How can you get the most out of hiring a consultant? It’s all about knowing what you want to achieve, being willing to change and not losing sight of who is in charge. By Katie Kilgallen

Retailers spend millions every year on consultants. And, despite the cost, calling them in is becoming an increasingly routine reaction to any perceived skills gap or problems that arise.

But, once they’ve left, the organisation can sometimes be left trying to work out exactly where its money has gone. A loss of control and focus can lead to a project overrunning or disappointing results upon completion. This leaves the uncomfortable feeling that too much money has been spent for too little gain.

Consultants may not always produce tangible results, but does the fault always lie with them, or can the organisation take some of the blame? As retailers gain more experience of using consultants, they are beginning to develop best practice and establishing ways to avoid the common pitfalls.

Some of the most critical mistakes are often made right at the beginning. Organisations often call on consultants during periods of great change, when they are under pressure to achieve results while at the same time being strapped for resources. This means the crucial preparation and planning stages can often be rushed.

New Look UK & Eire HR director Ann Chan says: “It’s really important how you start off. You really have to do your homework and be really clear-minded about what your own objectives are. It’s wrong to bring in a consultant and make them guess and I think a lot of people do that – they’re not sure about something so they bring someone in.”

N Consulting director Nik Davis agrees that evaluating your real needs is essential and extremely helpful to consultants as well. “I think the real key is for retailers to understand why they really need to use consultants in the first place,” she says.

Davis believes that consultants are often the people best placed to help, but equally there is a danger that retailers will bring them in when they actually need to develop the internal capacity. “Consultants are often objective, individual people with the skill base to drive your business forward,” she says. “But if you’re short of a skill you’re going to be short of forever, you need a permanent solution.”

Once you’ve established what your needs are and that consultants are the right way to meet them, the next step is finding the right consultants for your business. Again, the process can’t be rushed and should include asking shortlisted advisers some hard questions about what value they plan to bring, as well as being honest about your own business.

Chan says: “You’ve got to go through a really careful selection process so you’re getting the right sort of fit for your needs – not so much for where your organisation is at the moment but where you want to take your organisation.”

Once appointed, communicating and collaborating with consultants to come up with a clear brief and a precise set of deliverables should be the next priority.

Vodafone consumer sales director Tom Devine says being very specific with consultants about your objectives and goals is the best way to make sure you achieve your aims. “You really need to have a tight piece of work you want them to do,” he says.

Gear up for change

Javelin Group chief executive Tony Stockil says the importance of this step can’t be overstressed. “The time involved in creating a brief and deliverables is an absolutely essential part of the process and quite often gets too little attention,” he says.

However, the procurement and planning processes should only be the beginning of the dialogue between consultant and client. Progress needs to be reviewed constantly and the way it will be monitored needs to be established as part of the brief. Davis says: “Plans do change but there needs to be agreement on how that will be managed.”

The key stakeholders in the organisation all need to be heavily involved in the entire process if they want to part of the solution. Chan says: “You can’t say, ‘Here you are – go away and do it,’ because you’ll never be happy with the results. You have to be involved with them and it should be a shared workload.”

Chan maintains that keeping the relationship open and honest is critical. “You’ve got to be open-minded and listen to what they are telling you, even if sometimes it won’t make you feel comfortable.”

Making an effort to establish an integrated way of working can pay dividends. The best results often come when consultants feel part of a team that will stand together in success and failure, rather than the likely scapegoats when targets are not met.

It is also crucial for the organisation to keep focused, in control and to keep challenging the consultants. “You need to keep going back to the brief,” Devine adds. “It’s quite easy to start in one place and before you know it you’ve moved on elsewhere – you’re trying to boil the ocean.”

Taking ownership of a project is critical. Davis says: “Some organisations do give up control of the solution too easily and hand over to consultants thinking, ‘They know best – they know what they can do’.” Chan advocates the appointment of a “sponsor” or “figurehead” for the project – one key person that people can go to.

According to Stockil, it is imperative that all key stakeholders take part-ownership in the project from day one. Quite often they only become involved when the results are announced. “If they only surface and raise objections then, it’s very hard to wind back,” he says. “Ideally the outcome should rarely be a surprise. It should be a summary of what has already been agreed and is also known, rather than a surprise announcement.”

Internal ownership of a project, combined with an integrated way of working, is the key to a smooth handover when a project comes to an end. Ultimately, to add value to a business there needs to be a clear transfer of skills. Devine says that, when Vodafone appointed consultants to run a wide-scale training programme for retail staff, it was made very clear that one of the main objectives was to be able to transfer those skills to its own retail training team so it could continue the work in the future. “We knew that we wanted that learning back in the organisation,” he says.

There is no doubt that consultants can add value, but retailers need to be prepared to put the work in too. They need to know their business, know their problem and be prepared to manage the process of finding a solution. Ultimately, you can’t relinquish responsibility for your own business. Chan says: “My view is that if you have employed a consultant and then you’re disappointed with the overall result, you have to look in the mirror first.”