The Rules and Rigors of Consulting

I did not start my professional career as a consultant, although I had the opportunity to. Upon receiving my Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering from Lehigh University, I had an offer to join a top business consulting firm in New York City. There were a number of reasons that I didn’t accept the offer, the top one being that while I had done very well in my academic career, achieving  a high grade point average and working for six summers as an engineer for a highly regarded construction company and as an I.E. for a printing plate company, I didn’t feel that I had the experience and knowledge base to go into a company as a consultant and tell people with 20 or 30 years of experience what they were doing wrong and how they should fix it. What came to mind was how to explain why my recommendations would be received when I had never had to changes and then live with my own decisions and actions. I felt that somewhere down the road this career might be in the offing, but not at that point in my career.

Some 20 years later when I was searching for a new position, my career counselor looked at my experience for the 2 companies I had worked for and said, “You have always been an internal consultant to your companies, you should strongly consider this as your vocation”. And so I did and 22 years and some 300 companies later here I am. My function now is to both convince companies that they both need my and my company’s consulting services and then to deliver workable solutions to their most troublesome problems. Along the way I have had a number of big successes and some projects that didn’t go so well. Those hurt, because I take my work seriously and never want to disappoint a client who has put his or her trust in me to deliver. I relish when objectives are over achieved and have formed many relationships beyond just business with people I have dealt with. Nothing feels better than to get another project because of the success of the last one or to get a referral because Peter and his firm have really helped the company and we know they can help yours as well.

That now brings me to the points of this article, why firms should consider using a consultant, what should you watch for in selecting the right consultant, and what is the consultant’s and the client’s roles in any engagement.

Why hire a consultant

There are a number of reasons why companies should hire a consultant. The ones I believe are the most important are:

  • Companies both small and large tend to run fairly lean in their staffs. So, their employees are already extremely busy carrying out their day to day activities. Consultants can provide an extra pair of hands to assist the company in conducting and completing a new initiative without upsetting the work balance of the organization.
  • Along with an extra pair of hands, the company can bring on some skilled personnel to complete an initiative without having to hire new employees only to dismiss them once the work is done.
  • With a smaller staff, companies may not have the necessary expertise in house in order to conduct the project they wish to undertake. Utilizing consultants with the requisite knowledge and skills is important to ensure that the work is done correctly and the outcome has a good chance of success.
  • In starting initiatives, there may be some built in biases that may prevent enterprises from properly evaluating the situation at hand. By treating problem symptoms and not getting to the real root cause or causes, a company may not achieve their desired result. Also, consultants can bring other viewpoints or ideas based on dealing with a variety of other companies who have encountered similar situations. Using internal resources who have done the same thing for years and have little or no connection to what the rest of the business world is doing can severely limit an initiative.
  • Consultants, if allowed to act independently will not have a dog in the fight, so they can approach the problem without a preconceived idea about what and how it needs to be corrected. This fresh thinking is important to ensure that various viewpoints are considered to arrive at the best plan or solution.
  • A good consultant will be inclusive of employees engaged in the initiative and will collect all input, recommendations, background etc. in conducting the analysis and arriving at conclusions and recommendations. That means that personnel that may be overlooked or not considered can have a voice in the study. This can only help with the work and provides buy-in from many aspects of the company regarding implementation. How many people will not support an initiative that they played no part in and were only dictated to regarding the final decision? When it doesn’t work, and they can ensure that that happens, they take no responsibility as it wasn’t their idea.

Potential Consultant Pitfalls

Not all consultants are created the same. Too many individuals hang out a consultant shingle whether they can actually provide services or not. This gives the profession a bad name and undoubtedly has and is causing issues for companies who thought they were getting good competent help and instead got poor and in some instances harmful advice. Some of the things to watch out for in hiring a good and reputable consultant versus the dangerous kind are:

  • Can the consultant clearly articulate what the end result expectations of the engagement or project are? If he or she cannot, that is a major red flag. If you and the prospective consultant cannot say word for word what the end game is, then that person either has his or her own agenda or really doesn’t get what you are trying to accomplish. In either case that is bad and it is time to move on to someone else, as quickly as possible.
  • Does the consultant talk about similar circumstances with other clients and talk in specifics about what is the same and how was the project, problem or issue handled and what the outcome was? Or, does that person talk in generalities and wave theoretical ideas or articles written by other people around, never talking specifics of how to address the situation at hand? My company was engaged with a client that also was utilizing the services of a top 5, national consulting firm. At every meeting we brought data taken on the client’s shop floor, while the other consultant brought Xerox copies from a book they were touting. The Vice President of our client finally went to his Board to have the other consultant and his staff removed from the project and asked to be reimbursed for dollars he felt his company had wasted on theoretical garbage.
  • Is the consultant mixing the means and ends of the project? What does he or she portray as the more important? The end result should be the most important. If the priority is on how to get there, much time and cost could be expended when a simpler and just as or even more effective approach could have been taken. Thoroughness is certainly important, but not to the degree that it costs an arm and a leg to get there when only a leg is needed.
  • That brings us to the next point, which is what skin does the consultant have in the game? You might say, “None”, as you are bearing the cost for the endeavor. That should not be true. A good consultant is looking for the following things when they take on an engagement:
  • A successful outcome from the client. This builds his or her reputation which can be used in selling services to others companies.
  • A happy client will potentially look for other areas that the company can use the consultant’s help in improving. An ongoing relationship with the client is what every consultant dreams about.
  • A happy client will also be a reference or a referral for the consultant. Again, more work and more revenue.

