Consultants “can” be instrumental to a business. But since consultancy is broadly irregulated, everyone can update their LinkedIn headline and start a consulting career out of nowhere.
There are lots of people who try to offer consulting without really knowing what they consult on.
Navigating through the consulting landscape is extremely challenging without a reliable reference or enough budget for a top industry peer and hiring a random person on the Internet to help your business is just as reliable as hiring a freelancer or finding a plumber through Yellow Pages.
The Importance of Business Consulting
Business consulting is so popular because:
- Most businesses are not founded by serial entrepreneurs with a successful track record in bootstrapping and growing successful companies.
- MBAs starting businesses don’t have a ton of industry expertise, dealing with politics, and actual day-to-day of running the business operations.
- Niche experts who decided to branch out and start a business often excel at doing the work, but lack the critical skills to sell, market, negotiate, manage, recruit, and deal with bookkeeping or legal risks.
- Professional consultants have walked the walk and can confidently point you in the right direction.
- Hiring a business consultant or advisor as a sanity check will enable you to confidently move forward.
The best athletes work with coaches. Many of the world’s top leaders have mentors.
Business consultancies like Accenture, Capgemini, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG have all generated north of $10,000,000,000 in consulting revenue throughout 2019.
Making strategic business decisions can tank your company without the right preparation. Working with experienced business consultants and advisors will minimize the risk and focus your attention on the right type of problems instead.
Choosing the Type of Consulting You Need
How unique is your problem?
Niche solutions may be more complicated to solve. You want to maximize the value of an advisory relationship or a set of consulting calls.
Ways to Structure Business Relationships
Business relationships can be structured in different ways:
Defining your requirements clearly is the first step.
- Some consulting arrangements take a couple of hours a month.
- An on-site session for a day or two with your senior management team may be more productive for you and your team.
- A one-off sprint for a couple of weeks can solve pressing problems for a high tier investment you want to pursue.
Understanding what sort of help you need and what opportunities will benefit you the most will narrow down the list of vendors you can possibly work with.
Ways to Find a Business Consultant
Once you’ve defined the area you need help with, you can move on to the discovery phase. It may not be easy to find the right consultant for your specific needs but there are some spaces you can check up on, like:
- Search on Google
- Explore Consulting Networks
- Leverage Your Personal Network
- Visit Industry Events
- Join Online Communities
- Examine Online Consultants
Search on Google
You can search for terms relevant to the business problems you’re aiming to solve, such as:
- “Management consulting for small businesses”
- “Best consultants to scale my business”
- “Top digital consultants for startups”
- “List of the best advisors in San Francisco”
- “Available mentors for drop shipping firms”
This is the quickest way to get some contact details.
But this will mostly reveal consulting firms with enough budget and motivation to pay for AdWords ads and invest heavily in SEO. Not necessarily applicable for individual consultants or mentors.
The more you niche down, you will discover certain people with former expertise in your industry.
And while this is a good first step, you can cross-reference your list with other approaches described below.
Explore Consulting Networks
Clarity is a network that lists a few thousand consultants across different areas of expertise. OnFrontiers is another option, and there are a couple of smaller ones.
Similarly, mentorship communities and groups exist. Small business bureaus as well. This works for niches where membership is almost “expected” and consultants apply and participate frequently.
The beauty of similar consulting networks is the ability to quickly get in touch with a consultant without going through a complex “interviewing” process, signing contracts, and tedious negotiations. You can literally schedule a call for the next day and dive into your case.
I’ve used Clarity both as an advisor and a client. It allowed me to meet the sales director of a premium sales CRM I’ve been using and refine important steps in our sales workflow. And I had a 30-minute call with a VC who introduced me to a startup network in LA that I still keep in touch with.
Leverage Your Network
Tapping into your network may reveal potential business collaborations.
The “friends and family” circle is a starting point. Partners, vendors, and other peers in your industry. Ask on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn when in doubt, someone may come up with a referral who can help.
Odds are, you can get in touch with someone who is sufficiently experienced in this field of work and is willing to work with you or refer someone they know.
Here’s where the “top of mind” rule comes really handy. Some of your peers will recommend the go-to person whenever they think of a particular industry or a problem.
