Getting a new business off the ground is no small feat. Neither is scaling up that business and taking it to the next level. These are the main challenges facing entrepreneurs and small business owners. They have a huge amount on their plate to try to achieve these goals.
Too often, decision makers in small businesses attempt to carry the whole burden. They want to be in control of their firm and feel a responsibility to its development and growth. They think it’s only they whose duty it is to achieve that growth. That’s entirely understandable, but it’s rarely the right way to go.
Seeking advice and guidance is key. It’s by doing so that successful business owners find the right direction for their firms. No one person can be an expert in every aspect of business. The best owners and managers recognise this. They seek outside help and are therefore most likely to achieve success. One place to get that all-important advice and guidance is from a business consultant.
What is a Business Consultant?
A business consultant is an expert who can advise a firm’s decision makers. Their raison d’être is to analyse a business and identify ways it can improve. They will then offer those suggestions to a board or business owner.
Such consultants are not generally brought on board as employees of a business. They’re often outside contractors who work with a company for a short period of time. In fact, their outside perspective is one of the things which can make consultants so useful. They’re better able to give an unbiased and overall view of a company, than someone working within it.
There are many different types of business consultant. Some work on specific areas of a company and others offer more generic advice. The most common types of consultant are as follows:
- Strategy & Management Consultants – Experts who take a wider view of firms they work with. They look at the overall picture of how a business is run and whether business strategy is correct. Their insights will be towards the ends of growing and developing the business. Often over the longer term.
- HR Consultants – Consultants with a focus on a firm’s HR can be invaluable. They will offer insights into everything to do with a business’s personnel and staffing. That might include suggestions about hiring and firing. It may also cover areas like pay and benefits for different staff members.
- Sales & Marketing Consultants – These experts take a narrower view. They focus on the two connected departments of sales and marketing. They may suggest a new campaign for a firm to adopt or one they should scrap. They might also pinpoint weaknesses with sales techniques. Or even problems with a firm’s current sales staff.
- IT Consultants – Many business owners have something of a blind spot when it comes to IT. Consultants specific to this area help to ease the issues this may cause. They can assess a firm’s IT infrastructure and help improve it. They can also offer ideas on how to scale that infrastructure with the business’s own growth.
- Operations Consultants – Operations consultants look at a firm’s day-to-day processes. Their aims are generally to increase productivity and/or efficiency. That then helps a business to improve their margins and cut costs. Such improvement may come through the tweaking of a production line or a change of suppliers.
Your first step when looking for a business consultant, is to decide which of the above best suits you. After that, though, what else can determine who is the right consultant to choose? What is it that you need to look out for?
What to Look Out For From Your Next Consultant
The relationship between a consultant and a business owner is a vital one. If they can work well together it can spur a firm on to a new level of success. That’s why it’s so important to ensure you find the right business consultant for your company. In order to do so, there are a range of different things to look out for when vetting candidates:
Knowledge & Training
It’s not necessary to have academic qualifications to be a good business consultant. Many may argue that practical experience is much more important (we’ll get to that shortly). When you’re assessing potential consultants, though, perusing a CV is a fair way to start.
A degree or other high-level qualification in business or a related field is desirable. It suggests that the consultant has a good foundation of knowledge. That’s something that they can draw upon when working with your company.
It’s also good if they’ve completed lots of other courses. That shows you that they’re dedicated to self-improvement. They’ll likely have the kind of attitude that would serve them well in helping your firm.
As we mentioned above, prior experience is another key thing to look out for. The more experience a consultant has, the better equipped they’ll be to help you.
If they’ve worked with lots of other firms, they’ll have come across the same issues or decisions facing your firm. That means they might have a ready-made solution, which they know has worked in the past. If not, they will still know where to start when it comes to plotting a way forward.
The best way to assess a consultant’s past experience is through testimonials and references. Their prior clients will have the most accurate idea of their abilities. If plenty of them have offered positive testimonials, it’s a very good sign.
When it comes to prior experience, it’s also helpful if a consultant has some of it as a business owner. Consultants who have previously been in your shoes will be better able to understand your needs and concerns.
A more experienced consultant will also be better networked. They will have built relationships throughout their time as a business owner and as a consultant. Those relationships could prove vital to your business. They might be the difference between a consultant being able to action their plans for your firm or only being able to make theoretical suggestions.
Trustworthiness & Integrity
Trust is key to any business relationship. Or relationship in general. If you’re going to work with a business consultant, you need to have complete trust in them. You’ll be sharing intimate details of your company and business strategy with them.
You need to be certain that they’re always going to give you the best advice. Even if it’s something you may not want to hear. Or if it’s something that might cost the consultant more business with you. When it comes to working with a consultant, honesty truly is the best policy.
The only way to assess a candidate’s trustworthiness is in person. Before you start working with a consultant you should speak to them as much as possible. If it takes you multiple interviews to decide if you can work with someone, so be it. The decision’s worth your time.
Niche or Industry Focus
Many consultants work only with certain types of companies. Some work with firms of a certain size. Others specialise in a particular field or niche. Before approaching a consultant, make sure they do work with businesses like yours. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting your precious time.
Beyond that, it’s not essential that a consultant have specific experience of your field. Plenty of consultants who don’t, could still offer you invaluable advice. Especially if what you’re looking for is guidance in specific areas like IT or HR.
