There’s lots of information everywhere these days about how to be a good consultant. Forbes recommends 6 things every consultant should do. Paul Wells has the number at 8. A simple Google search for the keywords “how to be a good consultant” will reveal many, many more great articles on this topic.
And while all this information is valuable and usable by those of us who work as consultants, there is far less information about how to be a good client. So, below we give our own list of 5 things we think every client should do to make your experiences with us consultants good ones.
Admit What You Don’t Know
The first step in being a good client is to admit what you don’t know. You’re looking for a consultant for a reason, and this reason is something you don’t know how to do. It may be simple like not knowing the best metric for tracking a specific process (i.e. the ROI of social media marketing). Or it may be more complex like not knowing much about an emerging field (i.e. UX).
You won’t have a good experience with any consultant if you’re not clear what you need from them. You bring plenty to the table besides money and time. You bring expertise in your business, which includes expertise in a particular industry. And no one knows everything. Just be clear about what you don’t know so you can find the right person for the job, namely someone who has knowledge that will be useful to you.
Find an Appropriate Gap
It can also be hard to fit a consultant into your existing workflow. If you’re not sure what’s appropriate, do some research online about what consultants like the type you want to hire do. Do you need someone who can be your ear to the ground in a particular venue (i.e. mentions of your business online)? Do you need someone who can build a website from scratch? Or someone who can just give you branding advice for a website you’ve already contracted to build?
Think about the concrete things you want your consultant to do for you. Do you want to have a series of meetings with them? Do you want some kind of deliverable? The more specific you are, the better a consultant will be able to serve you.
Hire Someone You Can Trust
It may go without saying that if you don’t trust the claims of a potential consultant, you shouldn’t contract with them, but it still bears mentioning. Most of us who work as consultants have inherited clients who were “done wrong” by other consultants. In fact, many of our clients have at least one bad experience to relate, meaning that there are lots of bad consultants out there.
So, how do you know if you can trust this person you just met?
One thing is to ask for a portfolio. If the consultant is untested, you want to know that. Another is to have an initial meeting, face-to-face if possible, to talk about a possible fit before you sign anything. This will give you the opportunity to ask questions.
And don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions. If the consultant can’t answer complicated questions about the service you want from them, do you really want to hire them?
Make Your Expectations Clear, Even If They Aren’t
A lot of clients don’t have clear expectations regarding what they want from a consultant. That’s okay. Sometimes you need an expert to help you figure out what the problem is before you can proceed to a solution. Don’t be afraid to admit that to a consultant. This is a great litmus test, because some consultants don’t do well with ill-defined problems. If you’re not sure what you need, you should be clear about that from the get-go.
This can also create a trap later on, however. You can’t really have it both ways, you see: you either aren’t clear on what you want or you are. If you aren’t, then you’ll need the consultant to help clarify things before they can start solving the problem, such as through some initial market research. If you do have some definite outcome in mind, but you’re shy about expressing that, then the consultant will proceed accordingly. You don’t want to decide hours or weeks into a project with a consultant that you actually want something completely different, for instance. This wastes everyone’s time and money and leaves both parties without a feasible solution.
Don’t Argue; Give Feedback
If things aren’t going the way you’d hoped with a consultant: say that as soon as you feel things are going the wrong way. Otherwise, the consultant has no way of knowing that they’re taking you down a path you don’t want to go down. It’s your business. You need to give continual feedback to your consultant or they will be no good to you. If they’ve missed the mark, you need to tell them that, early and often.
At the same time, you don’t want to debate things with a consultant. All consultants have particular ways of doing things. It’s your business, so you need to tell them exactly what you want. But if they say they can’t do what you’re requesting for one reason or another, your only real options are to 1) listen to them and find a new solution or 2) hire a new consultant. Arguing about what is or isn’t possible isn’t productive.
Ultimately it comes down to trust. Either you trust your consultant or you don’t. If you discover you don’t trust them after you start working with them, you should get to a stopping point with them and look for another consultant. If you do trust them, then work with them to find a solution to your problem that meets your needs, and keep working with them until your problem is resolved to your satisfaction.