So the consultant certainly should have some skin in the game. Otherwise he or she is looking at a one shot deal and not at relationship building.

  • Whose brand is being promoted, yours or the consultant’s? Is it more important to tout the success of the project and what it means for the client or is it more important that the consultant get great press for his or her efforts? The correct answer should obviously be that the client’s success is paramount and the consultant’s reward is a job well done and perhaps additional business or a referral. Too many consultants see this as a me thing where they are the center of attention and oh yeah there was a client involved in there somewhere as well.

These are all areas to be aware of in dealing with consultants. If you cannot see positives by engaging a person or firm, then either the fit isn’t right or the person / firm are not all they should be. That then brings us to selecting the right consultant. 

How to Select the Proper Consultant

As previously mentioned, there are many, many consultants in this country and throughout the world. There are a number of good ones, but there are also some not so good and even downright bad ones. So how do you select one of the good ones? It is a process and takes some time and effort, but if done correctly will result in a successful find and the start of a great relationship. The process to follow is:

  • If you have already used a consultant and have an established relationship with that person and firm, stay with them. The only reason not to, is if you need assistance that is not part of that firm’s expertise. Since you already know and trust this person, you can ask about others that he or she knows who can handle the new assignment. Chances are good they can recommend an equally reliable and competent consultant to meet your needs.
  • Talk to trusted business associates who have previously used the type of consultant you are looking for. They should be able to relate their experience and tell you who they have worked with, what the outcome of the engagement(s) was and how to deal with the person or firm. They should also be able to tell you who to avoid, so you don’t waste time considering a not so good consultant.
  • It may be that your contacts might not have used a consultant themselves, but through their associations have heard about some really good consultants. Or they may refer you to professional organizations such as local Economic Development groups, societies, or trade associations who have a list of consultants they can refer you to.
  • Once you have a listing of possibilities, contact 3 to 5 of them and interview them as you would interview a new hire to your company. Ask tough questions and expect direct and detailed answers. In particular you want to know:
  • How long have you been a consultant? While age doesn’t guarantee capability, the longer they have been around, the chances they are doing a good job increases.
  • What did you do before you started consulting? Ideally the firm’s consultants actually worked for enterprises and had to live with their own decisions before sharing their knowledge and wisdom with others.
  • Ask about their approach to working with companies. Do they do their own thing and then spring a report or do they work closely with the company to make things happen?
  • Ask for detailed examples of successes and failures. No one bats 1000%. If they tell you they do, run away as fast as possible because they are either not telling you the truth or the odds are not in your favor and you will be their first failure.
  • When they had a difficult or unsuccessful project what did they do to rectify the issue? If they didn’t do anything, that is a definite red flag. Also, are they personally going to be working on the project, will there be others involved, or are they selling only and you will be working with a player to be named later? If others are involved, you want to meet and talk to them as well. You want the “A” team playing with and for you.
  • How many projects have they done like the one you are asking them to do? If they can’t relate a number of experiences, chances are good they haven’t done this kind of work.
  • Can you relate to them? Do you get the sense that they have been in your situation and are you comfortable with them and what they are saying? Or are they too glib for your comfort and are substituting personality for competency? They might be nice to have drinks with, but not to tackle your tough problems.
  • Where are they located and how easily can they be at your facility? You don’t need to go 1,000 miles to find competent consultants that are 30 minutes away. That saves travel and living costs in addition to hourly fees.
  • Get at least 3 references of similar work they have done, within a reason able geographic area. Then call these people and grill them as much as the person you are considering. If you can even visit them, so much the better.

There are no guarantees in business, but if you follow these steps, the chances of selecting the right consultant for you are greatly elevated.

Roles and Responsibilities of Both the Consultant and the Client Company

Once the selection has been made, the real work begins. Both you and the consultant have important roles to play that will either ensure that the engagement is successful or could be doomed to failure. If these responsibilities are carried out religiously by both parties, there should be few, if any, problems and all will be well. These are:

