Why Hire a Consultant?
Like many people, I have a suspicious nature about consultants. Unlike many people, I have these feelings even though I am one. To be clear however, I have only worked for a consultancy for a little over four years; the rest of my career was spent on the other side of the desk. So, even though I work as a consultant, why do I remain suspicious of them? Probably because of some encounters earlier in my career. There was the newly minted MBA from a major consulting firm with no previous work experience, not even a summer job, who came into my office (at the direction of corporate headquarters) and told me she would exponentially improve my department's efficiency. She only needed us to give her access to everyone for two weeks because she had a foolproof methodology. Or the consultancy who lands two people to provide executive advisory services and six months later you have an infestation. There's a reason for the saying that a consultant is someone who borrows your watch and then charges you to tell you the time.
That being said, I began to change my negative outlook towards consultants about four years before I became one. Or I should say, I began to change my outlook towards some consultants, because I still view some with suspicion. There are times when hiring a consultant...the right consultant... is not only valuable, it's a necessity.
The right consultant is someone who understands your business, the challenges you face, and the spectrum of possible solutions to those business problems. Someone who wants to keep working for you, and hopes to do so not because they're just trying to sell resources, but because there is value in what they bring and you have more problems that need solving.
Let's look at some situations when this is the case.
Been there...done that. Nothing is a bigger waste of time and money than reinventing the wheel. If a problem needs to be solved and there's someone out there who's already solved it, take advantage of that. Not only will you get your problem solved, you'll probably end up with a better solution than the previous time he/she solved it. Even the best process has an aspect of "if I had the chance to do that again, this is what I would do differently". Be the recipient of the consultants' continuous improvement of the solution.
Skills gap. You may have a need for a particular capability that your team does not possess and you don't see a long term need for that skill. It doesn't make sense to increase your headcount, and it's not fair to an employee to bring them on knowing that they won't be there long. This is a good time to look at other staffing options, turning to experienced people in a staff augmentation role. Not only are you able to develop this solution, but you've identified a resource you can turn to when needed without staffing up, thereby expanding your capabilities yet keeping your flexibility. In many cases, an additional benefit is that some of your staff learn or improve capabilities during the time they spend working with the consultant, a nice bonus that the consultant leaves behind.
Lack of bench strength. I speak with people at companies all the time who, when asked how they're doing, respond with the fact that they have too few people and too much work. Even with the vast amount of available talent, companies such as those in the Energy sector are not going to increase their baseline costs by taking on more staff until there are higher, stable commodity prices. Being able to turn to consultancies with qualified individuals who will be there long enough to accomplish the task and then go away give the hiring companies a flexible way to keep costs down yet still improve their capabilities.
An apolitical view. Anyone who's been in corporate America (or corporate Canada or corporate wherever) long enough has seen business problems screaming for a solution remain unaddressed due to internal politics. There may be multiple options for a solution, each backed by a significant player, or players, in the company. Or one person's suggestion may be dismissed because they're perceived as empire building. This is the perfect situation for using an external resource who is not aligned with any side, understands the problem as well as the options and is a skilled facilitator. This impartial perspective can help the company agree on a way forward. Not to mention, there are times when an outside party's perspective carries more weight than one from an internal source. Of course, the outside parties themselves must have a neutral perspective. If you bring in someone who sells both services and software, there's a pretty good chance the proposed solution will include the use of their software.
Multiple perspectives. If a consultant is good, they've most likely had the opportunity to work with a number of companies. It doesn't matter if a company is a small independent company or a large multinational corporation, the problems they face are very similar. The solutions will vary, but this multi-perspective experience only adds to the value the consultant brings. Without putting confidentiality agreements at risk, they'll know what works and what doesn't, and under which circumstances success can be found (or lost).
Finding a consultant who not only talks the talk but has walked the walk can bring significant value to your company. The trick is finding the right consultant for the right reason...and the right one should be asking, "What business problem are we looking to solve?"