Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe
Isn't There a Better Way to Pick a Consultant?
by Victoria A. Hoevemeyer
Do you know someone who has had a horrible experience with a doctor, attorney,
accountant or similar person? Can you tell your own personal horror stories
about doctors, attorneys, accountants? It seems like there is constantly something
in the news about a professional who has gone bad - a doctor who has had his/her
license revoked but still practices; an attorney who has taken a bribe to
throw a case; an accountant who has absconded with one of his/her client's
funds. Unfortunately, there is also a growing organizational population that
can tell horror stories about consultants. There are probably a number of
people reading this who have been unfortunate enough to suffer through an
organizational development or training consultant horror story.
Being a consultant, I can't begin to tell you the number of horror stories
I've heard about consultants. There are those who have left the organization
in worse shape than when he or she entered it. There are the snake-oil salesmen
to whom, as they saying goes, all problems look like nails because the only
tool they have is a hammer. And then there's the con artist who writes a retainer
clause in the contract that makes it almost impossible to get rid of her/him.
I'm not saying I'm the perfect consultant. I'm human and I do make mistakes;
however, I'm also willing to admit to my mistakes and "do right" by the organization.
I went into this field because of all the positive things that a qualified
consultant can do to help an organization. I'm carrying this banner, of sorts,
to organizations because I really believe that, with a little bit of knowledge,
organizations can drastically reduce the possibility of wasting their money
on snake-oil salesmen/con artists.
And we're not talking about a little bit of money being wasted. Each year,
organizations in the United States spend billions of dollars for impractical
and/or incomplete data, ineffective and/or inappropriate interventions, and
poorly thought-out and/or implemented recommendations. And the saddest part
is that there is little protection for organizations against such blatant
incompetence. This article is designed to look at some basic guidelines that
can help you select a qualified consultant. It is not, by any means, a step-by-step
guide that will ensure that you select the best consultant. It is, rather,
a summary of issues, questions and criteria that will help you get rid of
the con artist/snake oil salesman consultants.
Before You Begin
Before you start looking for a consultant, you should spend a few minutes
figuring out what you want the consultant to do. That means thinking about:
- The conditions that exist that have caused you to seek a consultant;
- The background, knowledge and expertise you are seeking;
- The timeframe for resolution of the situation;
- The outcome that you want/need to have.
You may not be able to answer all of these questions thoroughly upfront,
but taking a few minutes to think about these things will minimize the possibility
that a con artist will take advantage of you. Remember that a good consultant
will be asking you a number of questions that will help clarify the current
situation and desired end results so that an appropriate intervention can
be discussed and agreed upon.
Initial Screening of Consultants
The consultant interviewing process isn't mysterious. It's very similar
to the process that you've successfully used many times before to fill positions.
Just like with interviewing job candidates, you should interview at least
three consultants, even if you already have a good idea of whom you will hire.
Talking with a variety of consultants with different backgrounds (and therefore
different approaches and techniques) will help you refine your own understanding
of the current situation and give you additional perspectives on the problem
as well as the solution.
Just like with job interviews, it is recommended that you ask the same core
questions of each consultant. This way you have established a fair standard
The remainder of this article will present categories of information that
you should take into consideration during the consultant interviewing and
- Company background and information. You should find out
some basic information on the consultant and the company for which he/she
works. For example:
- How long the company has been in business;
- How many years experience the consultant has (Note: years of experience
does not always equal expertise!)
- What industries the consultant has worked in (Note: just because the
consultant hasn't worked in your industry should not be a reason for elimination;
the person's "untainted" perspective may be just what you need as long
as the skill/expertise level is there.)
- The consultant's area of expertise (Note: be wary of any consultant
who says that he/she can do everything. For example, "I do anything that
falls under the umbrella of organizational development.")
