sleeping owls - consultants

Getting the best results from employing consultants

Inviting a consultant into your business is a big commitment. Even more so if a whole gang arrive together. 

Not business as usual

It’s Monday, it’s 9am and already you’ve got a faulty printer, a production issue, one late order urgently awaiting a courier, and six new customer enquiries looking back you from your inbox. And now there’s a consultant skulking in your meeting room hugging a cup of tea, waiting for you.

It’s not business as usual.

About change

Consultants will disrupt you. That’s their brief – to elicit change.

But on Day One when you’ve got heaps of other things to get on with, their very presence in your office can knock you off balance if you’ve not planned for their arrival. And many owners don’t.

Getting to know you, your team and your business is a front-loaded effort, and that can result in you being stretched in many directions all at once.

Having a conversation beforehand about the amount of work, time or access they need from you will ensure the new working relationship gets off to the best start.

Joining the dots

You began your business with a passion for something. It’s a rare few for whom this passion is related to data capture and reporting. So your reporting and operating systems may well have evolved alongside your business with extra functionality being bolted on as the need arose. 

You may not have “one source of truth” for all of your data. Often the original business system will have been ‘augmented’ over the years. And now it is so embedded that no one dares try to integrate it properly or press the delete key. 

Your sales team may have differing records to production or marketing. And requests for data from consultants can cause much arm-wrestling and debate as to the legitimacy of each source. 

You will avoid this by collating as much as you can beforehand or agreeing on which data is the most reliable to use as a start point. You know exactly how to navigate this tangle and arrive at either the truth or a reasonable approximation. Consultants won’t. 

How you respond

Consultants ask pesky questions. About your data, your sources, the credibility of your numbers, your systems, people and ultimately even your decisions.

They will find the contradictions, the gaps and the inconsistencies. And there’ll be a conversation about them. All of which can feel threatening and judgemental if this is your baby and you’re now being told it’s not so pretty after all.

They can’t help you if they fail to share what they uncover, but how you respond to this will significantly affect the relationship you have and the benefits you reap.

As well as your day job

All of this comes on top of your day job. Which may already be taking up ten hours of the day and another three after dinner with your family. 

Having consultants in your business can be hugely energising – the promise of change, of enhanced ways of working, and improved results. But it can also be exhausting; both mentally and physically. 

You’ll help balance this by having a clear understanding about how long a project will take and how much of your time is required (by day or by week) Without this conversation, demands can feel un-manageable or un-reasonable; resulting in you trading quality for speed of response, or with you resenting the whole thing. Avoiding this helps ensure you get the best results.

Looking after you

Your capacity to support the work; your overall health, your need for rest and your level of resilience should all form part of your considerations regarding the pace of the work being done and how it’s resourced. You’re crucial to its success!

Knowledge lurks in dark corners

Regardless of their brief, consultants need to understand the wider context of your business which will pull you into areas that you have less passion for or less understanding of (Usually these go hand-in-hand)

Cut yourself some slack. It’s OK not to have every answer at your fingertips.

Questions aren’t asked to prove you wrong. Consultants often don’t know until they ask. And then only once the answer is forthcoming, will they determine whether they needed that answer in the first place!

Your patience might be tested, but the wider and deeper the consultant’s knowledge of how you work, the greater their ability to help you. 

Give me my watch back

If your previous life was in the corporate world you’ll have seen first-hand the highfalutin consulting Partners (with a capital P) selling their services, with the most junior, least-experienced members of the team then doing much of the actual work. 

Maybe you subscribe to the view that consultants will use your own watch to tell you back the right time. Implying that all they offer is an ability to re-tell you what you already know to be true. If that’s the case, then you’ve got the wrong folks helping you!

Let’s go looking

The Discovery Period (understanding your existing business in detail) is often crucial to the design of the solution or the implementation of new ways of working. However, it should also have clear outcomes agreed and you should know up front how long it will take, why it’s required and what it supports going forward. 

Understand the plan

If it looks as though it’s a Magical Mystery Tour with none of this defined for you, press for more detail. It’s your profit funding this.

Yes, the consultants may well return to you with data or facts you already know; but often the perspectives they offer, the correlations they unearth, or the opportunities they identify will be substantially different to how you will have viewed them.

Seeing the wood from the trees is easier to do if it’s not your own wood you’re standing in! 

The cost of change

Change costs. It takes time, it takes effort. It stops you and your team doing other things and it takes your money. Consultancy programmes can be derailed by the surprising cost of change required to implement the solution.

Unless you have commissioned a consultant to implement a pre-defined work system with a pre-agreed cost attached to the entire project (for example CRM) then it’s likely that neither you nor they will know exactly how the solution will look when you first set off. 

Stay curious

Continuing to question the implications of findings, ideas and options for solutions as they appear will help you reduce the chances of a surprise when solutions are formally tabled.

Consultants aren’t in the market of misrepresenting costs. Their reputation hinges on them being able to show that they make a tangible difference to owners like you. 

Value is really important to them.

No sides taken

It makes for a tricky programme of work where there’s more than one owner and trust has evaporated between them.

Consultants will always be on your side. However their work can be made harder and your benefits made slower to realise if you expect a consultant to help settle scores or make sense of mis-direction.

Consultants can be great navigators of politics and understand that different stakeholders will view the world from differing perspectives. They may well bring arbitration or mediation skills with them. But asking them to work with a broken ownership team is likely to set everyone up to fail unless it’s addressed first.

Keeping everyone engaged

Even when you’ve done everything you can to explain why you have invited consultants into your business, not everyone around you will be thrilled. 

Some won’t want their job or results scrutinised. Others don’t readily pursue change; and for some the mere suggestion that it’s needed will be interpreted as damnation of everything and everyone that’s gone before. Happy co-operation might then be in short supply.

It’s really frustrating to see this happen around you and to you, and it will require some unambiguous intervention from you if the suspicion becomes resistance or even worse – sabotage. 


Hold your nerve, keep sharing, talking and reinforcing the benefits of why you’re doing this.

Answer questions honestly and if you pick up sniffs of misinformation via the grapevine deal with them head-on and quickly.

Keep it human

It works in the opposite direction too. If you meet a consultant who insists in talking jargon at you. Appears bent on ensuring you know that they are clever than you. Or lacks the ability to laugh at themselves…how will you and your team feel about having them in your world? 

Doing the doing

To ensure change happens, it’s imperative that you work with people who can turn insight and ideas into pragmatic operational processes and systems that work for you.

Of course you need to appoint people who know their stuff. Always poke beyond the fancy titles to assure yourself that they do.

Operational experience is crucial

A long list of academic qualifications without the scars to show they have operational expertise means you risk being presented with solutions that are light on the ‘HOW’ of implementation.

Or worse still, you’ll be left with theoretical options that you and your team have to pick through and make work on your own. You could have bought a book.

Find consultants who have a blend of knowledge, expertise, real-life operational experience and business acumen at the level you need.

Then you’re onto a great thing. 

What got you here…

One of the toughest end results of working with consultants could be the realisation that some of your people are not best placed to take you forward. That’s a sad place to be but it happens.

For some it might be about re-positioning their role or moving them to something for which they are better suited. For others it might be about skilling them up and supporting them as they develop the capability required. For others it might be about letting them go.

It’s not a given, but if it does happen, how you treat your people will count for more than anything you’ve said or done through-out the entire project. 

Your legacy

It will influence how every project that comes afterwards is viewed by your team. For good or other.

It’s worth making sure that it’s for good!