“Consulting is the process by which an individual or a firm assists a client to achieve some stated outcome.” 1
There are many reasons to hire a consultant, from providing guidance on a project, to performing a specific task, to being a source of surge capacity in the ebb and flow of business. This article examines five compelling reasons you should consider hiring a consultant for your organization.
Consultants are unbiased third parties—they have no vested interest in relationships or “the way we've always done things.” Consultants view themselves as problem-solvers, whether the problem is one that management can't answer or one purely of a need for additional capacity. Consultants see their role as helping the client become aware of what is happening through their observations:
- Identify the problem,
- Identify the cause,
- Identify the solution, and
- Implement the solution.2
What's going on in your business? What needs or problems could be solved by hiring a consultant?
Possibly the number-one reason consultants are hired is for a special project, some of which may fall into other specific categories. As companies grow and change, there are always special projects necessary for compliance, achieving goals, or preparing for the next phase of business.
Special projects include:
- Development of training programs,
- Designing and implementing systems (such as an accounting or enterprise resource planning system), and
- Writing policies and procedures.
These projects may be “nice to have” or critical to operations (such as proposal support), and can span from a few days or weeks to several months.
Consultants often provide three types of support on a special project:
- Subject matter expertise—As subject matter experts, consultants may be the primary source of knowledge and guidance in developing an effective solution. They bring a vast amount of knowledge and experience to the table that internal employees may lack.
- Project management— Let's face it, we all need some encouragement and accountability in our projects. Consultants can act as the project manager keeping an eye on the budget, managing tasks, and ensuring that all team members are doing their parts. The reality is that employees and employers focus on the money. When a consultant is on site, charging billable hours, all eyes are focused on the project at hand.
- Bandwidth/surge support—For many of the same reasons that will be discussed later in this article, consultants can be a set of hands ready and able to tackle the necessary tasks, especially when internal employees are extremely busy with other projects.
“Consultants are people who, when asked, agree to use their expertise to help clients narrow the gap between what they now have and what they want or need.”3 Further, “[a] consultant is a specialist within a professional area who completes the work necessary to achieve the client's desired outcome.”4
Consultants liken strategic planning for an organization to counseling or coaching for an individual. While the outcome of both should include written plans of action, the real value lies in the questions and answers. When you encounter an issue in your personal life, do you keep it to yourself or do you talk to trusted friends, family, or professionals? Many people recognize that talking through an issue helps us to think differently about the situation. Consultants try to help organizations see the situation differently in order to free them to do what they are in business to do.
Imagine planning a trip to another country— this might be a strategic plan in your personal life. Where will you go? How will you get there? Where will you stay? How much will it cost? Do you need any special documents? Expanding your business to another country should spark the same or similar questions. In both situations, many of us are likely to seek out the expertise of someone who has already “been there, done that.”
Whatever the reason for strategic planning in your business, consider hiring a consultant. Trying to break into new markets? Want to sell your products overseas? Selling directly to the U.S. government, or trying to win larger government contracts? All of these require the expertise of someone outside your organization.
They are considering putting some portion of this success on the line with you, a consultant. They are considering giving you powers in their organization that they ordinarily reserve for themselves and a few trusted others.5
The workload and flow of business is full of peaks and valleys, day to day and week to week. During peak times, employees scramble to complete all tasks, often taking shortcuts, making errors, missing important details, or completely ignoring other responsibilities altogether. None of these scenarios are good for your business. Taking shortcuts leads to quality and compliance issues. Errors lead to safety concerns and customer complaints. Missed and ignored items upset everyone in the supply chain-something doesn't get ordered or delivered, important deadlines are missed, and stake-holders are unhappy.
What are the alternatives?
Hire Temporary Help
Hire temporary help—people who may not know or care anything about your business. Let's face it, temp workers are typically there to collect a paycheck for the day or week that you need them, not invest time in improving your business. While there are legitimate needs and uses for temporary help, addressing complex legal and financial issues is not one of them.
Hire Permanent Help
Hiring permanent help can be a costly solution since training employees takes time and money. And, who can afford to keep employees on the payroll during those valleys?
