Book Review: Choosing & using consultants & advisers - a best practice guide to making the right decision and getting good value, by Harold Lewis

Sound advice on consultants
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Why use consultants? Look hard enough and you might find the very skills you are looking for inside your own business. If you really need to go outside, how do you find the right consultants or advisers? How can you be sure you are getting value for money?

Consultants come in all shapes and sizes and, as the author of this practical guide tells it, they exist to solve just about every problem experienced by smaller and medium sized businesses. But be careful.

You don't have to go to the big firms of management consultants who'll send in a horrendously expensive team. Smaller and niche specialists can help solve financial and profit improvement issues, mount PR campaigns, advise on planning issues or introduce new HR, IT or training systems: in short, provide skills that your business may lack and can only justify as a one-off assignment at an agreed fee, unless it's a service which is more cost effectively outsourced than set up internally.

Before appointing that marketing whizz-kid you met at the golf club, keep in mind the author's warning that anyone can set himself or herself up as a consultant; check their description, professional qualification and credentials. Then make a point to set out and agree, in writing, the scope of the work to be handled, and costs and expenses.

A key piece of advice is that it's not only the consultant who needs to put time and resources into the work, as the author warns. The consultant can't work in isolation. The client has to contribute, too.

When it comes to choosing a consultant or adviser, the best guide is experience - "either your own or that of people whose judgement you trust," says Lewis.

Are the consultants good listeners? Do they seem efficient, businesslike and enthusiastic about the prospect of working for you? Can they do the work in the required timescale? Who will be doing the work? Too often senior consultants impress but delegate to juniors. Can you form a good working relationship?

A typical proposal structure, the author recommends, should consist of an introductory section, the consultant's understanding and approach, work timetable, staffing, outputs and deliverables, team and contract experience, fees and expenses. Agreeing on performance targets and monitoring is crucial.

A successful client-consultant relationship depends on knowing what you want to achieve and feeling confident the consultant can deliver. You need to have your staff's support, make the necessary resources available; make sure the work is managed in a focused and planned way - and be available, without spending too much time with them.

The big consultancies have caught most of the limelight, but a tougher economic climate, wider choice of options and more astute buying are favouring smaller and medium-sized consultancies, and niche players to work for large and smaller clients alike.

This straightforward guide to reaching the right decision when thinking about consultants should make it a useful addition to the bookshelf of the proprietors of every growing and ambitious business.