- How many clients they have worked with in a situation similar to yours
- Interpersonal skills. While the consultant's background
and expertise is important, an often make-or-break aspect is the interpersonal
relationship. The ability of a consultant to form sound interpersonal relationships
is critical. These skills are the basis upon which a working, trusting client-consultant
relationship is built. However, even a con artist can develop and present
excellent interpersonal skills. You should ask yourself questions such as:
- Does the consultant appear to be actively listening?
- Does the consultant ask questions to gather additional information
and gain clarification?
- Does the consultant accurately paraphrase what you have said?
- Is the consultant clear and concise in his/her communication?
- Does the consultant engender trust and honesty?
- Does the consultant spend more time finding out about your situation
and needs than he/she does talking about how wonderful he/she is?
"Yes" answers to these questions tend to indicate you are talking to a
decent consultant. The more "no" answers you have, the more likely you
are to have a con artist on your hands - or at the very least an incompetent
- Problem focus. A high-quality consultant will focus on
the problem and its causes. He/she will ask questions to get information
and clarification before getting into an intense discussion on an appropriate
intervention. The con artist will start to prescribe a solution almost immediately
as his/her focus is on selling you his/her "fix" rather than determining
the appropriate approach. The more questions the consultant asks about the
history of the organization, the history of the problem, the manifestations
of the problems, previous experience the organization has had with the same
or a similar problem, and related questions, the greater the likelihood
that you have a high-quality consultant in your office.
- Relevant skills. The amount of experience, as well as
the skills and training, a consultant has had in the area you are seeking
assistance in is a critical factor. You wouldn't pay a mechanic to set a
broken leg, so why would you hire a consultant to perform a project when
he/she has never been exposed to that type of project before? Don't take
the consultant's word on her/his skill level. Ask the consultant for references
and check the references thoroughly (see References).
- Consultant approach. How the consultant approaches an
organization - her/his individual style - will, to a certain extent, indicate
her/his potential success. If the consultant is open, honest and insists
on a diagnosis of the organization or the situation, the chances are that
you have a high-quality consultant. A consultant who appears to have a fixed
program that is applicable to almost any organization may well be a con
artist. It is well within your rights to ask the consultant specifically
what she/he is going to do and why. If the consultant sounds like she/he
has the answer before exploring the problem in detail, get another consultant.
- Education/training and experience. Most consultants have
some type of training; however, there is a broad spectrum of "training"
available. It can range from on-the-job training; to relatively short training
courses (i.e., one day to two weeks); to a Bachelor's or Master's degree
or a Ph.D. in training, organization development, or a related field. There
is, unfortunately, no prescribed level of education or training that will
guarantee that the consultant has garnered sufficient knowledge and/or developed
sufficient skills to perform the project.
Experience is just as nebulous. I know some consultants with a minimum of
formal education in training or organizational development who are excellent.
I also know some people with advanced degrees that should never be allowed
near a client organization. Common sense is probably the best rule of thumb
when evaluating a consultant's potential in this area. You almost certainly
would not want to hire someone with two weeks worth of training and organization
development seminars and one year of experience to head your strategic planning
and organizational restructuring task force. On the other hand, this person
might be very capable of handling the presentation of a canned or pre-packaged
- References. Don't just take the consultant's word on his/her
expertise in an area. Asking for and checking client references is absolutely
critical. This is another way of minimizing the possibility that you're
hiring a con artist who is an excellent interviewer. You should find things
out such as :
- The nature of the client's business;
- Exactly what the consultant did for the client;
- How effective the consultant was in the project;
- Whether the consultant adhered to ethical standards and maintained
- Whether the organization felt that the consultant provided the client
with sufficient knowledge, skills and material to maintain the project
(see Transfer of knowledge and skills);
- Whether the intervention achieved the desired/agreed upon results;
- The tangible benefits that occurred as a result of the consultant's
- Whether the project was completed at the agreed-upon time and at the
agreed-upon cost. If not, find out why not;
- Whether, if they had to do it over again, they would hire the consultant;
- Whether the consultant experienced any unforeseen problems/challenges
and, if so, how well he/she handled the situation.