Over 200 people connected with me over the past several years for WordPress consulting, even long after I abandoned the technical consulting field. Book authors, conference speakers, and experts interviewed at podcasts and magazines often make the top of the list – and sometimes can help you, too.
Visit Industry Events
Local consultants hang out at meetups and conferences. Some speak, others network, and some sponsor or facilitate other clients of theirs.
Even if you can’t find a consultant there, event organizers or volunteers may know someone. A small group of people works as “networkers” who connect different vendors with one another, and you’ll recognize them by the constant flow of interactions and consecutive conversations with everyone in the hall.
Events are truly powerful when looking for niche experts. Most industry leaders speak at similar events. Or their companies sponsor them. Or that’s where they hang out with old friends, colleagues, and partners on a regular basis.
Join Online Communities
Social media, Quora, forums, Facebook groups — whatever works in your field.
Tons of people use Quora for personal or corporate branding. Industry groups on Facebook gather all sorts of people, consultants and advisors included.
You can even connect with and pitch investors on Quora – that’s how powerful the network is.
LinkedIn is a common source for finding consultants, too. Some invest heavily in Twitter if that’s a network you leverage occasionally.
Online reputation is important for seasoned and professional consultants. With the right search filters and joining the right business groups, you can find some top talent there.
Indirect Consultants and Mentors
A category I call “virtual mentors”. People often neglect the source of the insights they receive on a daily basis online.
Open your History tab in your browser. Sift through the last 30 posts you’ve read that taught you something relevant.
Who wrote them?
Even sites like Forbes, Inc., HuffPost work with thousands of contributors. Look up their social profiles or websites. Some of them probably offer consulting and coaching services — if you have received invaluable advice from them, consider reaching out yourself.
If they don’t explicitly offer consulting services, look them up on Clarity, Quora, LinkedIn. They may be interested in chatting with you anyway.
I follow closely several influencers I’ve learned a lot from. Some of them offer consulting and others don’t (or it costs a fortune). But these resources can set the base framework you will discuss with your consultant once you find the right one.
On Vetting Business Consultants
There are lots of people who try to sell consulting services without really knowing what they consult on. After you’ve done your research and you’ve possibly listed some consultants down, it’s time to learn how to vet them. I use a simple checklist before reaching out for help in a niche area.
Three words: references, background, public appearance.
Look up References
This covers several areas — their portfolio (of clients), CV, case studies, or references from people in your network.
LinkedIn recommendations may help, though these tend to be more positive than realistic for the most part. Then again, 40+ positive reviews for an advisor or a consultant are rarely fabricated.
Their CV should demonstrate experience in their corresponding areas.
Case studies could really help you figure out what they do, specialize at, and the types of problems they solve (including their strong areas of expertise which vary across consultants).
Recognition in podcasts and guest pieces (or interviews) is too powerful. The same goes for authoring a book or a podcast on the matter.
Run Background Checks
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for youngsters to offer consulting advice with only a couple of years working in the field or even after an MBA.
Needless to say, this won’t get you the results you are looking for. Sure, a consultant may have been working in the same corporation for 15 years with a narrow overview of the larger ecosystem, or even in a completely different field.
But having worked with various clients on different initiatives help to validate your experience and adjust your workflow across organizations.
Also, I’d rather hire someone with 5 years of experience in my niche industry than someone with 15 years in a completely different type of business.
Consider Public Appearance
Most consultants out there engage in different forms of PR, branding, or marketing initiatives.
- Public speaking (presenting at conferences, teaching courses)
- TV or radio appearances, podcasts
- Content marketing
- Guest posts
- Collaborative work
This can be extremely helpful while reverse-engineering their mindset and deciding for yourself.
I know dozens of capable consultants who are excellent advisors… for other businesses but not mine.
And I have declined dozens of advisory and consulting requests whenever I don’t fully understand the core business model.
Going through the three categories above will help you make an educated guess rather than buying into a sales pitch.
Why Trusting a Consultant May Be Challenging
A portion of all consultants are in it just for the money (or the job flexibility). They know they can deliver what was promised, but are not really involved in the outcome itself.
Another group of consultants sees that as a career progression. They study the semantics of the job and the usual cases taught at school and MBA (or relevant) courses. These are more common in larger agencies working in an account management capacity or the like.
I’ve hired consultants several times over the years. Some of them saved major clients we worked with, assisted with high-level recruitment strategy, refined our sales playbooks.
