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How to Work with Consultants Successfully

A bit of advice on how to work successfully with a consultant (or consulting firm).

Get an inside look at their portfolio

Consultancies usually put up a public portfolio. This is the work they want you to see or the work they are allowed to show publicly. You want to see what they’ve done in the last year. This will give you best sense of their capabilities and the direction of the firm. They can often show recent work in private, if asked, that they can’t promote publicly.

Talk to the people who do the work

While I’m not a huge fan of actually interviewing every consultant as you would a full time hire (you really shouldn’t have to), talk to people at the firm that actually do the work (i.e. not the sales guy). Have a chat about your project and what it seems like to them. They should not only understand it quickly but be excited about it and have new ideas and suggestions.

Some firms will sell you their A team and give you the B (or C) squad. It’s not that common but it happens. These guys are jerks.

Keep the owner in the loop

You have every right as a client to give feedback to the person who cares the most: the owner. If you have a problem or feel like the project team isn’t pulling through get on the phone and make your concerns known in no uncertain terms.

This may sound harsh but it’s the best thing for both you and the firm. They can’t fix problems they don’t know exist. It’s easier to make it work with a firm you’ve already selected than finding another one.

Go local. Get them in-house.

The more closely you collaborate and the more often you talk the lower your risk. You’ll more quickly find issues and get things running smoothly. If possible, get a shop in town and have them live with you. They’ll spend less time with communications overhead (and more time on real work) and you can get updates from them directly instead of reading some sort of status report.

Have an out. Be protected.

Don’t leave yourself with all the risk hiring a consultant. One of the benefits not available with full-time hires is that consultants come with contracts or Statements of Work. This means either resource for hire or fixed bid (see below). Even in the case of team augmentation, encode something in the contract promising at least a minimum set of deliverables.

Don’t pay (everything) up front. Tie payment to deliverables or spread out over the schedule.

My experience hiring consultants

I’m a consultant. I’d like to think I’m one of the good ones. But I’ve also played this game from the other side.

I was the Head of Engineering in a product company creating a new product (essentially a startup from the inside). In order to serve both our old client / agency work and our new product development (while having no up-front capital investment) we had to get creative with engineering resources.

We worked with outside firms in Argentina, Connecticut, New York City, India, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

We worked with independent contractors / consultants in just as many places.

Eventually, we even set up an off-shore development team in Omsk, Russia.

In the first two cases (using contractors / consultancies) my success rate was maybe 25%. That’s rough. But once we found a person or shop that worked we set up a long-term relationship with them. In fact, one of the best contractors I ever worked with was just “some dude” out in Ohio with three kids getting his PhD. I never even met him.

These relationships were a valuable asset and complimented our sizable internal team. It allowed our business to react to resource needs without reducing internal staff.

Appendix: Consulting Pricing Models

(Is putting an appendix on a blog post a sign it’s too long? Oh, well.)

If you are unclear with how pricing works with a consultant, here’s the gist. Each model has it’s own risk and benefits and one is not clearly better than another.

Fixed Bid

You tell them what you want, they ask some questions, make some assumptions, and give you a document telling you what they will do and how much it costs. If you change your mind during the project, you get a change order (changing the contract and probably asking for more money). By signing the contract, you are in for the whole amount (assuming they deliver).

As a client, you get a promise of what they’ll deliver. In many ways the consultant holds the most risk here because if the project goes over budget (and they don’t manage the changes in cost) they are left eating the overage. Since they are holding the cost risk any fixed bid contract will include some degree of risk buffer.

These contracts are appropriate for projects that are fairly well defined and well bounded.

Staff Augmentation

You pay a certain rate by the person for as long as you have them. There is no document saying what they will deliver. There is no risk of going over budget for the consultant but the client has no guarantee what will be delivered. However, the client can change their mind every day if they wish. Also, the clients financial obligation is less than a fixed bid contract since the staff augmentation can more or less be stopped at any time.

This model is appropriate when the problem being solved isn’t well defined such as working with early stage startups.

Hybrid

While more of a contract detail, these two models can be combined such that the client gets a bit more guarantee of what will be delivered while at the same time not having to deal with change orders every week.

Identify a few high-level, critical deliverables and encode those in the contract. You can still change direction during the project although, if it’s a big enough change, you might have to do a change order.