Obviously, these are just a few of the questions you should seriously consider
asking of references.
It is important to find out why a former client liked or disliked the consultant's
work. The reason the consultant was disliked may have nothing to do with
his/her ability to perform the project in a high-quality, ethically sound
manner. It may be that there was a mismatch between the consultant and the
organization or certain members of the client organization. While a mismatch
is important - potentially indicating that either the client or the consultant
misjudged the relationship at some point in time - it should not be the
sole reason for eliminating a potential consultant from consideration. That
is, unless all of the consultant's references indicated a mismatch.
In some situations, a current/former client may be hesitant to say much
about the project and/or consultant. Regardless of the reason, you need
to pay as much attention to what is not being said as what is being said.
If the reference only talks about the consultant's punctuality, friendliness,
and charming manner a red flag should go up.
- Actual provider(s) of services. Many consulting firms,
especially large ones, have some consultants whose primary job is selling
and whose secondary job is consulting. It is critical for you to find out
who will be doing the actual work. Is the consultant who sells the job the
person who will be doing the actual project, or the majority of work on
the project, or will the project be turned over to someone else? If the
majority of the work will be turned over to someone else, insist on meeting
the consultant who will be doing the work. He/she is the one you will be
working with, need to have a rapport with and need to be able to trust.
You might also want to find out the training and experience of any other
consultant who will be working on the project. If the background of these
consultants does not seem adequate to you, find out who will be supervising
- Transfer of knowledge and skills. Some consultants create
situations that foster the client's continued dependence on the consultant.
A quality consultant constantly strives to work her/his way out of an organization,
leaving the organization with the material, knowledge and skills to be completely
independent. Find out if and how the knowledge and skills the consultant
brings to the organization will be transferred to the organization and/or
specified members of the organization. Ask the consultant how, specifically,
he/she will make your organization independent of her/his services at the
end of the contract. Also, you should insist that any agreement or contract
with the consultant include a statement or clause that addresses providing
the organization with the necessary materials, skills and knowledge to maintain
the project. A consultant who is unwilling to do this is probably a con
artist who will try to make your organization dependent on her/him.
- Confidentiality. For many companies, confidentiality or
non-disclosure agreements are a normal part of day-to-day operations. Regardless
of whether the consultant talks about "keeping client information confidential,"
if you normally have internal and external people sign non-disclosure/confidentiality
agreements, insist that the potential consultant sign one at the beginning
of the interview process. Having a signed confidentiality/non-disclosure
agreement in your hands at the beginning of the interview process will also
prevent the consultant from telling your problems to your competitors at
some future date. A truly professional consultant will have no problem with
the request. If there is hesitancy (e.g., "I'll be glad to sign one once
we have a signed contract.") you may have a con artist - or a least a unscrupulous
consultant on your hands.
Evaluating the Proposal
A proposal sets the stage for the entire project by defining exactly what
will be done, by whom, on what timetable, with what organizational resources,
at what cost to the client, and related issues. There are a variety of ways
the con artist can trap you in his/her contract or proposal. Following are
a number of areas to consider when reviewing the contract or proposal
- Length. Watch out for lengthy contracts. They are often
a smoke screen which hide important issues or serves as a method of distracting
your attention from a hidden agenda in the contract or proposal.
- Retainer contracts. Be wary of any open-ended "retainer"
contracts that the consultant might present. This is one way a con artist
has of making an organization dependent upon him/her. This is especially
true when there is no clause for cancellation of the contract (see Continuation
of services). If a retainer contract is used, make sure that it specifies
definite and measurable goals, actions, outcomes and time frames, and contains
a cancellation clause.
- Definition of Phases. Any project, regardless of how simple
or how complex, has definite phases involved. Make sure that each phase
is clearly defined, that the individual(s) responsible for completing each
phase is (are) indicated, and that a time frame for completion of each phase
is established. In addition, one of the phases, or a recurring theme throughout
all phases, should be the training of specified organizational members to
maintain the project at the end of the contract.
