Selecting the right kind of consultant

Before you shell out the bucks for outside advice, you need to know which type of consultant you need. From Gurus to Bad Guys, this article describes them.
Written by Peter Marshall, Contributor
How many times, after hearing about your company executives’ fawning appreciation for some hotshot consultant’s slick but overly simplistic analysis, have you said something like, “I could’ve told them that in two minutes for 50 cents and a cup of coffee”? It seems that, like lawyers, consultants are a necessary evil. Whether you’re developing a strategy to move into new markets or technologies, or just trying to get a project back on track by filling in some key skills, many times, a hired gun is the best option. Before you pick up the phone to call a Big 5 shop, you should be aware of the several types of consultants you could hire. Here’s how they break down.

From a Guru to more warm bodies
Don’t kill a fly with a wrecking ball. The key to selecting the right consultant is knowing how much firepower and expertise you need:

  • Guru—A Guru applies specialized expertise, relatively independently of your team, to develop complete answers to specific questions, which you will then take forward to the next stage. Although not everyone can afford a star, and a star may not be necessary for a smaller client or project, it is essential that this consultant have real-world leadership experience and command of the issues at a level that will wow your decision-makers.
  • Guide—A Guide leads a joint initiative with your team, by the end of which you will “learn how to fish”—that is, you’ll gain enough expertise, through direct training from the consultant and from working through the joint activity together, to keep going on your own.
  • Bad Guy—The client sponsors know they have to do something unpopular, but they want the recommendation to come from someone else who can be vilified after the task is done, thereby minimizing the damage to the sponsors. The Bad Guy is brought in to expose incompetence, tell the harsh truth, deliver the bad news, or maybe, in a complex case, to personify and exaggerate some view in order to discredit it. Pick one of the following mutually exclusive options: either a long-term partner with unassailable credentials who can deliver the message without getting escorted from the building, or a firm with a well-established reputation in the subject area that you don’t expect to work with again in the near future.
  • Advisor—An Advisor is asked to recommend a strategy and plan that will probably lead to implementation work in which the consultant has a vested interest. This is a dangerous game (and a potentially costly one), often played by the Big 5 and other top-tier firms, that demands an extraordinary level of professionalism and ethics to produce the best result for the client. Strong subject matter expertise and experience are obviously required; what may be less obvious is that this is an excellent role for a smaller or specialty firm, rather than the Big 5 or other majors that are typically engaged for his work. Hiring a smaller firm avoids the inherent and serious conflict of interest of the large firms, which would also like to do the high-budget implementation projects they’re advising you about.
  • Arms and Legs—Also known as flexible or supplemental staffing, Arms and Legs are generally under the management of your team leaders. Don’t waste your money on the big firms unless you have a special reason—and even then, examine your assumptions: Do you really need to give that partner every job that comes along? In the current market, excellent, highly skilled resources are available from smaller or independent sources, such as ERP-Consulting.com. If you need a whole raft of resources, consider staffing providers or even offshore outsourcing.
  • Conclusion
    Bringing in the right consultant can make or break a project. As much grief as you might give them, consultants may be expected to save the world, often while living out of a suitcase in an environment far from home.

    Editorial standards