Any growing business ultimately learns this lesson: you can't do everything yourself.
Eventually, you have to relinquish a bit of control and resign yourself to depending on the expertise of outsiders. Whether you're installing computer equipment, embarking on a new marketing campaign, or designing your web site, it's often best to stick to what you do best and pay experts to do what they do best.
But finding the right consultant can take a bit of digging, perhaps even more than when buying equipment. But keep in mind that it's far easier to return a nonworking printer than to turn back the clock on a project. To help ensure the right fit, there are a number of areas to explore with any consultants you consider.
Any firm you work with should have previous experience in performing what you want accomplished.
More specifically, the actual staff that will be working on your project should have the experience that you need.
The last thing you want is for them to get training on your time - and your dime.
Get into the details of how the company is staffed. Find out answers to questions like:
· How many projects does each person work on at one time?
· Will the same people be available for the entire length of your project?
· If any of the people staffed on the project are contractors, how long have they worked with your company?
· If the project is to continue onto another phase, will you have first dibs on the people you have worked with or is it likely you would lose them?
Of course you have a deadline, but life happens. What guarantees are in place if they fail to deliver on time?
Also, make sure you have expertise and skill guarantees on people who will be responsible for key parts of the project, as well as the freedom to remove anyone from the account at will.
Check the specific rates. Assignments can either be billed per project or based on time and materials. If there's just one bill, get the scoop on the rates at which people are being charged and how much time is being estimated for the various aspects of the job.
Avoid surprises. Also, make sure to understand what happens if the project veers from its originally specified course.
Ongoing updates of when a project hits certain cost milestones can also help reduce any unpleasant surprises at the end.
For time and materials projects, having hourly rates and a definition of what constitutes "materials" is critical.
Checking references will be your best source for gauging the areas that will make or break your project-quality of work and ease of communication.
Don't skip these calls. Although you may be tempted to skip this part since you would expect only fountains of praise, don't. Surprisingly, references are not always as glowing as they should be, particularly when you ask pointed questions.
Some questions to try to include:
· What was the most difficult part about working with the consultant?
· How much time did it take to manage the relationship?
· Whom did you enjoy working with in particular?
· What advice would you give on how to work effectively with them?
· Would you use them again?
Hot Tips from the Experts
Define, define, define. Invest whatever time is necessary to define exactly the expected outcome of a project. Many a promising working relationship has foundered because of miscommunication around expectations.
Look to the long-term. Expect to establish a long-term relationship with the consultant. Getting a consultant up to speed on your business and its requirements can take an extraordinary amount of time.
No magic bullet. Outsourcing is not a magic bullet that relieves you of all associated work. To ensure a successful project, communicating early-and often-is critical.
10 questions to ask when checking out consultants.
- If the project is confidential, will you sign a non-disclosure agreement?
- Will you agree not to work with a competitor on a similar project?
- Who are your clients?
- How many clients do you have?
- Does my business represent a fairly small or large chunk of revenues to you?
- How many employees do you have?
- How long have you been in business?
- If you are working with computer programming consultants, who owns the code?
- What was the worst project you worked on and why?
- What was the most successful project you worked and why?
Mie-Yun Lee, BuyerZone.com's founder and vice president of strategic services, oversees the marketing, content development and customer care initiatives for the company. She's widely recognized as the trusted expert on purchasing for small and midsized businesses and has served as an authoritative source for articles and TV shows including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Smart Money, and CNBC.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. The content is intended to be general in nature and should be relied on only after consulting an appropriate expert.