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My consultant is amazing, and other deliberate hiring techniques

Good help is so hard to find.

I am often the subject behind this remark. Yet, I’ve also expressed this sentiment in regards to my own “hired help” far too many times. Accompanied by a prolonged sigh and a gulp of coffee.

So, before I dive in, an obvious question: why do we put ourselves through the self-inflicted pain of hiring a marketing or communications consultant? The obvious “outsiders” who have no idea how “different” your nonprofit or small business is?

It’s simple, really. Let me explain.

Outsiders have the superpower of objectivity

As marketers, we literally have 90 days into a job before we’ve drunk enough of the company’s KoolAid to lose all objectivity. Think about it. 91 days in, and we’ve assimilated—we use the adopted language that our customers don’t get, and we let go of our instincts. We don't do it intentionally, it's human nature. And trust me, I've absolutely done it too. As we blend with the whole of our new team, we literally start thinking and talking like everyone else, despite whether or not it's working for our customers.

A (best-fit) consultant is worth her weight in gold in her ability to recalibrate on strategy, keep you focused, and pull that smart head of yours out of the KoolAid and back into reality.

But which consultant is your best-fit? Glad you asked. Read on.

Pharmacist or brain surgeon?

A long time ago I ran across an article that related various types of consultants to the health profession. It was brilliant. “Pharmacist” consultants offer a turn-key, predictable approach at a predictable price. You go to the “counter,” place your order, pay your fee and get your result promptly with no interaction. That’s your turnkey “build my website” or “get a logo for $99” type of consultant.

Or, it’s a consultant that offers what Peter Block calls “a pair of hands”—resource capacity to fulfill a function you either don’t know how to do (e.g. web development, CRM architecture), or don’t have time to do. "Pharmacist" support is an absolute value in certain situations.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the brain surgeon. If your brain needs work, it tends to rise to the top of your priority list, and you seek out the very best at whatever cost it requires. You don’t ask her how she works. She doesn’t need to earn your buy-in on her approach in the operating room. Rather, she touts her expert status, you trust it, she puts you under, the work gets done. And the bill, well, it is what it is. In the creative world, think of the brain surgeon as the firm you pay to produce the big, shiny idea—the brilliant super bowl ad, or the one-of-a-kind product design.

Somewhere in the middle is where most marketing consultants, agencies or firms sit. They are the family practitioners. To do their job well, they actually need your full participation in the process, your partnership. Think about it this way—if you went to a family practitioner for help to improve your health, but you weren’t committed to shifting your behavior or thinking, all of the advice in the world wouldn't change a thing. And, the prescription she writes, that would only mask over your symptoms.

The family doctor consultant wants a partnership with her clients. That means you. Expect to invest more time here, to be prepared for some transformation, and to rely on your consultant as a trusted advisor. Yes, she can execute and provide a “pair of hands” for the implementation of what she recommend, but first and foremost, she's selling you strategy, a smarter way of doing things that will get you better results.

As you go into hiring a consultant, it’s critical for you to know: Am I seeking an extra pair of hands, a trusted advisor and executor, or a brilliant idea?

Values, style and making life easier

I believe consultants should make your life easier. And that’s why personality fit is second on my list. Get this wrong and it’s likely to be a deal breaker.

What is most important to you in terms of work style or personality? What will actually make your life easier? If what you really need is an “idea guy,” you might have wiggle room on his lack of attention to detail or ability to show up to meetings on time. If you need someone to be your trusted advisor AND a diligent executor, attention to detail, self-starter and a calm-under-pressure personality might be your best bet. Or, if your natural working style is to actively collaborate, find a consultant who is open-minded and a skilled facilitator. A great sense of humor never hurts, either.

Bottom line? Think this through, and ask the tough questions.

Skilz skool

Knowing what skills to look for in your consultant is perhaps the biggest challenge for small business owners and microsized nonprofit teams. The vast majority are hiring said consultant for the very first time. In fact, when prompted with “why did you hire him,” most have admitted, “I just liked him.”

That’s why I put personality fit a bit earlier. But credentials—aligned to what you’re hiring your consultant to do for you—are critical too.

Far, far too many of my clients have hired the wrong consultant, resulting in a website that doesn’t work, a marketing plan that makes no sense to them, or marketing materials that are about as boring as they get. You don’t know what you don’t know. And, they hired their consultant expecting A, and got B instead.

If you’re not sure what skills are critical, talk to a colleague outside of your organization who has made a similar contractual hire before and gather intelligence. Search the web too. Most importantly, don’t take anything for granted.

Confirm deliverables

Another common mistake I see people make is that they haven't confirmed specific deliverables that they expect their consultant to provide. This is dangerous territory, particularly when you're working with a pharmacist or family practitioner type of consultant, because a big part of what you're paying for is the value of that deliverable.

I like to pinpoint my deliverables right in my proposal—this gives my prospective clients the opportunity to negotiate which deliverables are essential to them, and which they're not quite sure they'll use. It also gives me an opportunity to gain their buy-in about how they could use the deliverable to produce better marketing results.

Now, sometimes listing all deliverables isn't possible—because some elements of the project scope are in flux or dependent on the first phase of work. If that's the case for you, consider building an iterative service agreement with your consultant. Finish phase one, clarify deliverables for phase two, execute a second service agreement, and go.

Let’s talk money

For some reason, many people tiptoe around the question of cost with prospective consultants, only to gawk at the fee schedule when the proposal arrives. Why waste your time? If this is your first time hiring a consultant (or a consultant for this type of project), you might not know what cost to expect. Ask. This won’t make an honest, best-fit consultant suddenly raise her rates. Rather, it will give you a ballpark of cost so you know if what you’re asking for is possible with the funds you have available, or with the consultant you're considering.

Pre-proposal, most consultants will be able to give you a range of cost, noting variables that can drive it up or down. If they are fuzzy on cost, consider this a red flag (likely due to a lack of experience). Conversely, if you have a budget, but simply aren’t sure what it can get you, share that budget and your needs.

I honest with prospective clients whose budget doesn’t align with my approach, but I offer some alternatives, including a DIY model using my education programs, or suggesting a reduction of their scope to a “minimum viable product approach.” I’ve also met them halfway to land on where they can do some of the work in-house but leave the heavy lifting to me and my team. I’ve never received anything but gratitude for that straight talk.

Call for backup

Check references. I know, it takes time, but it’s worth it. A live phone call with a your prospective consultant’s past client can tell you quite a bit. Ask the tough questions that align to the elements that are most important to you. And call more than one.

Hiring a consultant can be one of the best investments you make for your small business or nonprofit. But it can also start, and end, badly. These are your hard earned, precious resources. Invest them wisely by finding a fit that’s best for you and your organization.

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