Selecting a Consultant

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How do you find the right match for your project? For smaller projects, an in-house contact person or a manager can oversee the selection process. For bigger projects or in larger organizations, it may be best to form a committee. The person or group who oversees the process will need to take the following steps: get as many names of potential consultants as possible, send out a request for proposal (known as an RFP), make a short list of candidates, conduct interviews, and make a selection. Some experts recommend that you conduct interviews first in order to create a short list, and only ask for RFPs from those who make the list. However, reviewing RFPs is generally less time-consuming than conducting a large series of interviews. Whatever process you use, make sure that it's identically applied to each applicant, even those you've worked with before. This enables you to make a fair comparison between candidates and also protects you from possible legal action.

There are several methods for collecting names of potential consultants.

The best approach for making your “long list” of candidates is to use every method available. You can use any combination of the following methods:

  • Look at directories and yellow pages
  • Read the trade and business press for your line of work and note what consultants these publications mention
  • Look for books, articles, or blogs written by consultants working in your area
  • Talk to similar organizations and see who they have worked with
  • Create an advertisement
  • Use Internet searches
  • Ask professional associations for recommendations

When compiling this list, keep in mind that there is no professional accreditation for consultants, as there is for nurses or lawyers. Anyone can hang out a shingle and call him or herself a consultant. To make sure you’re dealing with a competent professional, you’ll need to do your homework.

Click to open interactivity Avoid these pitfalls when selecting a consultant.

Avoid these pitfalls when selecting a consultant.

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A request for proposal gathers information from potential consultants.

When you take the time to write and send out a request for proposal (RFP), the proposals you receive will be in a similar format and will address the same questions and issues. Therefore, when you make a short list of candidates, you'll be comparing "apples to apples" instead of wildly dissimilar sets of information.

The RFP describes the project in general and outlines exactly what services you hope the consultant can provide. Consultants are instructed to outline the strategy they would use to find a solution, not their solution to the problem. It also invites them to submit an estimate or describe their pricing policies. In essence, the RFP asks consultants to show why they would be a good fit for your project.

Click to open interactivity Use the RFP Elements document and the Sample RFP to learn more about RFPs.

Use the RFP Elements document and the Sample RFP to learn more about RFPs.

Click the RFP Elements document and the Sample RFP to learn more about RFPs.

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You can make a short list of candidates based on the proposals received.

Once you've received the proposals solicited by your RFP, it's time to narrow down the list of candidates. You'll want to consider not only their qualifications and experience, but also their ability to take on your assignment. Do they have the available time to meet the deadlines? Are there any conflicts of interest? Will the work they do for you affect their relationship with other clients? Is the consultant a former employee? Will the solutions they present affect their ability to win other contracts? While these factors aren't necessarily deal-breakers, it's important to take them into consideration.

Another important matter is whether or not a consultant can operate legally in your state or the states where you work. This may seem like an unusual issue, but depending on the nature of the project, there may be fees or registrations required for a consultant to play the role you want. Taken together, all of these considerations will help you narrow down the candidate pool. Further short list-creation should be based on the candidates' skills, experience, and the quality of their proposals. Ideally, your final short list will contain two to five candidates.

Conduct interviews with the consultants on your short list.

The next step is to conduct interviews with all candidates on your narrowed-down list.  If at all possible, hold in-person interviews. This is especially important for long-term projects or those which involve a great deal of interaction with staff. Consultant personality and presence can be key factors in successful consulting relationships.

To create useful points of comparison, you should interview each candidate using the same set of questions. In addition, don't be afraid to discuss fees during the interview. The candidates will have given you an estimate in their proposals, but fees may potentially be negotiable. There is no harm in asking about this. For a set of suggested interview questions and observations, please download Key Questions and Observations for Interviewing Consultants .

In addition to conducting thorough interviews, it's also necessary to check candidates' references to make sure the consultants have a track record of successfully completing projects. Ask for two to three references from each candidate. To allow for more dialogue, conduct reference checks over the phone, rather than via email. Please  download this tip sheet on conducting reference checks.

The last step is to select the consultant who will work on your project.

Applying a thorough and well-structured selection process will most likely result in a wide array of highly-qualified consultants from which to make a selection. The best case scenario is that you find it hard to choose. In making your decision, be sure to look beyond qualifications to also consider a candidate's organizational style and personality. It's very helpful to hire a consultant who has worked with organizations whose size and culture are similar to your own. Ask for and check references from like-minded organizations with which the consultant has worked.

When it comes down to making a final choice, or even when constructing your short list, you may be tempted to pick the most inexpensive option available. However, the lowest bid isn't necessarily the best value. That choice can end up costing you more in the long run if the project fails due to selecting a consultant who is a poor fit.