Depending on your needs and the consultant's approach, a consultant can offer an extra pair of hands or provide expertise not available in your own organization. They can also serve as a mentor, facilitate meetings or retreats, provide training, or partner with you in other ways to solve organizational challenges.
Making a consulting engagement successful requires diligence on both sides. And that starts with being clear about what you need and committed to putting the time into working with the consultant so that the project can be a success.
How to Engage a Consultant
Some organizations issue a request for proposals (RFP) when they need a consultant. A RFP can provide a fair and unbiased process, allowing you to evaluate the approaches and price proposals of several consultants. If you use an RFP you are obligated to offer bidders the opportunity to ask questions so that they can give you a well-informed proposal and to provide the same information to all bidders, by sharing out all the questions and responses to every bidder.
As proposals come in, a team evaluates each proposal based on an established scoring system. The proposals can expose you to a range of ideas about how the project might be approached and give you the opportunity to compare the cost of each approach. You should not assume that you can make a decision solely on the cost proposal since some bidders will be more experienced - or better matched to your project - and the scope of work they are proposing may vary based on the approach they have taken.
The downside of RFPs
You should know, however, that there are downsides to using an RFP process and so you should never require that an RFP is used in all situations. One big downside is that many of the best and busiest consultants do not respond to RFPs. Consultants may be wary of a RFP because the process is time-consuming and they suspect that there is a preferred vendor but a RFP is being used so that the selection will seem unbiased.
It is often hard to understand the organization’s real needs based on the RFP, and it is difficult to develop the consultant’s approach without having a conversation and access to more background information about the organization. When responding to an RFP the consultant may "pad" their fees to cover unforeseen requirements of the project. RFPs may make it easy to identify the lowest cost proposal but they may not the best consultant or most appropriate approach to the problem.
if you do use an RFP, pick the consultant who you think is the best match for your organization, check their references, and then try to negotiate a fee that is within your budget. You do not have to take the lowest bid.
Hiring a consultant without a RFP
When possible, it is best to engage a consultant based on an in-depth discussion. Rather than issuing a RFP, ask several consultants who have worked on similar problems with similar organizations for some background information on themselves and for a meeting. This can be a structured request for qualifications (RFQ) or just a conversation with several consultants that seem to have the necessary background. You will need to provide the consultant with general information about your organization as well as information about the specific issue you want to address. Let them know that you are talking to other people and are interested in their approach to the project. You can specify that any information exchanged is confidential.
For larger technical projects like database development, technology replacement or any multistage process, it is helpful to structure a planning process first so that you and the consultant are clear about what needs to be accomplished and what is currently in place. The consultant will be able to give you a much more accurate price for a project after the planning has been done. You can also try out working with them and decide if you want to change consultants for the remainder of a project or stay with the consultant if the process has gone well.
It is very important that the consultant is a good fit for your organization. In the interview, the consultant will often ask questions in an effort to understand the organization and clarify the issues to be addressed. Observe the questions they ask and the conclusions they seem to draw from the conversation.
- Do they seem to "get" your organization?
- Did you learn anything from the interview?
- How will your staff and/or board respond to the consultant's style and way of communicating?
- If you need her to, will the consultant be able to tell staff and/or board members hard truths?
- Is the consultant most comfortable working with leadership, management, the front line, or all three?
- Does the consultant admit to what he/she doesn't know?