How to Hire an Outside Consultant
Seeking outside professional consulting help for marketing issues can feel like a monumental task. With so many choices and as many factors to consider, the situation often seems overwhelming enough that you don't even want to begin. Through years of experience, however, I have found that when you tackle the process with an organized, systematic approach, the rewards far outweigh the work.
As any good coach will tell you, in the end, it all comes down to the basics. This is no different when it comes to marketing. The first and most basic step in seeking outside consulting help is to get your house in order. This means defining the scope and objectives of the project and identifying what areas you want to attack. Is your problem sagging response rates? Lackluster copy? Uninspiring creative? Nonexistent analysis? Lack of coherent strategy? Or any other of a myriad of possibilities? While I often may have more than one area I'd like to hit, I choose just one for starters. By choosing more than one, I'm likely to become overwhelmed and unable to effectively execute or finish the project.
Once I've identified the scope of the project, I shift my focus to its actual structure. Before I begin the process of interviewing potential consultants, I pre-establish my budget so I'll know my fiscal limitations. Not only does this provide boundaries for me, it also helps garner the confidence of company executives who might otherwise be leery of hiring outside help.
It also is critical that I define my expectations for the consultant's deliverables and develop a reasonable time line for accomplishing these goals. I then spend time going over the project objectives, budget and time line with the entire marketing team to gain their commitment. This ensures success in meeting the objectives we have set forth, and provides the consultant with the appropriate level of in-house support.
Starting Your Search
Before researching and meeting with consultants, I focus on the type of consultant I need for the task. I break my choices down into three options: full-service agency, specialty boutique and independent consultants.
While full-service agencies can offer turn-key solutions, I rarely choose them for specific direct marketing projects. While there are full-service agencies that specialize in direct marketing, many are more advertising and public relations oriented and lack the expertise I need.
Specialty boutiques, or specialty agencies, often are tailored to meeting specific needs. However, they are perhaps the most difficult to find, so I rarely have a chance to utilize their services.
Independent consultants, on the other hand, offer the most specialized services. With independent consultants, I readily can find individuals whose qualifications match my specific target areas of need. Since I prefer one-on-one relationships, it's easier to communicate directly with the consultant rather than having to go through an account executive. In most cases, I find that independent consultants are the best fit for my needs.
When searching for an independent consultant, I recommend contacting your local Direct Marketing Association (DMA) chapter and local/regional DMA members. I call this process, "getting the 411." Through DMA networking, I hear the whole truth and feel much more confident in a decision. I have found that this is the best research tool at my disposal. While the Internet, phone book and local conferences offer leads, the back channel approach always works best.
Once I narrow down my selections to the "short list" of potential candidates, I begin to make contact with the leads. When contacting potential candidates, always ask for a list of current and previous clients as well as a copy of their portfolio. I also ask the candidates, before they know the scope of my project, to tell me their areas of expertise. By matching their specialties with their experience, valuable insight can be obtained (and I often am able to further shorten my list this way). It also is a good idea to contact the local chamber of commerce and better business bureau for help in this research. Should a history of complaints against a consultant exist, these entities often have access to them. They also may be able to check local, state and federal records for a list of lawsuits filed against the consultant. These organizations can be a powerful research tool for any company.
Time for the Face-to-face
Once I have narrowed my list of consultants, I move into the final stage: interviews. I go into this phase with the understanding that I'll interview the consultant just as I would any prospective employee. I study the consultant and his answers to my questions. I carefully note whether he is engaging or lackadaisical. I note whether or not the consultant has an "execution" mind-set. I prefer to work with consultants who possess an assertive, "get-it-done" mentality.
Another important element that I look for is chemistry. I ask myself, "Did we click"? While this may sound more appropriate for a dating relationship, sensing passion about the subject in question is important. In my experience, the best consultants get excited when talking about their areas of expertise. If my goal is to improve lackluster copy, I look for the consultant who sees the project's potential and has a certain amount of excitement about the possibilities. This passion for the craft often is the "X" factor that puts the consultant at the top of the list.
In this day of workplace teams, I also judge a potential consultant on his "getalongability" skills. Does the consultant expect to work with and be challenged by a team? Is he comfortable training team members in the process? Perhaps the biggest upside to hiring outside consultants is the education enrichment within the company. Team members become better direct marketers after spending time with a consultant. I find that months after his departure, team members still quote the consultant and are better analyzers of problems than they were prior to the project. For that reason, it's important I choose an individual who is comfortable with the training aspect.
Get the Whole Team Involved
After I've selected the best candidate, I have the consultant create a budget and contract. The contract contains the scope of the project, expectations of delivery, as well as budget figures. Carefully review it.
I recommend having your company's legal representative review it on
your behalf. Most companies have a lawyer on retainer for this very purpose, so there may not be any additional cost involved. A lawyer helps ensure you haven't forgotten any vital information, such as cancellation fees, etc.
As a final step, I often call for a second, more in-depth interview. In this interview, I assemble the team. This should be a forum where the consultant and team members meet to discuss ideas, with the consultant fielding questions. It's a great opportunity for team members to build their own opinions about the consultant, which in turn helps you decide whether or not to sign on the dotted line. Since my team will be crucial to the support and success of the project (as well as to the consultant), it is important I have their candid feedback. By talking through the decision aloud, it also helps solidify support for the project. Too many projects have been sidelined by lack of communication and buy-in from team members. These steps help ensure that won't be the case.
By the time I've gone through all these steps, I feel confident about my choice. While this is by no means a guarantee of success, it helps knowing I've done my due diligence.