What to demand of your IT consultant

A popular Far Side cartoon shows a professor in a crumpled suit at a chalkboard filled with complex formulas. A single dollar sign appears in the lower right-hand corner of the chalkboard. The caption? "Einstein proves that time does equal money." If you've hired a consultant you already know this - especially if you've made a mistake selecting the consultant.

With more than 1,000 consulting firms of various sizes and an array of specialties and locations from which to choose, finding the right consultant can be a major challenge. Here are some guidelines for selecting a consultant and getting the information you need to use as a yardstick for measuring their talents. When you assert your rights, you'll get what you expect because your consultant will understand your needs.

Qualities to seek

Rarely do companies spend as much time selecting a consultant as they do evaluating hardware or software. Yet, it's no secret that the consequences of a bad hire can be disastrous. Look for these essential characteristics:

  • An understanding of the issues you are dealing with from technical, functional and business perspectives.
  • A track record solving similar issues/problems.
  • An open, honest communication style.
  • Professional qualifications and relevant experience in the required discipline.
  • The ability to communicate important concepts clearly.
  • A reference list of satisfied clients.
  • A thorough understanding of your business and industry.
  • The ability to find and implement innovative and effective solutions.
  • A commitment to helping you achieve results.

Mistakes to avoid

Make it your business to know the biggest mistakes to avoid when working with IT consultants:

  • Accepting a bid that you know is too low. Some consultants are masters of selling you a US$1 million job for $100,000 and getting the full $1 million once they are there. Make sure the scope and deliverables are clearly understood before you hire the consultant. If the scope of your project is not clear to all parties, hire a consultant to do a small project upfront that will clarify the scope. Make it unmistakable that the first project might or might not lead to the main project.
  • Not working with your consultant. Consultants typically are hired to perform projects that require expertise or knowledge that your organization might lack. However, while the work may be uncommon, if you fail to work with the consultant throughout the project, you run the risk of getting something totally unexpected at the end. Assign someone from your company to work with the consultant on a full-time basis. Even if the employee doesn't have expertise on the subject matter, he will learn and give you the ability to monitor what's happening.
  • Letting the consultant control the project. Management should approve all personnel assigned to the project. Ask for resum‚s, ask what each individual on the consultant's team will do on the project, interview the individual consultants or at least inform the consulting company that you reserve the right to do so.
  • Finally, ask for weekly reports that include information on the project's status from all angles - cost and scheduling issues, work already completed and issues that need your immediate attention.
  • Manage the process

    Careful management of the entire consulting process eliminates much of a company's vulnerability. Here are more guidelines to consider:

    • Use a written agreement to establish the goals, scope and duration of the consulting project. A written agreement can ensure that you ask the right questions and that you record the answers. List the project goals and how you will measure success in meeting those goals. Document the reporting process.
    • Spell out compensation clearly. Define daily rates, timing of payments and the method for handling out-of-pocket expenses. Be clear about when approval is required to incur expenses.
    • Take control. You're the client, so act like the client. Don't be afraid to ask questions and make decisions once you understand.

    Rose is president of Technology Consulting Associates, an IT consulting firm in Atlanta. He can be reached at Jerry.Rose@tca-llc.com.

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