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From time to time, every organization should bring in a consultant to augment their work. It’s just good practice. Third parties provide invaluable points of view that we simply cannot see on our own, given our proximity to our situation. Plus, they bring specialized expertise that most organizations cannot afford to keep on staff full-time. However, not every consultant is right for every situation.

When Selecting a Consultant

Truth be told, Spencer Brenneman is not right for every potential client. Likewise, not every potential client is right for us. So, here are six dynamics you should consider when selecting a consultant and six dynamics consultants consider when looking at you.

Expertise in what they do. Do they know what they’re doing? In most situations, the answer will be yes, yes they do. Although, some consultants, particularly the newer ones, might try to suggest they can do it all, when in reality they’re probably better off doing just a part of it.

Expertise in what you do. This characteristic is a tough one. On one hand, it might make sense to bring someone in who has years of experience in your field. However, in many situations having a complete outside perspective can prove beneficial. In situations where the consultant does not inherently know an industry they will invariably ask the question, “Why?” more often than one who does. These types of consultants are more likely to get responses which lead to, “Well, I never thought about it really. It’s just what everyone does.” That usually leads to thoughtful reconsiderations that change approaches for the better.It’s a balance, of course. It’s not a great use of your time or money to work with a consultant who requires remedial education on what you do. For example, if you’re a biotech organization looking for someone to help you streamline your research and development function, they had better know how research and development works.

Working style. Some consultants are extremely structured and some are more laidback. Both styles can work but not at every organization. Make certain the style your consultant has aligns with the style you enjoy—or need—most.

Approach. Does the consultant have a pre-determined approach or methodology for the engagement? The answer to that question really should be yes. How rigidly they approach is another matter. Work in a heavily regulated environment should absolutely follow a specific path. Other situations may call for a bit more flexibility.

Feedback. It’s always important to understand how the consultant prefers to receive your feedback. If they’re uncomfortable talking about their preferences, it might indicate they’re uncomfortable receiving any feedback at all.

Existing relationships. Does the consultant have an existing relationship with someone else in your organization? If so, what is it? Is it personal or professional? The latter is typically a good one to have as it demonstrates a track record of success. If It’s personal, be certain to clarify with them and their internal contact how they plan to keep their personal associations at bay during the engagement.

When Consultants Are Selecting You

To be fair, here are some of the characteristics consultants will try to determine before agreeing to work with a client.

Commitment. When thinking about working with a consultant, be certain that you and your organization are committed to the project. Delayed responses and multiple rescheduled meetings send the message that this project is not a priority and the consultant may be signing up to waste a lot of time.

Buy-in. Before a consultant agrees to work with you, they are most likely checking for project buy-in, especially within a working group. Granted, most projects will have detractors from within the organization, but they shouldn’t be among the working group.

Decision makers. Speaking of the decision-makers, there has to be one and only one. Most consultants are wary of working for a committee with no clear place for the buck to stop. That is a situation begging for chaos, spun wheels, duplicated work, and—to be blunt—diminished profit margin.

Working style. An organization that produces an excessively long RFP will scare off most savvy consultants. It sends the message that the relationship is likely to be petty, tedious, and focused on minutia, not the big picture. Of course, it is important for organizations to compare apples to apples. However, you can accomplish that with a few well-written questions.

While we’re on the topic of RFPs, they are not always the level-setting tool they’re intended to be. The truth is, only larger consultants have the staffing to complete exhaustive RFPs, cutting out smaller firms, which are more likely to be owned by professionals from under-represented communities than larger ones.

Partnership. Along the same lines, consultants sizing you up as a potential client will look for signs that you’re looking for a partner, not a servant. If they get the sense you’re looking for more of an order-taker than someone who can help you accomplish something you cannot on your own, they’re likely to pass.

Something for nothing. Most consultants will be on the lookout for organizations looking for free advice, either intentionally or unintentionally. If you ask all potential consultants to share an example of how they would fix your problem, that means someone is not going to be reimbursed for their time, talent, and experience. Be certain to pose questions about how they work, not what the work would be.

A positive relationship with a good consultant can lead to real transformation. Finding the right one takes a careful look at them and yourself.

What do you think? What have we missed? What have we gotten wrong? Let us know!

P.S., If you like lists like these, be sure to check out “List Bump: Lists of Actionable Insights for Communicators,” by Spencer Brenneman Ring Leader Douglas Spencer, available on

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