Thursday, September 24, 2015

3 Questions to Ask Your Consultants

Consultants often get a bad rap. Some offer true value, experience, and expertise, while others charge you to provide feedback that you could have obtained yourself with some diligence and effort within your own organization. A friend of mine refers to that as "borrowing your watch to tell you what time it is." I've also seen output of some consulting organizations that amounts to little more than a wish list of the few people that could be spared from the team to talk to the consultants. So how do you avoid receiving this kind of output? Here are a few questions that can guide your discussions in the right direction.

What are our competitors doing?

Most consultants won't specifically name what competitors they have worked with, but they can give you a general sense of where the market trends point and what the competitive landscape looks like. You'll want to do your research to make sure that you believe that they actually worked with these competitors, but even a small firm forced to do that research for you will provide more benefit than you can squeeze out of your own employees. You can also use this question to challenge your goals and metrics. Are you trying to squeeze an extra ten percent improvement in performance in an area where you already compete or exceed your competitors, while ignoring other areas where you are clearly deficient?

What are the broad themes that we need to change?

This question forces a summary view, and it can be particularly beneficial when you receive a list of what appears to be minutiae. Not only does it require additional analytical thought on the part of the consultants, but you also get a broader view of the problem that an outsider can help to provide. When faced with specific change requests, some groups may have a tendency to be defensive, but broadening the themes can make them generic enough to avoid finger-pointing. Not only that, but the thematic elements also provide guidance that can be used across other areas of the business.

What part of this will be outdated in eighteen months?

Asking for forward-looking projections may only be slightly more or less accurate than the fortune cookie that came with my lunch, but asking this question may drive a few beneficial responses. First, a good consultant should be able to present you with overall technology and climate changes that may affect your future, even if some of it is totally speculative (and he or she should be able to differentiate their speculation from likely fact). This question also forces a second-guessing of their own analysis to identify what parts of their analysis might become outdated and explain why you should act anyway.


You want to pay consultants for analysis and insight. Many consultants will come in with a standard engagement to learn about your business and how it currently operates. That's nothing to be scared of, but you should take proactive steps to make sure that descriptive outputs of the status quo or pure regurgitation of solutions from your own staff should be taken with a grain of salt. Asking probing questions can drive higher performance out of your consultants and better results.