beware of dependence on

I believe most of these Commandments are self-explanatory. Still, here's my contribution to help you live accordingly and make the best of consultants.

If you are planning to make use of consultants, you need to learn about the types and varieties of consultants, how they operate, how they charge and how they can help you. Look at it this way: If you want to buy a new car, you will be doing a lot of research and analyses to get the best deal and value for the investment you will be making. Shop for a consultant in the same way. Be an educated client, not a clueless one. Consulting is becoming a highly competitive area and you should know how to select a consultant to serve your need. Cost may not always be the main factor.

Consulting is an ever-changing field. As and when new business practices, new technologies and new trends come into being, new types of consultants too arrive on the scene to help and advice you on those new areas. So there will be plenty of new things on which you need advice and new consultants to keep track of.

Define your problem! You could always go by the maxim, "If it works, don't fix it." I am certainly not advising you to be lethargic and backward. But, before running in search of consultants, identify the problem you wish them to fix. Then and then only can you brief a consultant intelligently and get results out of them. And be ready to open up your mind to suggestions. An outsider may see things and weak points in your business or potential strategic areas that you may wish to explore. But draw a line somewhere.

What is the purpose of getting a consultant? Can it be done in house? Will a consultant do a better job of it? Is it to expand your operations, improve your productivity or set up and implement a new production or IT system? You should have specific, measurable goals that will be the deliverables by the consultant. "If you don't know where you want to go," as the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, "it does not matter which route you take."

Choose your consultant! This may seem a bit strange until you look back at past experience. Did you really choose your consultant or did he choose you? Often the latter is the case. This does not really lead to objective decision-making on your part, does it?

Develop a joint programme and cooperate with your consultant. Consultants often charge on time spent. If cost is your concern, you can discuss and agree with the consultant how work can be shared. Just because you feel you are paying a lot, don't get your consultant to do things that your staff could have done anyway. It is necessary to clearly agree in writing, especially with new consultants, what the consultants will do and what part your organization will do to make the assignment a success.

And, please, don't waste the time of your consultants. And tell your staff not to do the same. If you do, your costs will go up and you can hardly blame consultants for your own incompetence. From experience I know that this happens in most assignments, whether in multinational organizations or in small businesses.

Involve the consultant in implementation wherever possible. Professional consultants confident of their results will always welcome involvement. Consider implementation with a part of the fee payable once results are achieved.

Monitor progress to ensure things are what they should be and that the consultant and your people are both working according to set time lines and quality levels. There is no point in complaining afterwards. Do it early to salvage the situation. Your object is results, not complaining or consultant bashing.

Evaluate results at the end of assignment to see whether you achieved your objective. If not, why? If yes … to what extent? How can this experience be used in the future? There are many learning points for both consultants and clients. However, clients often disregard this opportunity. You could even discuss with the consultant what could have been done better.

Beware of dependence on consultants! Don't delegate decision making to your consultant. He will go off some day. You have to face the music. It is your business. Always be involved.

Get your best people involved directly in the consultancy assignment so that they learn from the consultant and develop their own skills. Can they learn to the extent that the next time a similar assignment comes along, you can do it in house? That should be your and their goal, although consultants won't love me for saying so.

After explaining the Ten Commandments, the ILO publication does not aim to teach you how to use consultants, but to stress upon the critical points in choosing consultants and working with them.

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The writer is the Managing Editor of Athwela Vyaparika Sangarawa (Athwela Business Journal), the only Sinhala management monthly targeting the small and medium enterprises and its English version, Small Business International magazine and, the bilingual small business website.

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