If a consultant does understand your niche, though, it can be an advantage. They will be better placed to offer industry specific insights and suggestions. What’s more important, though, is that they can offer expertise or a perspective that’s not already available within your company. That’s the kind of insight and advice that makes it worthwhile to seek the help of an external consultant.
It may seem strange that a business consultant’s personality should matter to you. The fact is, however, that they need to be someone you’re completely comfortable working with. Over the full course of your relationship, you will be in contact a lot
Your interactions with a consultant will be so much more fruitful if you get along. If you have no rapport, your communications will yield fewer results. If a consultant grates on you, for instance, you’re less likely to listen to what they tell you. If they drag down your mood, you’ll feel less positive about their suggestions.
When it comes to how you gel with a consultant, the personality traits to look out for will be different for each relationship. Your own personality, after all, is unique and you will get along better with different types of people. Some business owners may look for humour from a consultant, others may respond better to consultants who always bring positivity to the table. There are some personality traits, though, which it is always desirable for a business consultant to possess.
Empathy is one such trait. The best business consultants understand that a business will often be a lot more to its owner than simply a means of making money. They have far more than money invested in their firm; they also have a significant emotional attachment. If a consultant understands the emotions behind building a business, they can provide better advice across the board.
Another desirable trait that’s indelibly linked with that of empathy, is patience. By understanding the emotional attachments of business owners, a consultant will be able to patiently accept and work with decision that might not make immediate sense. At least not when looked at from a strict bottom line first point of view. Such patience can be key in making a consultancy relationship work.
A good consultant is one who can clearly convey ideas to the people they work with. They can condense the view they take of a business into succinct, actionable insights. They can then deliver these insights either orally or in written form to their contacts. The best consultants, too, are skilled in listening to those they work with.
To deliver the best possible advice, they need to absorb and understand your needs. That may sound simple, but in practice is far from it. A consultant must actively listen to what you tell them. They need to fully understand what you convey and recognise the nuance and importance of what is not said. That’s the only way for them to get completely on the same page as you and to work in lockstep to move your business forward.
To reach that kind of understanding with you, consultants must be able to ask the right questions at the right time. They should then be skilled in helping you find answers, rather than simply telling you what they believe the answers to be. If they do proffer an opinion or plan, they need to be able to describe the how as well as the what. It is the how – the steps to take to achieve an ultimate goal – that you’re ultimately paying them to reveal to you.
What you need from your consultant is also a movable feast. Sometimes you’ll want them to deliver concrete plans or practical advice. On other occasions, what you need might be as simple as a quick chat or someone to work as a sounding board. The best consultants can recognise when they need to be a consultant, a coach or a mentor.
Whilst we’re largely focussing on what to look for from a business consultant, it’s also worth mentioning something that can be viewed as a red flag. A prospective consultant who communicates in cliches or by using business double-speak and buzzwords is often best avoided. In many cases, they throw that trite, over-commercial language at clients to try to hide their deficiencies.
Cost & Other Practicalities
A consultant with all of the above traits is no good to you if you can’t afford to hire them. What a consultant charges and other practicalities are also vital factors to consider. For instance, do they charge in the manner that you prefer? Consultant’s fees can be charged hourly, by project or on a retainer basis. Each of those trio of different arrangements will suit some firms better than others.
Some consultants, too, may be willing to work on a part-fee, part-bonus basis. That means that the more tangible success their advice delivers, the more they themselves get paid. If a consultant is willing to work this way, it’s a good sign. It shows that they’re confident enough in the service they provide, to make some of their fee contingent on its success. They’re quite literally putting their money where their mouth is.
You should also check that a consultant is willing to sign a meaningful contract. That’s a contract which sets out goals, timeframes and other specifics. Finally, consider if the candidate is available to work when you need them. Can they start working with you straight away? Will you be able to contact them whenever you wish?
When talking about cost, it’s also important to mention value. A consultant should be able to clearly articulate the value that their input is going to add to your business. You, as a business owner, need to be able to ID and track the results of the consultancy relationship to ensure that value is indeed being added. That’s how to avoid being trapped in a relationship that may feel great, but deliver little in terms of tangible benefit.
Intangibles & Further Considerations
What we’ve talked about so far have been traits and aspects to look for from a consultant, which are somewhat tangible. At the very least, they’ve been things that you can realistically appraise before deciding whether to work with a prospective consultant or not.
There are other things that are desirable from a consultant, though, which are more difficult to assess before you start working with them. These are the things that the best business consultants deliver and as such, it’s still important to know and to think about them before you enter into a consultancy relationship.
One of the most important of these intangibles is the ability to help define a clear vision for your business. A good consultant must be able to understand your overall vision for your firm. They should also be able to help you build plans that can organise short-term business operations in such a way as to work towards that long-term goal.
How a consultant will work to achieve your goals is another important aspect to consider. Given the time pressures and responsibilities on small business owners, you want your consultant to be able to make progress independently. You shouldn’t have to chivvy them along at every turn to get things done. Ideally they will be self-motivated and possess the leadership qualities to move things forward without always needing your input.
On the flip side, though, you don’t want a consultant’s interactions with your company to bypass you entirely. The best consultants will not only bring tangible benefits to your business, but also help foster improvement in you as a person and professional. They’ll help build your confidence and abilities, making it less likely that you’ll have to seek the help of another consultant in the future.