Using Clarity, I managed to connect with professionals in different industries that shaped our processes for the best.
In fact, what I learned from working with different business consultants during all these years is: Most consultants do care about the outcome. They take pride in what they do. Success is important for closing more deals and building confidence while generating real ROI.
But entrusting an individual with your business know-how in exchange for a hefty hourly/project fee is tough, especially when working with a consultant comes with its own challenges. Misalignments may arise for various reasons, including a different vision in terms of execution, different priorities, different workflow.
Common Mistakes for Achieving Results in Consulting
There are four key mistakes that businesses working with consultants do that prevent them to achieve results:
- Picking the wrong type of consultant
- A mismatch between a business position and consulting
- Lack of a unique spot to deliver results
- Lack of engagement after the report
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
1. Working With The Wrong Consultant
Hiring a strategy consultant for financial advice will likely fail. The same goes for contacting an IT consultant for operations or management.
Some talented individuals have spent 20+ years across multiple organizations, wearing different consulting hats.
But everyone has a strong suit or two. They are fully aware of the broader picture, having worked with strategists, directors, and consultants in every area.
This doesn’t mean they know each and every field in-depth. A history of experiments and data analysis are what make a consultant an expert in their field.
Speaking of the field, hiring a consultant who is an expert in a different field is questionable.
A manufacturing business won’t benefit from all ideas applicable to digital companies or a logistics company. There sure is an overlap. But every industry has its own quirks worth considering when aligning the strategy for success.
2. A Mismatch Between The Business And The Consultant
It could be the culture fit or the industry mismatch.
But a common problem is working with a consultant used to advising large enterprises.
Startups have limited resources. An enterprise-grade consultant is used to delegating activities to hundreds of people at a time, pulling tens of millions from the accounting department for ERPs, onboarding programs, fundraising campaigns, etc.
And corporations working with startup consultants will face different challenges. The limited vision of the caveats large corporations face will lead to a different type of answer more suitable to a smaller organization.
Consultants have their own moral code they stick with (or best practices they know work best). If you run a social network but your main business is selling data to corporations, some consultants may definitely decline the opportunity to work with you or terminate the contract as soon as they realize what’s going on.
It’s no different than religious or political beliefs. Make sure your north star is aligned with what the consultant believes in.
3. Lack of a Smooth Process That Brings Results
Great consultants are wildly successful in two niche cases:
- Solving critical problems that lose tons of money.
- Finding a series of opportunities lying around, exploiting them with an optimal workflow.
If you hire a $500/hr consultant to resolve a bug that saves you $50/month, and they spend 6 hours sorting it out, your business will take 5 years to see a real gain out of their work.
However, assume you hire the same consultant to optimize a process where 80 workers of yours waste 2 hours a week at $20/hour, and they spend 40 hours to get the job done.
You pay the consultant 40 * $500 or $20,000.
12 months later, your organization has saved $166,400 in sunken costs thanks to the right process deployed internally. And this doesn’t account for the added savings for every new employee in this department!
Growth opportunities look alike.
You need a really solid foundation that can be calibrated to yield outstanding results. Otherwise, your consultant will send you a long list of prerequisites before they can effectively jump in and turn you into a success story.
4. Ignoring Directives and Action Items
Do you know what’s the difference between a free e-book and a $50 book containing the same tips?
Human beings don’t want to waste money. Once they pay a “higher-than-average” price for a course or a book, there is a better chance the strategies will be applied in practice.
I’ve seen dozens of managers who pay 5 figures to a consultant and then completely neglect their action plan.
- There’s nobody who can “manage” the process and ensure it will work.
- It’s “too expensive”.
- They don’t buy into the long-term vision.
- It’s a lower priority.
Is this the consultant’s fault? It may be every now and then, but paying premium for an advice and then ignoring the steps required to grow further won’t help at all.
If you aren’t ready to commit to a long-term consulting strategy, a mentorship arrangement may be a better starting point. Then again, professionals should know better.
If you’re still unsure of the areas in your business that need work, sign up for my free business accelerator. The 8-week course covers a number of areas related to strategy development, marketing, sales, recruitment, management, and best practices for executives. Once you identify the niche that requires more work, you will be more confident during the research process for the right consultant.