Many years ago, after I was downsized from my job and I started consulting, my kids gave me a T-shirt that read, “I’m not unemployed … I’m a consultant!”
Ain’t that the truth!
With that bit of humor I start part two of my column about finding the right direct marketing consultant for your business. (For part 1, click here.) Many budding consultants get their starts after downsizing. And in this economy, many consultancies are springing up as more and more good marketing people are let go from their jobs.
I’m not saying that hiring someone who was recently downsized is a bad thing. In fact, I strongly believe that in some cases you can benefit more from a consultant who has recent client-side experience than you can from a seasoned consulting vet. Think about it this way: New-to-consulting practitioners can be more about implementation than older consultants who are more adept at the theoretical side of things.
The counterpoint to that is seasoned consultants are used to looking at the big picture and, in many cases, have experience with a broad range of companies.
You also should know that many consultants experience feast or famine business cycles — too many or too few clients. And yours truly is no exception. Since I started my consulting practice in 1999, I’ve been hired three times by clients to work on a full-time basis. All but once I’ve managed to keep up some sort of client roster when I’ve worked on the client side. Companies are fickle (especially here in Florida), particularly toward marketing personnel.
A continual diet of client-side implementation and consulting keeps me from getting out of the loop and gives me an edge.
So how do you pick the right consultant for your business? It’s a lot like choosing an employee: Do your due diligence as best as you can, and then roll the dice. You can look at the basics, such as who they worked for in the past, but as usual, I deliver you some food for thought beyond the basics.
That said, here are some more tips for you to consider:
1. If a consultant is too agreeable, he or she may be in it only for the money. Find a consultant who disagrees with you a lot. Most of the time, consultants are brought in to fix problems that exist within an organization that can’t be fixed internally. It’s a pair of fresh eyes to look things over. Consultants are like plumbers — the good ones are trained to instantly spot where the “clogs in the pipes are,” and then to fix it efficiently. You wouldn’t tell a plumber how to unclog your pipes, would you? You have to assume that you’re going to hear a lot of things you don’t want to hear and/or disagree with. Otherwise, why would you need a consultant to begin with?
2. Find a consultant who’s willing to walk away if you don’t listen. Here’s a true story: I worked with a catalog company whose general manager refused to understand the way catalog marketing worked. This employee came from retail and insisted on running the company like a brand. He pumped a lot of money into the catalog, doubled the unit cost in the mail and then when his mailings weren’t profitable, tried to repeat the same mistake in his heaviest selling season.
After repeatedly explaining the reasons for what happened, I finally gave up and said the following:
“Mr. X, what’s your favorite sport?”
“Because you’re running your business like you’re on a football field, playing with a hockey stick and puck! And if you keep doing it your way, you’re going to be out of business in six months.”
At that point, the client turned red, and steam started to come out of his ears. Within the next few weeks we mutually terminated my consulting contract. The kicker: Less than nine months later the business went belly-up.
3. References are ludicrous. Let’s put something to bed right now. The whole concept of asking for references is about patting yourself on the back. I don’t know of one consultant or, for that matter, ANYONE who knowingly would give a prospect a BAD reference. The only value in getting references is that when something goes wrong, you can at least feel justified that you did your due diligence.
4. If you want references, look them up on LinkedIn. There’s a “search reference” function that can help you find past employers, clients, among others. Also, see if they have a lot of recommendations on their profile pages.