10 Tips for Hiring a Consultant

The new fiscal year often means New Year’s resolutions and trying new ways of doing things. If that resolution includes working more efficiently or getting more done, you might consider outsources some of your tasks or hiring a consultant (which I jointly refer to here as "hiring a consultant"). The success of these endeavors relies on doing your homework, asking good questions before hiring someone, and staying on top of the relationship while you work together.


After being on the receiving end of these conversations for the last 5 years – as the consultant to whom organizations outsourced – I recently decided to outsource some of my least favorite tasks (can you say "accounting"!) and got to witness the hiring side as well. These recommendations come from my experiences on both sides of the outsourcing fence.


Before Hiring a Consultant

  1. Inventory your needs and talents to determine gaps. Where do your talents and passions lie (and those of your staff)? What never gets accomplished or only occurs begrudgingly? For me, accounting and some administrative tasks quickly rose to the top. Can you outsource these? If they fall within your core functions - for nonprofits, I do not recommend outsourcing donor relationships, for example - maybe a consultant can help you work more efficiently and effectively or fill knowledge gaps that hold you back.

  2. Estimate return on investment. A consultant often works at a higher hourly rate than staff, but they come with no overhead, no payroll taxes, and no benefits. You can also hire them on a project basis rather than the long-term commitment of a staff person. Figure out all of these real costs of staff time to accomplish the targeted tasks to estimate ROI. For me, the time I freed up by outsourcing some of my nonessential tasks allowed me to focus my time on those things I enjoy and that generate revenue.

  3. Research possible consultants. Ask around. Google. Read websites. Read the paper. Ask everyone you know who they recommend and – this is important – why they liked them. Just as I decided to outsource my accounting a client brought their accounting functions back in house. Why? They didn't like their accountant, thankfully not mine. By asking, I learned what to watch out for in working with my accountant.

  4. Contact your top prospects and schedule a time to talk or meet. Your interactions at this stage should tell you a lot about this person or company. Are they responsive? Friendly? Professional? Prompt? If not, move on.


Interviewing Possible Consultants

  1. Be prepared to discuss your needs and provide an organizational overview. While you need not air all of your dirty laundry, give the person an honest assessment of the project and organizational culture including any challenges he or she may encounter completing this task. Specify what you seek from the person or company to focus the conversation. Have some idea of your budget and desired timeline. And be realistic. If the task has sat on your desk for 6 months, why do you really expect someone to complete it in 6 days?

  2. Listen to options presented by the consultant. He or she may offer services you didn't even consider as possibilities. Engage in a conversation at this point. If you work with this person, you want to make sure you are comfortable with him or her and can have a civil disagreement of ideas. If not, walk away.

  3. Ask about logistics. How much with it cost? Are all costs included or in addition (e.g., travel, copies)? If charged hourly, does the clock start when he or she leaves the office or arrives at yours? How often do they bill? How can they best reach you? Be prepared to tell them with whom they will work with at your organization and how your billing and contracting systems work.


While Working with a Consultant

  1. Give them the tools to succeed. Depending on the tasks involved, they will need access to information and people. Give them what they need – and access to who they need – when they need it so they can meet your deadlines. They haven't given you a deadline? Ask for one or tell him or her your timeline. Rarely can you completely turn a task over to someone without some involvement in your part, hopefully less than completing it yourself would take. If not, reevaluate the task or the person.

  2. Speak up! Tell them what you like about their work or what you'd like them to change. Don't let a problem fester. They may work with dozens of clients, each with a different work-style preference. Tell them yours! And if you like what they do, tell them that too! 

  3. Share! If you like their work, tell others. Many consultants rely on word of mouth advertising so share your good fortunes with others in the community. Remember step 3? Be the research or referral for another organization.

Working with a consultant or outsourcing some of your tasks to someone can expand your productivity exponentially and allow you to focus on those tasks that give you that greatest return on investments. When it works, you can develop a long-term, mutually-beneficial relationship.