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When the going gets tough, call in a capable consultant

What do these situations have in common? In the last month, the city council of a 100,000-population locale in Virginia announced the planned departure of its city manager and the need to search for a replacement. At about the same time, the school superintendent of an adjacent county announced a move to the St. Louis area. A small, university-oriented city wants to study the feasibility of establishing a public transit system. A marina owner is considering building more capacity for an anticipated economic uptick. A large business association's convention committee is seeking a speaker on a specialized financial topic.

So what do they all have in common?

Each situation calls out for "help." As children, we would call out for our mom or dad to help us with a problem, "knowing" that they would be experts on most anything. Later in life, we might call on teachers for help. Eventually, we may call on "fellow students" in college or one of our professors. Hopefully, colleagues will be developed to offer professional counsel in business. We go to our physician for medical help; our attorney for legal counsel; our religious leader for spiritual help. In business, a source of professional help had developed over time and is used often - perhaps too often - in business and in government circles.

It is likely most of the above situations will in some manner utilize a consultant to develop a solution or perhaps the solution for the organization. You know consultants - those people who live 100 or more miles away, carry briefcases and have business cards. You may also know the consultant as the person who comes in and always renders a plausible solution, given the parameters you have established. It is likely all who are reading this have been involved with consultants. Some have been good experiences; others not so good. Some have paid "through the nose" for nothing, while others have gotten a real bargain.

What do you know about consultants? What must you do before even considering seeking a consultant? Where would you start in searching for a consultant? What would you expect the consultant to do? What would you expect to pay? Would you want a consultant from the same state or one at a distance from your location? Would you want a national firm to assist? What questions do you have about consultants? Let's consider each of these items.

  • What is the scope of work that you wish to be completed?

What are the questions you wish answered? What time frame do you have? What are the consequences of a poor quality effort to the organization and to the user of the consultant's information, suggestions or recommendations?

It is urgent that a senior management leader and an appropriate staff manager work together to develop this scope of work. It should be as detailed as possible. The management team should agree on the scope of work prior to seeking someone or a firm to engage to address the scope of work. Regretfully, this is not done in the majority of cases. Where there is no plan of consultation work generally agreed upon by the management team, the result will be more expensive and less responsive to the needs of the organization. It will take far more time to complete the project, including greater amounts of management time at various levels. Yet this is often the course followed.

  • What do you really want from the consultant?

Put bluntly, which of the following two types of consultants do you really want? Type A consultants will come in and listen to the various actors and learn how the senior management team feels and prepare a report that will support what that management team or individual wants to do. In reality, the consultant is used to support management's position or plan and can later serve as the "whipping boy" if the plan is not successful. Type B consultants will do part of the same: interview all the relevant actors and assess the organization's environment and its current business position and gather all external data necessary to approach the assignment with an objective posture. Unless a single "best" solution is specified in the plan of work, the consultant will often offer two or more possible approaches to be considered by management. Pros and cons for each will be offered, and unless one approach far outweighs any other, many consultants shy away from suggesting that any one is to be preferred.

  • Where would you go to get a consultant?

Most consultants have areas of particular expertise. You do not want a marketing consultant to address human resources issues. Most managers prefer a seasoned professional rather than a young (wet behind the ears) new staff member, except in one area. I remember years ago being told by a city manager that I should grow a beard to make myself look older. In the field of information technology, many clients prefer younger professionals. The younger are viewed as being more up-to-date in the field. A typical information technology firm will constantly be recruiting new blood for the organization. Within five years, the IT consultant likely will have departed the firm, either to join the IT staff of a former client or to move into other areas. The consulting work is grueling for the new IT consultant - a 60-hour-plus work week packed with travel and new challenges each week.

Do you want a national firm that can offer several consultants to work on the project? The rates for such national firms can run from $1,500 to $10,000 per day. Could you use a local consultant, perhaps even a single consultant firm? They often have set up shop after leaving a large firm. Most prominent universities have specialists in many business areas; these professors are as up-to-date as most firm specialists. They are usually less expensive, but they may not be able to give your problem the immediate attention you need. You should develop a catalog of potential consultants available for future use. Through the years, I have received hundreds of calls from business and government managers asking for suggestions of consultants. I always have wanted first to know if they wanted a Type A or a Type B consultant.

Universities have a management and professional development manager or dean, often in the school's business college or in the college of continuing education. This can be the entry point to learn about faculty members in the specialty field you need help in and who has more practical skills rather than academic skills. You may wish to visit a particular professor before adding her/him to your internal catalog of consultants.

Does the consultant have to be at a distance? Often this is more valuable in the public sector than in business. The farther away, the greater the cost of transportation. One advantage of a more local consultant is you can pay once for a lot of training about your company, which can be rewarding in subsequent consultations. A professor may involve graduate students who could become possible targets of recruitment in the future.

Certainly, references from similar marine industry employers are helpful. However, in many areas of consultation, it is the business specialty and not the industry specialty that matters most. Professional association membership by your departmental managers can be excellent referral sources. For example, a quality HR consultant would often not only be a member of the Society of Human Resource Management but would have some level of SHRM certification.

The areas of expertise most needed are business strategy, financial, marketing and human resources. The investment in a consultant can pay high returns. Just make sure you find a quality individual and agree on a total plan of work.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus - international management at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.



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