Buying Consultancy Services

Consultants can be a bit like Marmite, you either love 'em or you hate 'em, so why do we use them?

It can sometimes be to confirm what you already know or suspect, but in general the role of a consultant is one of advisor, providing specialist knowledge, to address an issue or issues.

With so many to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to begin. After all you don’t have to be licensed or registered to be a consultant; anyone can do it, so how do you find the right one for you?

Like many services, consultants are usually hired on their ability to persuade or impress you that they understand your problems and know just how to solve them. It’s therefore likely that you will have formed an opinion within a few seconds of meeting them, using your instincts or gut feeling to decide whether you can trust them to deliver. 

That’s great and it’s difficult to remove emotion from buying but it needs to be backed up with some sound reasoning, so the following five areas have been identified to help you make the right decision.

What do you want the consultant to deliver?

Sounds like common sense but it’s not. Many people decide to engage a consultant because they have a problem that needs solving but without some context or scope the consultant can easily go off down a blind alley. Are you looking for insight as to why the problem exists and you’ll deal with the solution internally? Or do you already know why, but need help with the resolution?  The reasons for taking on a consultant are varied, for example:

  • You’re looking for confirmation that you’re right. This is a common theme when senior managers are looking for support to gain acceptance for ideas from the Board. Testing and gaining agreement for your views through a third party can be powerful.
  • You need to gain a deeper understanding of the situation and learn from someone with tried and tested experience.
  • You’re looking for new ideas and creative solutions, which an external viewpoint can bring.

What do you need to see at the end?

This links to the previous point and should form part of the brief for the consultant. For consultancy to be effective there must be a tangible end result, which could consist of any of the following suggestions...

  • A plan of action
  • A tool for change based on clear recommendations
  • Analysis of internal working practices to be used for strategic purposes
  • A new product or service
  • Completion of a task or project requiring specialist input
  • Confirmation that all is well

What relevant experience does the consultant have?

Many people decide to become a consultant in the final stages of their career, with the expectation that the vast experience they have gained over the years can be used to help others. That’s of great value if you’re looking for tried and tested solutions and the consultant has a background in your industry or sector.

The downside is that some consultants rest on their laurels and fail to keep abreast of modern developments and working practices. The golf course beckons and the consultancy work becomes a side line.

The way to assess this aspect is to ask the following questions...

  • What work have they carried out that relates to your issue/project over the last twelve months?
  • What were the outcomes?
  • How do they keep up to date with new legislation and initiatives?

Don’t be afraid to test their knowledge and look at their website. If the information isn’t recent and the format is old fashioned, that will tell you a lot about their approach to their work.

How can I trust a consultant to deliver? 

When beginning your search for a consultant you can of course scour the internet, and you will find pages and pages listing consultants. Your search can be narrowed to a particular sector to reduce the number; however the first one or two pages will allow the internet savvy consultant to leap to the fore.  It’s not a bad place to start but shouldn’t be relied upon as the only method of discovery.

A more reliable way of sourcing a consultant is through word of mouth from one of your networking contacts. Personal recommendations will give you a greater insight into the quality and validity of their work, providing reassurance that it’s not all sales patter. 

Take up references. Talk to the people who have used their consultancy services previously and find out how they work and what was delivered.  Ask the consultant about working for clients on more than one project. Repeat business suggests high levels of satisfaction.

Finally what associations or organisations do they belong to?  What roles do they play and are they passive or active members? This will also support point three, with keeping up to date and expanding their knowledge. You may also wish to check the levels of the consultant’s professional indemnity, to ensure compensation can be claimed for any wrong doings.

How do I know what it will cost me?

Finally, when you are sure the consultant is genuine; you need to understand the charging mechanism. Based on all of the information you have given about what you are looking to achieve, the consultant must provide a schedule of the work to be carried out with the rates clearly specified. The key elements that must be included are...

  • The day rate and an estimate of the number of days work required.  Ideally this should be fixed.  In some circumstances you may need some flexibility and prefer an ad hoc arrangement for the number of days, whilst agreeing the rate per day for the entire project.
  • Expenses must be clearly stated as being included or in addition.  If not included, then an agreement of what can be claimed, at what rate, must be in place.
  • Any costs for work performed outside the scope of the agreement must be made clear in advance of the work being carried out.
  • A formal agreement or contract should be in place confirming the scope of work, timescales and expectations of the engagement.

Consultants are an important and valuable part of the business world, so selecting the right one for your organisation will deliver value for money. Get it wrong and it adds to your problems, so buy wisely!


Wendy Sutherland
Ramsay Todd Ltd

©July 2013