Make the Right Choice of Consultant

hire education - recruiting a consultant Associations Now November/December 2016 Issue By: Karla Taylor

If you're charged with selecting the best consultant to work with your association on a key project, the choice may be one of the most important business decisions you ever make. Here are five top tips to help you get it right.

Choosing a consultant is a lot like choosing a staffer. Do it right and you can accomplish great things while getting credit for your hiring smarts. Do it wrong and you’ll be cleaning up the mess for weeks or months to come. You’ll also suffer damage to your reputation that could last for years. So invest the time to hire right. These five tips will help.

1. Know What Success Looks Like

Starting with a specific goal is key, says Peter O’Neil, FASAE, CAE, CEO of ASIS International. He puts it this way: If you aren’t sure whether you want a Buick to take you around the block or a rocket ship to take you to the moon, you’re not going to find the right vendor-partner to get you where you want to go. And you sure won’t get there on time and on budget.

To get the project scope right, invest the time to gain consensus on questions like these:

  • What exactly is the outcome you seek?

  • Within that outcome, what are your priorities? “Everything can’t be the top priority,” says Debra Zabloudil, CAE, president of the Learning Studio, Inc. For example, if your overarching goal is to transform your conferences, do you want the change to deepen member engagement or make more money? Those are two objectives you aren’t likely to meet at the same time, or even in the short term. “You may be able to get everything eventually,” Zabloudil says, “but it would be difficult to achieve it all immediately.”

  • Realistically speaking, what is your timetable, and how much can you afford to spend?

If you aren’t sure what success looks like, get help. O’Neil once led an association whose leaders had trouble pinpointing what a high-profile research project needed to accomplish. So they called in a consultant for what O’Neil now thinks of as a therapy session. In a three-hour meeting, he helped them resolve what they really sought to achieve. With their goals clarified, they were ready to select the right research firm.

2. Put Price in Perspective

Of course, money matters. Some association executives won’t talk about budget with prospective consultants early on out of fear they’ll lose negotiating power. But for consultants, understanding your budget is as crucial as learning about your project scope.

“Just as when you work with a lawyer or doctor, the advice you get is only as good as what you tell them,” O’Neil says.

If you aren't sure whether you want a Buick to take you around the block or a rocket ship to take you to the moon, you're not going to find the right vendor-partner to get you where you want to go.

Help your prospective consultants hone in on what you’re expecting by giving a clearer sense of your budget. To do so, consider these ways to talk about money:

  • Tell them whether price is your number-one hiring criterion, or number two, or number five.

  • Say, “We cannot exceed a budgeted figure of $X.” This will prevent you from getting proposals that range from $5,000 to $50,000.

  • Ask consultants to provide you with three options at, say, $15,000, $30,000, and $50,000. Zabloudil notes that this could help you see that the lowest-cost option is all you need—or that spending more will bring you more of the value you seek.

If you get wildly varying bids, find out why. “One thing most people don’t realize is that there’s usually a real reason for cost differences,” says Loretta M. DeLuca, FASAE, CEO of DelCor Technology Solutions. Do the consultants use different methodologies or have different views about your project scope? The reason could greatly affect your outcome.

3. Shorten—or Skip—the RFP

Twenty-page requests for proposals are a big reason so many consultants see RFPs as a waste of time. In many cases, you’ll get better results by simply requesting basic information about qualifications and prices and then checking references. Or better yet, replace the RFP with phone calls or in-person meetings with your best prospects.

As you vet possible partners, avoid asking them to work up solutions to your problems or provide samples of similar work. Many consultants say they’ve been burned by prospective clients who have used their intellectual property even though the organization hired someone else.

4. Do Your Due Diligence

“It amazes me how often people don’t check references,” says O’Neil. You will of course want to ask former clients whether their projects came in on time and if there were cost overruns. But also listen for insights into the quality of the consultants’ soft skills, what the staffing continuity was like, and whether the firm is in fact a viable enterprise. For very large contracts, you may want to perform background checks to make sure, says Nat Bartholomew, principal-in-charge at CliftonLarsonAllen LLP.

And realize this road goes both ways. Be candid with prospective consultants about your own issues. “You shouldn’t mask the problems you’re having,” says Zabloudil. “Knowing about them is the only way a consultant can accurately diagnose what you need and get ahead of it.”

Is your board chair determined to go in a particular direction on the project? Are segments of your membership opposed to it? Do you work in a negative culture? Take a warts-and-all approach to letting your finalists know what they must prepare to help you deal with.

5. Be a Great Communicator

You may think you’ll save time by refusing to take phone calls from consultants interested in your project. In fact, you may alienate your best prospects.

“We turn away RFPs that don’t allow phone calls,” says DeLuca. “We need to get a feel for what you’re trying to do and why, and only talking gives that perspective.” And when a potential client refuses to talk about a project, she feels she gains an unflattering glimpse of how openly communication will flow later.

But even worse is refusing to meet with finalists, says Bartholomew. “You usually make the best decisions when you allow consultants to come talk about how they would approach the engagement, the process, the fee structure, and so on,” he says. “It’s through that contact that you start to see what the cultural fit is like.”

Forgoing the chance to talk face to face is missing the opportunity to ensure the best chemistry. Do you have a comfortable rapport? Can you picture putting the consultant in front of staff and board? The time to find out is before you sign the contract—not after.

Make sure the ultimate decider on your project is involved at critical times in the consultant-hiring process. On high-stakes projects, this usually means meeting with and getting buy-in from the CEO. “When an engaged CEO is focused on the project and a positive outcome, chances are the board and volunteers will be too,” says Zabloudil. “If a CEO disengages, that’s where problems come along. It starts at the top.”

And once you’ve made your decision, do the consultants you didn’t choose the courtesy of notifying them.

“It’s really disturbing when we meet with people, we divert internal resources to do a thorough proposal, and we don’t hear anything back ever,” says DeLuca. “Just be professional about it. The association space is small enough that you need to be respectful that way”—or risk developing a bad reputation that can extend well beyond your association.

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now Guide to Consulting Services print edition, titled "Hire Education."]

Karla Taylor

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland.