How to Find the Right Consultant

Hiring a consultant is a risk. It can pay off in spades, or cost you money and time if the results and advice aren’t what you need. So how can you tell if a consultant is right for you?

As an independent marketing consultant, you might think my opinion is biased and you shouldn’t listen to me. That’s fine. You can stop reading now if you like.


I have been in corporate marketing for over 20 years, working with small and large (really large) firms. During that time, I’ve had plenty of interaction with consultants on a variety of projects. Some I hired, some were hired by others in the company for projects that touched my domain. In most cases, these projects were successful. Other times, things just didn’t work out.

No one wants to hire a consultant for a project that fails. And consultants want to be successful as well. Because the happier their clients are, the more likely they will be to bring the consultant back for a return engagement, or refer them to a colleague with a similar business challenge.

Here a few things to keep in mind when hiring a consultant to help you overcome a business issue:

Does the consultant have the right expertise?

Just because a consultant did a great job for someone you know doesn’t guarantee they will be the right fit for your organization. Ask them about their knowledge and experience in your industry. Find out about work they’ve done with companies of a similar size. Have they addressed business challenges that parallel the problems you are facing? They should be able to provide concrete examples to demonstrate their fit with your company.Finding the Right Marketing Consultant

How deep is their knowledge?

The SEO is a great example of an industry that spawned thousands of “experts” without much substance. When search engine optimization first became a must-have for businesses a few years ago, anyone who knew a little about the topic could hang out a shingle and call themselves an expert. Social media seems to be the new fertile ground for faux experts, and when it comes to consulting, “buyer beware” is good advice.

This is not to say that there are not plenty of highly qualified professional in either field. There are. The challenge is finding them. If you are considering investing in a professional to help you with any issue you don’t fully understand, you could easily become the unwitting victim of a well-meaning but not well-trained consultant.

To avoid this problem, ask for references and check them. (Be sure they are not friends, relatives or business partners.) What kind of results did other these other clients get? Would they hire the consultant again? Were they satisfied that the consultant was knowledgeable and proficient in the skills needed for the engagement?

Can you work well together?

You don’t need to become best buds or BFFs with your consultants. In fact, a little professional distance can be healthy (so don’t hire a good friend). However, your working relationship will play a big part in the success of your project, so it pays to think about the chemistry between you or your team and the consultant you’re considering hiring.

What should you look for? Communications style is a good place to start. Do you want someone who is blunt or direct in their feedback, or would you prefer a softer approach? What about written communications? Do you expect a detailed written report or would you find a PowerPoint summary more palatable?

How about their approach? Are you looking for someone who will spend some time with your team, then disappear until they are ready to return, having worked magic while they are gone? Or maybe your team needs a collaborative approach, with input and engagement along the way.

Take some time to think about your current organizational culture and your personal work style. Look for a consultant that can complement – rather than conflict with – your approach.

Will You Get the Results You Expect?

In the end, results matter more than anything else. If you are getting ready to lay out thousands of dollars for a consulting project, you need to be comfortable that your consultant can deliver the results you expect. Don’t assume that you’ll get a report like to one you saw from the last consultant, or that the work will be just as good, as detailed or as insightful as you envision.

Prevent disconnects in expectations by discussing up front what you hope to achieve from the engagement, and what the deliverables will be. Do you want a list of recommendations you can implement on your own? Are you looking for a detailed action plan? Do you expect the consultant to help with implementation? Address these items before you sign an agreement.

Who’s doing the work?

Many large consulting firms send in the big guns to close the deal, then assign junior staff to do the real work. If you are paying top dollar for the expertise of the principals of the consulting firms, make sure they will be working on your project. You might even ask for this in writing.

With smaller firms, there are two business models to consider. Some have full-time staff to handle various aspects of their consulting engagements. Other firms scale virtually, bringing in talent as needed. Both approaches have their own advantages and drawbacks.

Using existing staff can be an advantage with a highly focused firm where employees work on similar projects, one after the other. They build a base of experience that can be beneficial for your engagement. The downside is that you are more likely to get a templated approach to problem solving.

You will also work with whoever is on staff, whether or not they are the best fit for your project. The firm has an incentive to utilize their staff as much as possible to get a return on that investment, and you may find resources added to a project that could have been done with a smaller team.

A firm that scales virtually (like mine) has the luxury of bringing on talent to meet very specific client needs. They can find the right professional for your project, instead of forcing a fit between someone just because they happen to be on staff.

The drawback to this approach is that the firm’s partners may be busy with other projects when you need them. The consulting firm needs a broad selection of experts for various projects, allowing them to find the right talent at the right time.

How objective is your consultant?

A final word of advice: find out if your consultant is beholden to anyone else. It is not uncommon for consultants to affiliate with business partners in exchange for a share of revenues. This practice is perfectly acceptable, if it is disclosed. To be sure, ask.

If you are hiring a consultant to help you find a web hosting comply or to help set up your blog, or to create a digital media strategy, for example, they may have affiliate relationships in those areas. Will they be able to objectively recommend the best solution, or will the recommendation be for the company that pays them?

If you’ve had past experience hiring consultants and have more advice to share, please leave a comment below.

Image based on graphics by clix.

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  2. Nice post Joey!

    This is a great list for companies to use when deciding on a consultant.

    I think so many consultants come in with a show up and throw up approach, because that is what the prospect wants. This does not help either party.

    A more productive approach is to put on your doctor’s hat and do your diagnosis. That way both parties can feel comfortable asking the right questions, and then bring back a plan of attack after both parties qualify the opportunity.

    Thanks for sharing,

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