As I go about my life, I will sometimes meet the owner of a small to mid-size business who, when I say that I’m a Freelance business strategy and marketing consultant who works with companies that need a professional to solve problems and get the company on track to grow and become profitable, or achieve other important objectives, they tell me about a business goal or obstacle they’re wrestling with. They ask if we can grab a coffee and talk sometime soon?
The stories that the business owners share are familiar—marketing problems, especially social media and content marketing questions; cash-flow bottlenecks; how to best launch a new product or develop a niche market; branding; pricing; and how can we scale and grow the company? Maybe a consultant can help?
Hiring a Freelance consulting expert can be helpful. The right specialist will give business owners and leaders an unbiased “view from 30,000 feet” of the business, making it possible to pinpoint problem areas and recommend strategies that will guide the organization to growth and profit. A consulting specialist can be brought in to address nearly any business need, from accounting, management and marketing to selling skills, IT, operations and even telephone etiquette.
If you hire the right person, the consulting fee will more than pay for itself, and save or make money for the organization. Consulting specialists work only on specific, predetermined business needs and do not add to the company payroll.
“Consultant” is a generic term; there are at least four types. Business consultants have a specific area of expertise based on their work experience and educational background—strategy, marketing, branding, sales training and financial management are common specialties. Process consultants develop practical solutions to improve a company’s day-to-day operations and overall functioning. IT consultants solve problems for those who need help with technology, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, cloud, cyber security and the Internet of Things. Executive coaches are counselors who guide clients through a wide variety of business or personal challenges. Increasingly, executive coaches do not have business expertise; many are psychologists (PhDs). Here’s a seven-point strategy to ensure you get the most from the consultant you’d like to hire.
Interview a prospective consultant before you hire. Questions to ask include: “What is your experience in my industry or field? Can you describe problems similar to mine that you’ve handled? Can you offer me full confidentiality and represent me without conflict of interest with your other clients?”
Also, confirm that the consultant will regularly communicate with the company contact person and prepare periodic progress reports. Request a written proposal that spells out how s/he plans to approach the organization’s problem, the approximate time needed and the fee you’ll be charged. If the business owner approves, that will serve as the contract.
As you evaluate a consultant’s experience and skills, consider your working relationship. Do you like and trust the person? Do you have a good rapport with him/her?
A consultant is an advisor, not a miracle worker. If your marketing campaign hasn’t increased sales for the past six months, don’t expect a consultant to turn business around overnight. If someone promises to do so, be skeptical. You want a consultant who is knowledgeable in your industry or field and can recommend a workable solution, which is often not a quick fix.
The business owner must decide what tasks to pursue and commit that to writing. The more specific, the better. There can be no confusion about the assignment. Asking for a strategy to increase sales by 10 % within 12 months, or increase social media followers by 25 % in a similar time frame, will ensure that the consultant understands the expectations.
On your end
The business owner should anticipate the information and resources that the consultant will likely need to do the job. Consider what documents, metrics, history are essential, along with any office equipment, office space, supplies, or team members that can make the job progress at a smooth and efficient clip.
The money talk
Some consultants charge flat rates or bill by the hour, the day, or the project. Others charge a contingency fee, in which the amount paid is based on the results. For instance, if a consultant reduces business operating expenses by $10,000, s/he might receive 10 % of the savings as the total fee or as a bonus in addition to the flat rate. I estimate that the average full-time consultant charges $75 to $150 per hour.
Ask the prospective hire for three recent references—and call them. You want to know if the consultant accomplished what was promised within the agreed-upon deadline, if s/he communicated regularly and if the company would hire the consultant again. Ideally, the consultant will have worked for at least one client who operates a businesses similar to yours.
Prepare a written agreement (the project proposal referenced above will usually suffice) that clearly spells out the terms of the arrangement. Define the services to be performed, the starting and ending dates, the fee schedule and how it will be paid, milestones, expenses that the business owner agrees to pa, and services the consultant will provide. For contracts $10,000 or more, the business owner is recommended to ask a business attorney to review and edit/ approve the agreement.
Thanks for reading,
Photograph: © Paramount Pictures. Robert Duvall ([L]as attorney and advisor Tom Hagen) shares information with his only client, Marlon Brando (as family business CEO Vito Corleone) in the multi-Academy Award winning film The Godfather, Part I (1972).