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 for comparison.

The remainder of this article will present categories of information that you should take into consideration during the consultant interviewing and contracting phases.

  1. 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

  2. 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 consultant.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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 training program.

  7. 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 client confidentiality;
    • 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 intervention;
    • 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.

  8. 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 the project.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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)

  7. 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).

  8. 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 for termination.

    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 to provide.

Summary

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 vicki_delta@hotmail.com .

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Copyright 2003 by Vicki Hoevemeyer. All rights reserved.

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