Choosing and Hiring Tech Consultants

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OVERVIEW [top]

Choosing the right consultant can save you thousands of dollars and plenty of aggravation. But it is not as simple as finding someone who can do the job. You want a technical consultant in whom you can be confident because access to your computer system provides access to the very heart of your operation.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Where to look for technical consultants.
  • How to select the right consultant.
  • What to expect from a technical consultant.

If you are considering outsourcing your information technology operations, be sure to see the Quick-Read "When to Outsource Technology."

SOLUTION [top]

Why you need a consultant

There are many reasons for enlisting the aid of a technical consultant.

  • The requisite skills do not exist in-house.
  • Internal resources are already stretched thin.
  • Your need does not warrant a full-time, permanent employee.
  • Your existing employees do not appreciate how the technical application/project will be useful to the company.
  • A third party is best suited to test your network security measures.
  • You would like insight into similar projects being done in the marketplace or in your industry.

If such reasons cannot be identified, hiring a consultant will just waste your resources.

Where to find consultants

Aside from checking the yellow pages or the Web, you can find consultants by:

  • Considering existing relationships. Technical companies that you are already dealing with may have a consulting division.

  • Asking suppliers whom they would recommend. Hardware and software manufacturers often have an alliance with a consulting firm that they trust to do their installations/repairs.

  • Approaching peers who have gone through similar exercises about who they have used.

  • Reading local, regional and national technology publications in which they are likely to advertise or be referenced in an article.

  • Contacting professional organizations for references.

Selecting your consultant

Technical consultants are relatively easy to find; how to isolate the one that is right for you is more difficult. You can meet with them and, if the task to be done is substantial, ask them to respond to a Request for Information — a series of questions about their capabilities and experience. Regardless of how you get the information, ask your consulting firm to provide the following:

  1. Its primary business function, e.g., Web site development, intranet design, system maintenance.

  2. What support it provides, both in development and follow-up.

  3. Its experience dealing with situations similar to yours.

  4. The resumes of individual consultants who may be assigned to your account.

  5. Samples of their work, if possible, or case studies and references.

  6. Any memberships it may have in professional organizations.

  7. Its disaster recovery plan.

  8. Its problem-resolution and escalation procedures.

    • What happens if the tech solution doesn't work. Is there a price adjustment? How quickly will the consultant be able to fix it.

    • Is there a way for you to get out of the contract if the consultant can't deliver within a set time line or within a certain budget?

    • Is legal recourse your only action or can you submit to arbitration if the relationship goes astray?

The screening process allows you to give prospective consultants a summary of your project as well as get some ideas and suggestions from them. When discussing similar projects they have completed, ask about previous mistakes or realizations they made during the process. Regardless of whether you opt to hire this particular consultant, you may gain some valuable insight into your project that you can pass along to the one you do select.

Preparing the contract

Whenever you are exposing your business to an outsider, make certain you document your agreement. Your contract should address:

  • The deliverables (i.e., concrete work you expect to be completed). It eliminates any doubt as to what you expect in return for the agreed upon fee.

  • Performance bonding. Penalties should be specified for not meeting standards required by the contract, breaching confidentiality, or incurring third-party costs, e.g., by infringement of someone else's property rights.

  • Compensation. Whenever possible, specify a fixed dollar amount to ensure you are not faced with unexpected add-ons during the tenure of project. What will any additional fees be, if the plan-of-attack changes along the way? Also state how you will pay the consultant's fee.

  • Expenses. Identify what expenses you are willing to reimburse.

  • Term of contract.

  • Ownership of material. If the consultant is creating an application for you, for example, identify who owns it.

  • Confidentiality agreement and noncompete clause. The consultant may have access to sensitive business information.

  • Subcontractors. State whether the consultant has the right to choose subcontractors or if you prefer to have a say in the matter. It may not seem important, but all these people will have access to your business dealings.

  • Insurance. Confirm that the consulting firm is insured and specify that it will be its insurance firm that will cover any damage caused by the consulting work.

