CEOs of Hawaii’s small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) operate in an increasingly complex business environment. Their direct competitors often include large mainland enterprises and disruptive online powerhouses. This requires SMBs to be fairly sophisticated, innovative and nimble in their business operations. The cost of not evolving their business at the “speed of market” can be drastic.
Yet, unlike their competitors, Hawaii’s SMBs are limited in both – their financial ability and risk appetite. While enterprises and well-funded startups aggressively invest a significant share of their revenue in operational improvements and innovation, the share is much lower for most SMBs. Focused on their core operations, SMBs find it difficult to allocate resources for strategic projects. Also, while a failed project is a routine setback for most entrepreneurs and Fortune 500, it can cause a major crisis in an SMB.
More significantly, Hawaii’s SMBs are financially and geographically constrained in hiring the best employees or accessing world-class consultants to truly compete on a level playing field. Unfortunately, hiring a local, freelance consultant through word-of-mouth is often a recipe for disappointment and mediocre results.
Below, we propose an objective and proven approach to hiring outside consultants. We believe following these steps will lead to superior hiring, predictable project outcomes, and consequently, longer strides for an SMB’s growth.
BEFORE YOU HIRE
1. Know why you are hiring: Use a consultant only when you can reliably expect a better result than what your internal team can deliver. It is preferable if your key staff acknowledge this fact, before you hire a consultant. This will reduce friction during the project.
2. Triage the problem (or opportunity): There are multiple ways to tackle most problems. For example, a problem in flagging sales may require a new marketing strategy, or better training for your sales personnel, or developing new products or markets, etc. Each of these paths require a different professional consultant. Know your high-level need before you approach a consultant.
WHILE YOU HIRE
3. Minimize uncertainty: There multiple sources of uncertainty in diagnosing the root cause of a situation, the choice of the consultant, and in deciding whether the money is being spent wisely. To mitigate these risks, we recommend the following steps.
a. Find the right specialist, no matter where they are.
b. Discuss your specific situation, talking in generalities is a waste of time.
c. If you can afford it, hire a firm instead of an individual. Their internal processes and reviews deliver more consistent results that a freelancer or even a coalition of freelancers find difficult to match.
d. Ask not “can you solve the problem”, ask “how have you solved a similar problem before”.
e. Look to interview at least 2 to 3 providers. See who listens well and teases out the “real problem”.
g. Compare their relative approaches towards working out a solution.
4. Disregard salesmanship: Discount the selling ability, brand value and personality of the provider. Once you find the right expert, the only remaining question is, can you see yourself collaborating effectively with the consultant?
AFTER YOU HIRE
5. Have high expectations: Service professionals rise or fall to client expectations.
6. Get off to a running start: Look for ways to shorten the “learning curve” for the consultant (it is very expensive). Consider adding relevant internal staff to the project team.
7. Break down big projects: Large, long consulting projects have higher failure rates. Try to scope them into smaller pieces of work. If that is not possible, establish clear progress milestones and provide the allowance for course correction. A good consultant should be able to help you do that.
8. Pay for results: Gain-share, fee-at-risk, performance-pay…there are several ways for getting your consultant’s skin in the game. If you do your part in selecting the right provider, you’ll be surprised to find them open to such fee arrangements.
Lastly, a true professional is not a commodity. The best consultants have demonstrable knowledge in their domain, a good understanding of the limits of their expertise, and a collaborative disposition to get things done in a new environment.
When the stakes are high, the difference between the best and second best can be the difference between success and failure. Keep that in mind while doing price and value evaluations.
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