- Guarantees. When dealing with human beings, it is impossible
to guarantee their behavior. As such, it is impossible to guarantee specific
outcomes. Any consultant who "guarantees" specific results, is misleading
you or has found a secret to manipulating human behavior that he/she has
not shared with the rest of the world. The most positive that a consultant
can be with regard to outcomes is that there are certain results that might
occur or that are hoped will occur as a result of the project. A consultant
can only contract for the competent execution and follow-through of the
project, not guarantee specific outcomes.
If a consultant guarantees behavioral outcomes, you may want to find out:
- what the specific behavioral changes are;
- how the consultant will ensure that outcome;
- how one will be able to verify the specific behavioral change has
occurred (e.g., what "success" or "change" looks like);
- if the changes are guaranteed to last (and for how long);
- what happens if the behavioral changes don't occur or don't last
How the consultant answers these types of questions should give you an indication
of the quality of the consultant.
- Progress reviews. A high quality consultant will include
a paragraph or clause that addresses the need for periodic progress reviews,
additional factors that have surfaced in the course of the project, and
related considerations. It is important to make sure that review time is
built into the contract and that the consultant actually meets with you
to review progress, problems, concerns and successes.
- Ground rules. There should be clear ground rules in the
contract, especially around issues such as confidentiality of information
received by the consultant and data feedback. (e.g., the consultant is not
willing to divulge names, but feeds back data, information and themes)
- Cost. Consultants can be expensive. When looking at the
cost for a project you need to consider not only the consultant's fees,
but what you are getting for total cost of the project. In addition, the
training that is provided to internal members of the organization to maintain
the project should be considered. The consultant should also list any additional
costs that are outside his or her consulting fees (i.e., postage, express
mailing, travel time, expenses, telephone calls).
- Continuation of services. A high quality consultant will
provide a sentence or paragraph that presents, in explicit terms, the methods
a client can use to terminate or renegotiate the contract. If there is not
a section in the contract which discusses this, insist that one similar
to the following be included:
If, at any time, you find it necessary or desirable to terminate the
services of [consultant/consulting firm], you are free to do so. This contract
will, at the time of notification in writing, in person, or by telephone,
be considered null and void. The client will, however, be responsible for
all fees and expenses incurred prior to cancellation of this contract. If,
at any time, [organization name] or [consultant/ consulting firm] deems
it necessary and proper to renegotiate the terms of the contract, either
party may arrange for a meeting to do so. If a renegotiation agreement cannot
be reached between the two parties, either party has the option of terminating
the contract, provided there is adherence to the above stated conditions
By including this type of statement in the contract, the organization is
protected if it later finds out that the consultant is a con artist, and
the consultant is aware that the client wants what it is paying the consultant
While none of the above factors will ensure that you select the most qualified
consultant for the project, consideration of all factors will help eliminate
the most blatant con artists. In addition, your organization will gain a reputation
for carefully screening all potential consultants, thus reducing the possibility
that a con artist will try to sell you his or her one-and-only, one-method-fits-all-problems
hammer. Selecting a high quality, ethical consultant is no easier or more
difficult than finding a high quality, ethical accountant, attorney, or physician.
All that is involved is some investigation, questioning, active listening
skills and a little common sense.
Vicki Hoevemeyer, owner of Delta Consulting in Palatine, Illinois, has
18 years experience as both an internal and external organizational development
consultant. Ms. Hoevemeyer's organizational development experience includes
the provision of interventions such as the development of performance management
systems, conducting management assimilations, conducting employee surveys,
coaching, creating employee development plans, creating succession plans,
developing competency models, and facilitating team building. She also designs,
develops and facilitates management/leadership development programs. She has
provided services to transportation, retail, healthcare, education, building
materials, and light and heavy manufacturing organizations in California,
Arizona, Colorado, Michigan and Illinois. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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