Getting the Most from Your Consultant

by Ross Oliver

In my business as an independent IT consultant, I am frequently called upon to take over a project where another consultant or firm has been unsuccessful. Many of these projects fail for very similar reasons. By recognizing these common pitfalls, consultants can improve the service they deliver, and clients can get better results for their consulting dollars.

Invest Up Front

Consultants are often reluctant to spend time collecting information about the client's needs and developing good specifications. This time is usually "non-billable" and the consultant is anxious to start racking up billable hours. However, the up-front investment will pay off with a better understanding of the client needs, desires, and capabilities.

Focus on Results

Consultants are notorious for generating volumes of reports. Most often these reports do nothing except fill the client's filing cabinets (or worse, the recycle bins). The goal of any consulting project should be to provide some tangible benefit to the client, such as improving efficiency, reducing costs, or increasing sales. The project should be framed in terms of these tangible results.

Draw a Good Map

Many projects run aground because the consultant and client have widely different expectations. This can almost always be traced to vague or unclear project specifications. It is the consultant's responsibility to map out clear objectives and deliverables. This can be especially challenging since even the client may not have a clear idea of what should be done.

The key to a good project map is clear and concise specification of deliverables. They must be specific and measurable. For example, "Improve database performance" is neither specific nor measurable. A better specification would be, "decrease database query response time to less than 10 seconds." The specifications should spell out the client's responsibilities as well. This assures the full support and involvement of the client in the project.

Involve the Client Staff

No outside consultant can know the organization and systems of a client as well as the client's staff. So no consultant should design or implement projects in isolation. Not only is staff involvement essential for integrating the project into the client's organization, but eventually the consultant will be gone (or should be at least) and the staff will have to take over. This transition will be much smoother if the client's staff are ongoing participants rather than passive spectators waiting at the project finish line.

Think Small

In the quest for a lucrative contract, a consulting firm may write a proposal for the largest possible project, encompassing many months or even years of work. Yet these massive projects are the ones that most consistently fail. Breaking a large project into several smaller projects makes them more manageable, and builds momentum by delivering early results. Even though several smaller projects may appear to be more work than one large project, the flexibility and ability to cope with unanticipated problems is well worth the extra effort.

Further Reading

For a more detailed look at making consulting more effective and productive, I recommend the book High Impact Consulting by Robert H. Schaffer.