Have a Consultant On-Call
Hiring a trained professional who knows your business and industry, understands and values the task, and has the flexibility to work as little or as much as you need can be invaluable. While some may view the hourly rate of a consultant as a high price to pay for flexibility, consultants come trained, certified, equipped, and are of a caliber of professional above temporary or permanent employees. Consultants are adaptable, know about multiple functional areas of a business, and enjoy challenges.
Outsourcing is a more permanent approach to bandwidth/surge support. Companies choose to outsource tasks or functional areas for two main reasons: 1) lack of internal resources to support the effort, and 2) lack of internal expertise. Some tasks happen so infrequently that having a dedicated person on staff simply does not make financial sense. Even if the frequency is enough to be annoying, small companies that are trying to stay lean and focused want to expend their energy satisfying customer needs, not processing paperwork. When it comes to the type of work many consultants do (i.e., legal, financial, and technical), many small companies do not have or cannot afford the level of expertise necessary to be proficient. In these cases, the company chooses to outsource all of the related tasks or functions, not just when they are experiencing a peak workload.
Consultants possess abilities that clients value, something they:
- Cannot do because they don't know how;
- Cannot do because they don't have the time;
- Cannot do because they are not in a position to do it;
- Can do, although they need extra help; and
- Can do, although they don't want to do the work.6
As a U.S. federal government contractor, you will encounter audits—it's a matter of when, not if. With so many regulations and agencies involved in federal acquisition, some or many parts of your business will undergo scrutiny by an outside party. That said, the ideal time to prepare for an audit is before you receive the notice of an audit. In other words, design your processes and systems around the audit guidelines so you do things correctly from the beginning.
The reality is that many businesses don't fix their processes and systems until after an audit, or rush to make changes after the audit notice and before the auditors arrive. Whatever your timing, call a professional to help. The moment you receive a notice of an audit, you should immediately notify the highest-ranking officer within the company, the director or manager in charge of that functional area, and your trusted external advisor (e.g., consultant, accountant, attorney, etc.) so that they can guide you through the process. Depending upon the qualifications of the consultant, he or she may be able to provide legal or financial advice, as well as technical support in preparing documents and internal employees for the audit.
Even if you are one of the best companies in terms of policies and procedures, we can all get a little bit better (think “Lean Enterprise” or continuous improvement). The best systems have errors and auditors will find them. Audit findings require mitigation after the audit is complete. Low-priority findings are often assigned to be completed before the next audit, while high-priority findings demand immediate mitigation and must be fixed in order to close out the current audit.
Long-Term Consulting Relationships
Successful consultants teach their clients how to fish instead of feeding them a fish per day. There is greater value in a consultant when the client sees we can continue to teach and build them, rather than simply sustain them. Much like a well-known management theory where you identify, train, and mentor your replacement from day one so that you are able to step into new opportunities that come your way, successful consultants guide their clients to be self-sufficient instead of co-dependent.
When Do I Need a Consultant?
You need a consultant when your awareness combines with a belief that you can use help from outside to move from where you are to where you want to be. You can use “consulting to bring about change in organizations.”7Consulting “explores what you can do to help the organization move from where it is to where it wants (or needs) to be.”8
Local Talent Versus National or Virtual Talent
Should you focus your search for a consultant based on your geographical area? What about national searches or working remotely with a consultant?
If your need is very specific, it is likely you will need to perform a regional or national search for talent. Be prepared that some or all of the work will be performed remotely (depending upon the nature of the engagement). Regular travel can be expensive, but having the best talent and best fit for your organization may easily outweigh the extra travel costs.
If your need is surge capacity and your desire is to have someone on site (or available to be on site) on a regular basis, you may find a local consultant to be a better fit for your organization.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ROBERT E. JONES, CFCM, CCCM, is president of Left Brain Professionals Inc., where he supports clients on a number of government contract and accounting projects, including incurred cost proposals, commercial item determinations, and accounting system design. He holds a BA in accounting from Queens University of Charlotte and an MS in accountancy from the College of Charleston. He is currently pursuing his CPCM and CPA, and is a member of the Dayton Chapter of NCMA.
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- E. Biech, The Business of Consulting (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 1999).
- G.M. Bellman, The Consultant's Calling (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1990).
- Biech, see note 1.
- Bellman, op. cit.
- Derived from Bellman, ibid.
- Bellman, see note 3.