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When to Use Consultants—and When Not to Bother

Date: July 15, 2010

Consultants can bring expertise and experience that your business does not have otherwise. They can help manage long-term strategies, complete a project that requires highly specialized skills or help you get work done efficiently. 
 
But they can also come with high fees—even when the results they produce are substandard, says Jenny Sutton, a partner and co-founder of the RFP Company, a Hong Kong-based firm that helps international companies select and manage consultants. That’s why it’s crucial as a small business owner to know when you should—and shouldn’t—hire a consultant.

Sutton, who co-authored the book Extract Value from Consultants: How to Hire, Control, and Fire Them, offers the following advice on hiring consultants:

Seeking Advisory Services

If you feel like your business needs a facelift, or your competition is trumping you, you may want to hire a strategic advisor who can provide guidance on high-level issues and business strategies like expanding your market. They’ll get to know the ins and outs of your business, and give you recommendations to improve your operations. “It’s good for a business to figure out what they could be doing differently,” Sutton says.

Helping with Short-Term Projects

Not all consultants are high-level strategic advisers. Some are experts with a specific skill or area of expertise – like marketing, graphic design or information technology – that can help your business get through a particularly busy period. Hire a consultant to undertake short-term projects when you need additional assistance or a specialized set of skills. Consultants can jump right into the project with little training.

Hiring Temporary Staff

If you’re short-staffed and simply need help on work that isn’t associated with a project, consultants can help you “get over the hump,” Sutton says. They’re especially helpful in filling roles left open while you’re trying to find a new full-time employee or when an employee is on leave.

Finding the Right Fit

Sutton advises that business owners or managers define the consultant’s role before bringing someone on. If you can’t find the right fit, don’t hire “the best of a bad lot,” Sutton says. Step back, and ask yourself if you can defer the task at hand or if a current employee can fill that role.

Define Longer-Term Needs

Consultants often pitch new projects after they’ve completed one assignment. Ask yourself if that project is really something your business can afford to undertake and if the consultant has the skill set to succeed on the new task. If you’ve hired the same consultant for three or four consecutive assignments—or if you’ve become heavily dependent on several consultants to run your business—it’s time to hire a full-time employee who can become intimately familiar with your business.

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