Retaining services of a Consultant - what to look for

Retaining the services of a Consultant in areas where your skills and experience are weak is a good idea.  What should you look for? What are the litmus tests?  This subject has come by request, following my speaking engagements at The Packaging Innovations Show and Making Cosmetics Show, where a number of consultants or consultancy services were also on the speaking agenda.  I have been on both sides of the fence; having worked as an industry consultant (and still do on occasion) and retaining the services of Consultants in the creation of MERUMAYA Integrative Effective Skincare®  so, I have experienced it from both sides.  For the purposes of this post I will assume you are a start-up business. The first step has to be clearly defining exactly what you need from the industry consultant. Contacts in media or retailers? Knowledge of creating a business plan? Allocation of resources? Communication of brand? etc. The second step is to prepare your questions accordingly and be thorough and straightforward. This ensures that you do not get sidetracked by an impressive presentation, provides an agenda and, allows you to compare apples with apples if it has been used as the basis for every discussion with prospective Consultants. Has the consultant got relevant experience for your needs? For example, they may be experienced in your sector but do they have current or recent knowledge of the consumer in the market in which you are going to launch? Each market has its own culture that impacts on how you execute and communicate the business.  What works in one market does not always work in another. For example USA vs UK. On the surface looks similar. A largely department store market and we apparently speak the same language but didn't George Bernard Shaw make a very poignant point when he said 'two great nations divided by a common language'? And if they do have market knowledge, make sure it is recent as  the retail landscape has changed significantly in the last five years. Has the consultant got experience of a small or start-up business?  Did they grow a business from scratch or only ever run a well established business?  There are sector experienced consultants who have held senior positions in large corporations though it is a very different style of business building, as a start-up.  It was Henry Ford who said ' a business is never more healthy than when, like a  chicken it must do a certain amount of scratching around in the sand for what you get'. In a start-up business you need a very creative approach to getting a pounds worth of value while only spending 50p.  It is a very different type of negotiating; much more personal; much more about getting your suppliers to be personally invested in your success. What level of success did the consultant have while employed? Can he/she demonstrate a track record of growth and profit? I would not be put off by someone who has been fired from their previous job unless it was gross misconduct or fraudulent activity. In my estimation it may show that the person is a non-conformist which you have to be somewhat, when starting up a business. It may be that they are not a 'yes' person - who normally last the course in corporate life. And it may mean they are a good decision maker - but that one of numerous decisions went awry - it proves they are trying, that they are engaged with the business. Has the consultant ever started up a business of the type you are trying? And if they are now consulting did it fail? That in itself is not an issue to my mind as long as they are candid about why their attempt failed, what they would do differently and what they learned.  It can be a big advantage to have someone consulting for you that has been there, done that, wears the lipstick! Is it all high-profile image and no substance? Take verbal references from other clients.  Prepare your questions well beforehand. You get what you pay for - a relevantly experienced consultant is worth paying for. Better to have less time but a more productive outcome with a very relevant expert, than more time and less know-how with someone cheaper. You will need to decide if you want to retain someone for a short period i.e. one of a few days, or on a regular basis of 1/2 days per week or month or on a project basis. Then negotiate the fee or daily rate accordingly and do not be afraid to come back with a counter proposal on fees - the worst that can happen is a NO! But that is rare. Is the consultant working on anything else that could be in conflict? You must get them to sign an non-disclosure agreement anyway, but do you feel uncomfortable with the proximity to any of their other clients. If so, discuss it as you may find that the work is about to come to an end anyway. Will they have a physical presence, offer practical help, avoid reams of reports? Discuss how you envisage all of this and agree in writing the expectations you have. Do you both understand the brief fully? A bit disastrous if you don't so, communicate. How do you measure the success of the work? Agree this in the expectations however, there are some areas that are difficult if you are not familiar with the subject e.g. SEO work is very difficult to measure and exacerbated because it takes a while to see results.  In a case like this, decide how long you are going to give it before it shows a positive and visible to you, impact. Lesson:  Take personal recommendations and ask to speak with previous clients Lesson: Define a very clear brief, discuss and agree the outcomes expected; put it all in writing Lesson: If you have a long-term project in mind, start with a days work to see if you are comfortable with the style of work. Lesson:  Make sure you like the person and can communicate openly with them Lesson: Make sure you are prepared to be open with the information they will need to get the work done Lesson: Negotiate fee's. There is always wiggle room

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