What's a Consultant and How to Work with One

A computer whiz who offers his services to businesses needing I.T. advice says on his website: "When I was employed at IBM I was an employee. While I was unemployed I was a consultant."

His tongue-in-cheek inference is that consultants are between jobs waiting for a new situation of paid employment to arise, but in today's business environment consultants are performing valuable services for companies that would otherwise be without access to much-needed expertise.

Two simple definitions of a consultant are: "One who gives expert or professional advice" and "An expert who gives advice". The key words are expert and advice.

A consultant is external to the client business. They specialize in a particular area and have a body of knowledge and experience beyond that of the client's own personnel. When the consultant is employed on a specific assignment they are applying that knowledge and experience for the client's benefit.

Consultants help others to achieve their business goals and are paid a fee for their services. They are called in as needed and depart when their task has been accomplished. It is an arrangement that suits both sides of the equation by enabling consultants to stay up-to-date with their specialized body of knowledge and not requiring them to work outside their field of expertise.

These are just some of the situations where a consultant's services might be called upon by a business.

1. The business needs expertise in a specialized area but doesn't possess it.
2. The need for the expertise is temporary and doesn't justify a full-time position.
3. The business has inadequate expertise internally.
4. There is a lack of internal unity on a subject and the consultant is brought in to provide expert advice that leads to a conclusion.
5. The business wants to distance itself from the consequences of a decision.
6. The business wants the consultant to analyse an internally-made decision with the aim of predicting its consequences.

If you decide to use a consultant for any purpose there are some steps you can take that will help you maximize the benefit you receive from the arrangements.

1. Always give the consultant a full understanding of your business. They need to know what it is that you do and how you do it. Give them a clear picture of your enterprise so they'll know exactly where the work they do fits in.

2. Agree on a schedule for the work they undertake. Never leave arrangements open-ended. Instead, clearly define what it is they're there to do and set a series of milestones to measure progress on the way.

3. Give them a single point of contact in your organization, either yourself or another senior member of management. It is this person who will be responsible for providing information and other resources to the consultant so that work stays on schedule and there are no gaps in communications between the two parties.

4. Agree on the fee that the consultant will charge. For a short-term project you can usually set a flat figure if there is general agreement on the duration it will take. Longer-term consultancies are most often charged for on an hourly or monthly retainer basis.

(If the fee seems high by comparison with what employees in the business are paid, remember that out of this sum must come the consultant's taxes, business costs, insurances, and of course the continuous updating of their specialized knowledge.)

Finally, when you decide to engage a consultant be sure that everything is put in writing, both to the consultant and from them. This will help ensure that both parties know exactly what is needed, who provides it and when it should be there.





Copyright 2004, RAN ONE Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from http://www.ranone.com

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