  • Documentation. Information technology professionals are notorious for developing sophisticated systems but not documenting them for maintenance by successors.

  • Reporting structure. The consultant should be required to provide regular, documented progress reports.

  • Evaluation. How will the completion or success of the project be evaluated? How will the consulting firm assist you should you not be satisfied with the completed project?

  • Mediation or arbitration of disputes.

Checking references

Specify within the contract that the agreement is conditional on three satisfactory references from previous clients, preferably ones in the same industry as you. Speak with the references and ask very specific questions, such as:

  1. Did the consultant deliver on time?

  2. Did the consultant adhere to the predetermined budget?

  3. Did the consultant integrate well with your staff and company in general?

  4. How quickly did the company respond when you contacted it?

  5. What type of technical support did the consultant provide?

  6. How eager was the consultant to provide assistance after the actual work was completed?

Things to be wary of

  • Cost. Consultants are expensive. It may be more economical to hire a skilled person for a three- or six-month contract.

  • Availability. Consultants are often not contracted to be on-site at all times. They will work with other clients simultaneously and therefore may not be at your beck-and-call. Unless you are prepared to pay for exclusivity during your project — usually unnecessary — do what you can to get your project executed as quickly as possible. This precaution could mean anything from getting the necessary approval for hiring consultants or project spending to expediting contracts quickly.

  • Unattainable promises. When interviewing possible consultants, compare notes. Be wary of the consultant who suggests a very early completion date and whose quote is much lower than the others. You want a long-term, quality solution.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

When Mary Cummins, president of Outside In, a company that supplies and maintains plants in offices and office buildings, decided to revamp the internal computer network of her business, she was at a loss on how to proceed.

"Until that time, my brother had helped me with all computer-related matters in my office," explains Cummins. "It was a very simple operation, with about four PCs working independently of each other. There was one computer designated for Internet access."

When Cummins business started to grow, she wanted to introduce a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system that would maintain customer records and invoicing. Simultaneously, Cummins wanted to provide Internet access to all computers, now ten in total. She needed professional assistance.

"I needed someone not only to install the computer network but someone who would also help me to plan for the future," Cummins recalls. "I didn't want to spend a lot of money on a solution that wouldn't expand to satisfy our needs a few years down the road. I wanted someone who could work with me to determine what my business needed and what was available in the market, as well as actually do the installation."

Cummins gathered names of consultants from business associates. She met with each to discuss the project and asked for a written proposal. "Primarily, I wanted to have documentation of what they were going to do for me and at what cost. I didn't want to be faced with unexpected bills midproject. With a written proposal, I felt protected."

Cummins also notes that she asked a lot of questions when she received the proposals. "I don't know much about technology and didn't understand some of the vocabulary. I swallowed my pride and had everything explained to me. In some instances, I had them amend the original proposal to ensure there were no misunderstandings as to what my fees paid for."

DO IT [top]

  1. Identify the specifics of the technical project. Involve the workers who will use the consultant's product to assure that the features they need are specified in detail. Specify outcomes and desired results rather than hardware and software details; otherwise the rapid rate of technological change could result in an obsolete product.

  2. Determine whether you have the technical skill in-house.

  3. Gather a few names of consulting firms from sources listed above.

  4. Set up meetings to discuss your project, or ask them to respond to Requests for Information.

  5. Check their references.

  6. Obtain a written proposal from the consultants with whom you are interested in working.

  7. Draw up a contract with your preferred consultant.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Executive Guide to Employing Consultants by Richard E. Zackrison and Arthur M. Freedman (Gower, 2000). This is the best guide we found on the topic, though it is on consultants in general, not IT consultants, and it uses European examples.

The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship by Rick Freedman (Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2000). It's a guide for the consultant, not the client, but it provides perspective on what the prospective consultant needs to know and should be asking.


Internet Sites

Association of Professional Consultants

Independent Computer Consultants Association

Institute of Management Consultants, USA

Realrates.com, Janet Ruhl, Technion Books. The Realrates Web site for consultants provides salary and rate statistics.


Article Contributors

Writer: Tracy MacNicoll

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