Do We Need Consultants in Order to Transition to “New Normal”?
While the seemingly endless fight against the coronavirus continues, evidence of our movement toward the new normal is starting to appear. Our question this month addresses using consultants to help with that transition.
As with most parking operations, our volume has slowed over the past months due to COVID. But we are starting to see a moderate improvement in revenues and are considering hiring an outside resource to help us plan for the future. Do you have any recommendations for selecting a good consultant?
Pondering in Portland
Hello Pondering in Portland,
Thanks for the great question. It is good to see that you are considering what lies ahead and getting some help to plan for that future. Many organizations have taken this opportunity for future planning, training, and other administrative tasks that they didn’t have as much time for before Covid. Here are a few thoughts about picking a consultant.
As you enter this process, I would start by determining why you are looking to get a consultant in the first place. While I have heard many reasons over the years, they seem to come down to a few non-exclusive categories. These categories include: gaining outside expertise, providing project management, shepherding the procurement process, giving credibility to existing plans, and finally furnishing political cover/ plausible deniability to local leadership. Your particular reason(s) for choosing a consultant will impact the nature and qualities of the consultant that you end up selecting.
For the first three reasons listed above, I would recommend considering a few essential items. First, review the consultant’s qualifications and previous projects. Look for projects with similar goals as yours and experience in what you are looking to accomplish. Do not assume that because they work for a large consulting firm, the firm’s expertise (or brand name) will make up for lack of experience of your consultant. Keep in mind you will be working with that person regularly, and their skills and experience are what you are paying for at the end of the day.
Next, ask for a list of completed projects over the past three years with crucial project contacts and the project goals/deliverables. I would not accept a cherry-picking of references or preferred projects. Not every project goes well, but you want to know how your consultant performs both in successful and less than optimal situations. Reach out and have conversations with the critical project references, and if possible, have your team reach out to their equivalent on the previous project team. This peer-level contact allows for more job-specific information to be gathered and helps avoid the issue of higher-level managers soft-pedaling project results to avoid political ramifications.
Additionally, look at the final deliverables from these consultants. Do they appropriately answer the original project statement or question, and how much reuse is there between project reports? While there will always be some boilerplate, if you notice large sections of the same text between projects you can likely expect the same on your project deliverables. Finally, if applicable, ask your contacts how well the consultant’s predictions or recommendations matched actual outcomes. Try to figure out how closely the recommendations were ultimately followed to get an accurate idea of the consultant’s impact. Of course, you should not hold a consultant liable if none of their recommendations were put into action. But if the recommendations were followed and the predicted outcomes did not match or exceed the anticipated results, this should be taken into account. It is easy to make predictions when you know you will not be there to have to deal with the fallout if you are wrong.
If you are looking for a consultant for one of the last two reasons listed above, this can allow the process to be much more straightforward, overall. You are looking for someone willing to put what you ask in the report and do it in a way that does not look like they are taking direction. If this is your goal, I would recommend being upfront with the potential consultants during the interview process. They should know what they are getting into, have this unique skill set, and provide a price and timeline appropriate to your stated (but unwritten) goals. While this type of political cover will cost your organization, it should not cost as much, nor take as long as a full-on project.
Once you have selected a consultant, create a project statement and agreement that works to align your goals. This statement should create success criteria that ensure the deliverables you receive have long term value for your organization. Consider a phase-based payment schedule with clearly defined deliverables at each phase and an overall project success-based payment at the end. Another idea is to offer project bonuses for the predictive accuracy of measurable items. These might consist of actual cost savings, performance improvements, efficiency gains, or customer satisfaction rankings. The key to this is to make the goals quantitatively measurable, avoiding issues due to personal interpretation.
Finally, if a consultant recommends the purchase of goods or services from specific vendors, consider including a conflict of interest declaration in your agreement that ensures the consultant and their firm does not have any compensation agreements in place currently or in the past 12-24 months with any vendors. While it is rare, these sorts of agreements between vendors and consultants have been known to exist and have the opportunity to impact your project. Transparency is critical in your relationship with a consultant.
The right consultant can be of great value to your organization and project. Do your homework and create an agreement that transparently creates a win-win situation for both you and the consultant. Remember that no matter how great your consultant is, you know your organization best, and you will be the one who has to live with results, both positive and negative, after the consultant departs.
Good luck with your search!
If you found this helpful, completely disagree with me, or have other questions, please reach out. I look forward to hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.