Considering a Consultant? Five Tips for a Good Experience 

For a small business owner like me, hiring a consultant can sometimes be the best way to get into a new market, grow the company or even understand the latest social media tool. And now that the economy is starting to rebound, an investment in a consultant may make good business sense. After all, I want to be able to tap into the same sort of brain power and strategic thinking that large companies are using to grow their businesses.

I know that, in tough economic times, many out-of-work professionals turn to consulting, providing insight and knowledge that they otherwise would have provided to a full-time employer. That presents an opportunity for a guy like me. But with an abundance of people offering their expertise and advice in this current economic environment, it becomes a lot tougher to find the consultant who’s the right fit.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a few consultants and learned a few things, sometimes the hard way. As such, I wanted to share a few of my own tips that can make hiring – and working with – a consultant a smoother process.

1. Know What You Want: Before you can hire a consultant to develop a plan for you, you must have some idea of what you’re hoping to accomplish by hiring this consultant. It seems obvious but these big ideas need focus and clarity. Increase sales? By what percentage and over what time? Invest in Marketing? To increase brand awareness or promote a single product? What exactly are you looking to do and how will you measure the return on your investment?

2. Have A Conversation: A good consultant will want to learn more about you and your goals before offering any advice or talking about fees or rates. Let the prospective consultant ask some questions. Picking your brain is a good way to understand how you think. At the same time, you’ll want to be interviewing the consultant about techniques and approaches, philosophies around his/her work and a general attitude. Be prepared for that conversation with questions jotted down and a way to take some notes. And, above all, don’t shy away from tough questions.

3. Ask Tough Questions: Don’t be afraid to ask about things that otherwise might be uncomfortable, such as details about their work history or time on a specific job, for example. Ask them about the biggest lesson they learned from a mistake or misstep. We’ve all had them – but what have we learned from them? Consider a quick “work exercise.” Give them a scenario and ask for a few ideas off the top of head – just to get a sense for how they think.

4. Online Consultant Check: Certainly, a good consultant should have a Web site and/or online portfolio that showcases their best work and their services. Beyond that, social media is where people live today – and your consultant is no different. Are they doing something cool with YouTube or Pinterest? That showcases their creative side. Are they positioning themselves as experts on Facebook or Twitter or are they just posting pictures of themselves in the bathroom mirror. This will give you some insight into their maturity level, as well as their commitment to their work. Check their online performance – and behavior – to learn more about them as an individual – and that might give you some deeper insight about how they work as a professional.

5. Experience Matters: Some of the toughest experiences with consultants have been those who offered more than they could deliver – and it was clear that they’d bitten off more than they could chew. For example, a consultant may tout his experience at a big-name firm when, in fact, he was actually an summer intern his second year of college. Likewise, working on a project for a big name product or company is impressive – but how big was your consultant’s role on that project. Ask for specific details to make your own determinations. Certainly, you don’t want to question every element of a person’s resume, but you do want to be careful about hiring a young and inexperienced consultant to lead a team of 10 in the development and implementation of a new sales strategy

Hiring a consultant can be a smart, efficient and effective way to grow your business. Don’t be afraid to invest a few dollars in a consultant – but also know when to cut your losses and move on. Know what you’re getting yourself into and, more importantly, be clear about what you’re looking to get in return.

Good luck.