Client’s Role

  • Set up clear expectations of both how the project should progress (Schedule, action plan, budget, and deliverables) and make sure you are both on the same page. Provide your own check throughout the engagement to make sure that these are still being met and if not, why not. If you do not have a clear understanding of these things do not start the engagement or there will undoubtedly be trouble ahead.
  • Stay involved in the actions being taken. Do not cede everything over to the consultant only to have no idea what is transpiring and to be handed a report at the end that partially or completely misses the expectations set at the beginning of the project.
  • In dealing with foreign entities, Ronald Reagan said that you should “Trust, but verify”. The same is true here. Do not take the consultant’s word that things are fine and are proceeding as planned. Make sure that they are. You should see proof through studies, analysis, update reviews and the like. If not, chances are good things are not progressing as planned and you need to call a timeout to determine where things really are.
  • Make sure you clearly understand what is happening. A number of consultants like to throw around “Consultant speak”. It may be because they are used to using certain terms, acronyms, or such. These may be unfamiliar to you. Even if they are familiar, sometimes what you think things mean and what the consultant thinks they mean are very different. A client of mine asked for a “Clean room”. As I probed for what type of clean room as there are different degrees, I found out it was not what I would typically call a clean room at all.
  • Speak honestly with the consultant. If you are uncomfortable with anything, meet and talk it out. Nothing worse than going through an entire engagement and at the end bringing out all of your concerns. That is not good for you and unfair to the consultant. They cannot address problems they do not know about.
  • The consultant is there to help. It is not a contest of who knows more. You know your company, but the consultant has expertise and time to do things that you need. Don’t be confrontational, unless the consultant is not cooperative in which case, fire them. The thing that irks me the most is when we discuss findings with a client and they say “You didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know”. Really???? You hired me to find and correct a problem or problems and when I tell you, I am told that you knew about these all along? And you have done nothing to fix them? What a fun time we will have from hereon.
  • In many of our engagements, the client and staff need to provide data, information, or conduct certain activities. You are responsible for these things. If you cannot provide them on a timely basis or at all, own up and reset how the project will be conducted. Usually this means some more consultant time and cost. Some of the biggest problems I and my company have are waiting on client inputs. On a recent project we had 11 team members who were “committed” to spending 4 to 6 hours each week on certain activities. After 8 weeks if they averaged 1 hour per week per person that is being generous. And this was brought up in weekly meetings and update reports. Sense a lack of commitment on the company’s part?
  • If something changes that changes any part of the project scope, it should be addressed immediately. Business conditions change and when they do, these need to be communicated as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the consultant is proceeding according to plan only to find out at an inopportune time that what he was doing is now no good and must be changed. Time is lost and it will cost more because he was doing what was originally agreed upon and had no idea that was no longer valid.
  • You are the final decider of if the project is complete and has met all of the criteria that was initially set or revised per good communication and acceptance by both parties. If the previous points are followed, there should be no surprises at the end and you can declare victory for money and time well spent.

Consultant’s Role

  • Communicate, communicate and communicate. This cannot be stressed enough. The consultant has been given a very important assignment that will make a difference to the company. He or she is entrusted with assisting the client to make this happen. If the client loses that trust that is something that is hard to recapture and may never be regained. End of relationship.
  • The consultant is there to assist. He or she is not an employee of the company, but should act as such during the engagement. In that regard there is a shared responsibility for success, but at the end of the day, the client owns the final output. Make sure that is clear, but treat the consultant must the work as his or her own and ensure that any issues are resolved and mistakes, if made, are corrected.
  • That means that when issues arise, the client needs to be immediately informed and an honest discussion must ensue on how to resolve things. If the problem is with the client and they do not take responsibility to correct it, the engagement may need to end. Sometimes losses must be cut rather than pursuing a project that is doomed to fail because the client didn’t live up to his or her responsibilities.
  • Tell the client what he or she needs to hear, not what they want to hear. Delivering bad news is never easy or fun. But unless you square with the client, you are doing them a disservice and the truth will eventually come out. If the client cannot handle the truth, it may be time to end the engagement and for both of you to move on. All business improvements deal with getting to the root cause of a problem and correcting it. If that doesn’t happen you are only treating the symptom of the problem and not the real reason. So, the problem will rear its head again, unless properly dealt with.
  • Keep the client involved and up to date. There is always a time balance, but weekly update reports, meetings at key times, and any changes to process or issue resolution must be addressed immediately.
  • There must be s a clear understanding between the consultant and the client. That goes back to setting expectations and checking on these regularly to ensure they are still both in agreement and nothing has changed between both sides. If anything has, it needs to be discussed and resolved immediately.

These are things I had no idea about after receiving my degrees and joining the working world. They are knowledge acquisitions I have made after dealing both with companies I was a part of and those I have worked with and I now feel more than qualified to direct my clients from a vantage point of both knowledge and practical experience.

If you follow these points you will have a high degree of success in achieving your company goals. If you don’t and follow another course, you may still get there, but I truly believe that the road will be much longer and bumpier. The choice is yours, choose well. A good and reliable consultant can help you to get there.


Peter Christian recently retired as president of Espi, a business consulting company in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley that works with companies throughout the United States in the areas of manufacturing improvements, information system selection and implementation, and project and product management. Mr. Christian had held the position since the company’s inception in 2002.  He has more than 40 years of experience in operational growth and improvement, both as a consultant and as an executive with Crayola Corporation. He currently maintains a working relationship with Espi as a contract consultant.