A: Unfortunately, many companies face disappointing results when they contract with consultants, especially if the hope is that an outside expert can turn around a fundamentally flawed outfit. If you started with an unrealistic or nonexistent business plan, too little capital, or a business model that is unsound, even the best consultant may not be very helpful. Other times, it is not the company but the consultancy that is flawed. So be warned: It may require a trial-and-error process before you settle on a consultant that is the right "fit" with your business.
TRACK RECORDS. Finding candidates should not be difficult -- check with other business owners whom you trust, ask your Chamber of Commerce for recommendations, do some searching online for local consultancies with the appropriate record, and look within your industry for consultants who have made a reputation working with other businesses in the same niche.
Before you hire a consultant, ask for business references and case studies illustrating the progress achieved with other clients, suggests Jeff Barnhart, president and CEO of Creative Marketing Alliance, a Princeton (N.J.)-based marketing communications company. Seeing what kinds of results the firm has turned in will help you decide whether they are likely to provide the kind of help you need.
You should also think about whether you are better off with a full-service firm or a consultant specializing in your particular industry or niche. To get a better feel for the relative benefits of choosing between a full-service and specialty firm, Barnhart advises including each variety in the first phase of your screening process. That should help you to get an immediate gauge of how well you will get along, as well as an overview of the candidate firms' accomplishments, and what they can do for your company.
IT'S YOUR MONEY. Another thing to keep in mind: How many other clients does the prospective consultant handling: "Will they give you more personalized counsel or consider you just another client?" asks Barnhart, who adds: "Try to avoid being a little fish in a big pond. Your chances of getting good service are likely to be commensurate with your contribution to the consultancy's overall book of business. Don't make the mistake of going with one of the largest companies because you are impressed by its prestige. You are hiring a firm to do a job, not to impress your friends."
According to Barnhart, "Making the client/consultant relationship work requires mutual trust and respect, a commitment to open communication and a recognition that neither partner has a monopoly on truth. Despite frequent references to the client/consultant relationship as a 'partnership,' you -- as the client -- are the boss. You set the pace. It's your money and your business. If you build a relationship with a consultant based on trust and balance, you will get your money's worth and then some.
Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.