How do you find and retain a good consultant?
by Joerg Schulze-Clewing
That is always a tough one. I often found myself in the same predicament, for example when in need of an engineer who could design plastic enclosures for injection molding. Or when I needed high level firmware done. It is the same challenge that I faced when in need for an attorney who could handle a trademark issue. How do you go about that if you never needed one before?
Sure, consultants can come up with a few. However, most are bound by confidentiality which renders the disclosure of previous work relationships difficult. After all, many clients call upon a consultant as a last resort when they are in dire straits. They often feel embarrassed about the fact that it came to that point and prefer not to talk about it later. Also, they are concerned that any talk about previous engagements might reveal too much detail about their business. Some assignments might even have to be left off a resume.
Networks? That usually works best but not if facing a very new or unusual challenge. The only hope here is that one of your manager friends had a similar case and can recommend someone. That is how I found a good attorney. Another avenue would be a posting in a peer forum that you can trust.
This can either be a mailer by a consultant, a web site like this one, a presentation or maybe a publication. That is a start and helps in pre-selecting, to find someone whose skill set matches the need. However, it won't come close to the interview because advertising merely shows a skill set the consultant claims to have. There usually isn't too much information about the level of qualification in a particular skill.
To me this is clearly the best method to find out whether a consultant is right. Any consultant should agree to a half hour or more of phone discussion, without charge. Sometimes it may be necessary to have a prospective consultant talk to the team at the plant in which case a reasonable compensation would be in order. This way the problem at hand can be presented and consultants can be evaluated based on the approach they suggest, their demeanor, team spirit and other traits. Coincidentally that is my approach when I have to interview engineer candidates for clients. What better way than to discuss the task at hand, or "in medias res" as the old Romans used to say? Just make sure that a non-disclosure agreement is in place beforehand if the discussion might reveal trade secrets or is likely to go into technical details.
A contract should always be in place before serious work begins. It protects both sides and can also help to clarify before agencies and other bodies that this is a consulting relationship and not employment.
Do not be surprised if a consultant insists on liability indemnification. They usually have to and the reason is very simple: For many types of projects in independent R&D it has become impossible to obtain insurance because underwriters have dropped much of the US market. The reason why consultants will insist on indemnification and also the reason why carriers have receded is our rather bizarre tort law. Suppose a customer buys a system. Then someone lifts it, accidentally drops it on someone else's foot and now claims that the handles are too slippery. Anyone who has been remotely involved can be exposed, possibly even a consultant who merely optimized a tiny electronic circuit in there.
For clients a contract ensures their rights to the intellectual property that a consultant creates for them on paid time. This is especially important when the work the consultant delivers is to become part of a licensing deal or a merger with a larger corporation. After all, the potential acquirer doesn't want to buy into something where the legal situation is not fully clarified.
Retaining a consultant you like
Best is to keep a good mutual understanding and stay in touch. A contract can be kept current even if there isn't any acute need. This makes it easy to pick up the phone and obtain help right away, without having to wait until a new agreement has cleared the hurdles.
Staying in touch after a project is finished has another benefit. Good consultants will drop a line to a former client if they come across a publication or other news where they feel that the client should know about it. Examples where I do that are when I hear of rulemaking proposals of an agency that could affect a client's product, or when I see technological advances that could greatly improve a client's product or bottomline profit.