8 Warning Signs of a Bad Consultant

By Jeff Haden

Hiring a consultant can be the perfect solution when your small business needs specific or specialized short-term expertise. Hiring the right consultant can be tough, though, and after you’ve checked credentials and talked to references, your decision is often based on the conversations you have with a potential consultant.

With that in mind, here are eight warning signs of a potential consulting engagement that won’t work out like you hope:

“Implementation will be easy and seamless.” Every project is disruptive. The best projects are often hugely disruptive because they involve considerable change. A consultant who downplays the disruption factor is inexperienced or fibbing. A consultant who sugar-coats the difficulty up front is unlikely to communicate proactively when problems inevitably occur.

“Don’t worry. We have all the answers.” A consultant’s job is to provide answers, in particular the answers you don’t have. After all, if you had the answers, you wouldn’t need a consultant. The best consultants are willing to say, “I don’t know — let’s figure it out,” because the best projects are collaborative.

“We provide a turn-key solution.” There are very few turn-key solutions unless a consultant provides simple equipment, hardware or applications, and even then, at least some amount of training or process modification is generally necessary. There will always be more training and start-up pain than you assume. Make sure “turn-key” means, “We’ll work with you until everything is running smoothly.”

“You know, I’m not sure your employees can handle that.” A consultant who downplays the skills of your employees is likely to be angling for a long-term engagement. Except in unusual circumstances, with the right training your employees can take over just about any task. Good consultants will show you how to bridge the gap so that eventually your employees are self-sufficient.

“That’s enough detail. I already have a good understanding of the requirements.” Some consultants love fuzzy requirements because misunderstandings or gaps create wiggle room later. Some even see scope-creep as a standard way of generating additional revenue. On the other hand, great consultants want to know as much as possible — the better they understand your expectations, the better they can deliver on those expectations. Think of it this way: A consultant who makes identifying requirements easy up front will often struggle to deliver a great project. Look for a consultant who goes the extra mile in nailing down details. Clear expectations are everything.

“You could handle that yourself, but I really don’t recommend it.” Poor consultants never point out ways a customer can save money. Great consultants operate just like you do. They try to build long-term business relationships, and they see losing a little revenue now as better than losing customers later when they realize they purchased services they didn’t need.

“That’s exactly what your employees want.” Your list of needs, and the list of needs your employees create (especially end-user employees) are often two very different things. Employee wish lists can be very long and very profitable for a consultant. A great consultant tries to reconcile various perspectives and owner/user needs so the project scope is clearly defined. A clearly defined project protects you — and ensures your employees aren’t disappointed later when everything on their wish list isn’t included.

“Absolutely.” Rarely can a consultant provide everything you want for the price and schedule you need. The word “No” might be disappointing, but sometimes it’s the best answer you can get. Think twice about a consultant who appears to agree to anything just to get the gig. Great plans — and great completed projects — are based on reality, not on wishful thinking. Hearing “No” before you get started is a lot better than finding out something isn’t possible after it’s too late.

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