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Perfect Match

A game plan for choosing -- and keeping -- the best consultants.
July 1, 1998

Need some good advice? You're not alone. Businesses large and small are turning to consultants for help in strategic planning, technology, personnel management and other specialties. According to Linda Wessels, president of the Association of Professional Consultants Inc. in Costa Mesa, California, hiring a consultant can be a good idea any time you move outside your area of expertise. That might mean bringing in a consultant to draft an employee handbook, design a computer system, or help with public relations or crisis management. If you're planning to go public, a consultant can help strategically position your company. If you're moving into the global market, an international business consultant can help you establish the right contacts.

Just be sure you look before you leap. Focus on choosing the right consultant for what you need done, then clarify your goals and expectations with a carefully prepared contract.

Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.

Laying The Groundwork

Start by deciding what you need, then look for someone with the expertise to meet those needs. A consultant may have already approached you with a sales pitch. If not, you can ask other business owners for referrals. You might also find names in the Yellow Pages or on the Web--but be sure to ask for a client list and talk to some of the people who've worked with the consultant. Did the consultant deliver according to expectations? A trade association such as the Association of Professional Consultants may be able to help you check people's reputations.

Finding a good match, however, is just the start. "You need to lay out the expectations," says Wessels. One of the best ways to do that is by preparing a contract. To ensure a smooth relationship, both parties should know what they're getting into, what their responsibilities are and how to proceed in case of a disagreement.

The use of contracts for consultants varies widely, Wessels says. Some companies retain consultants without using any sort of contract, while others insist on complex, multipage contracts. Typically, a consultant will provide a proposal stating what he or she will do, how long it will take and how much it will cost. Some companies respond with a letter of engagement that refers to the proposal.

Contract Guidelines

Whether you opt for the simple or the complex, be sure your contract addresses your particular situation. Standard contracts, which the consultant might present, should be used only as a starting point. While the standard contract might cover a wide range of issues, they aren't necessarily the issues you need to address. A standard contract, however, can remind you of points to tackle. Discuss the following issues with the consultant, then draft a contract that includes:

Read your contract carefully before signing it, and have your lawyer review it (or, better yet, help draft it in the first place). If there are provisions you discussed that don't appear in the contract, get them in writing to prevent trouble later.

Contact Source

Association of Professional Consultants, (800) 745-5050,