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posted: 6/4/2012 6:05 AM

Know what company needs before hiring a consultant

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You've hired a consultant and written that first check. Now the question becomes: How do you make certain you and your business get your money's worth of advice?

The answer to that question begins before you hire the consultant.

"The very first step, before you bring someone in, is a good (internal) assessment," says Rich Horwath, president of the Strategic Thinking Institute, Barrington Hills. "Look at your current business plan and identify gaps" between goals and performance.

"Understand what the company needs, which may be different from what you want," Horwath continues. "Look at your business' position in the marketplace, assess what is realistic to achieve and what you need to get there."

Be aware, however, that it's not always possible to fix everything at one time. "Pick your spot," advises Charlie Bishop, principal at CoralBridge Partners LLC, in Chicago. "You can't boil the ocean. Pick the right strategic spot."

Once you've identified the most important problems, picking a consultant who actually can help becomes the next first step. "If (a consultant) has all the answers, you should run fast," Bishop says. "A consultant should ask you questions, talk about what you need."

Horwath suggests looking not just for solutions "but tools for the future. You should want an ongoing resource, a way to continue to refresh information and get new concepts. You want a process for continuous learning."

With such tools as e-newsletters, podcasts and YouTube videos, continuing access to a consultant's ideas and processes should be easy -- and part of the package, Horwath says.

Once you've hired your consultant -- maybe to fix an HR problem, marketing shortcomings, finances or a strategic issue -- you probably should open up the organization. Bishop wants to talk with "the four or five people who run the organization" in addition to the business owner. "I want the views of the people at the top of the team," Bishop says. "They're the ones who have the perspective."

At the same time, he says, your consultant likely will need an inside coach, "Someone who will say, 'Charlie, you need to talk to (Louise) about this issue."'

For Horwath, "the main issue (within the company) is attitude at different leadership levels, not just the C-suite. If the people are hungry to get better, if there is support for bringing in the consultant," then success is more likely.

But if, for example, "middle management doesn't see the need" for outside help, then Horwath says the first step may be to examine internal issues -- especially communication channels -- and need.

One way to maximize the return on your consulting dollars is to ask questions as the consultant rolls out ideas. "You should challenge the consultant," Bishop says. "Ask what, why and how. What's the payoff? What problems will we run into?"

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at

2012 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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