By Huw Hilditch-Roberts, director in charge, Institute of Consulting

Consulting is one of the most accessible entrepreneurial professions in the world as anyone could set up a business at minimal cost and use the job title ‘consultant’ to sell their services.

With the bad press that consultants have received in the past and today’s need to reduce costs and get better value for money, what should businesses considering hiring consultants be concerned about? How can they avoid making costly recruitment mistakes by ensuring they hire only an accredited and vetted consultant and which particular consultant will provide the soundest return on investment?

Before recruiting a consultant, you should consider whether you actually need consultancy support or whether your need is simply for ‘resource’. If you do need consultancy support, is there anyone already on your staff who might be capable of undertaking the project?

If you decide an external consultant is necessary, the next step to hiring one is to plan out every aspect of the project, with expected outcomes before the interview stage. This will ensure your expectations are set and the recruitment brief is defined so it can be communicated clearly right from the beginning.

After your project brief has been finalised, invite quotes, tenders or formal proposals from a number of consultants to get a clear understanding of who is out there, how they would respond to the brief and what they would charge. Testing the market is key to getting a consultant at the best price!

Once you have selected consultants to interview, check that each demonstrates a full understanding of your business issues based on the brief within their interview and also ask them to explain in detail how they would work to deliver the project in line with whatever deadlines are imposed.

During the interview, question the interviewees on what specific experience they would bring to the table and ask them for client references so you can check whether they have a track record in the industry of solving similar business problems.

As with the consultants’ tenders, it is probably best to avoid hiring any interviewees who use technical jargon and ‘consultant speak’.

Once you have interviewed the consultants, your first job should be to check they have the right professional qualifications and accreditation. Competence-based accreditation by professional bodies is a useful indicator of a consultant’s ability to deliver and, in management consultancy, the Certified Management Consultant (CMC) award is the only globally-recognised ‘kite mark’ of professionalism in consulting.

The Institute of Consulting will soon be launching a National Register of professional consultants who have demonstrated successful experience and practice in consultancy. This will be an essential starting point for any company considering hiring a consultant.

Your second post-interview task should then be to check the references given by each consultant. These references when coupled with a consultant’s professional qualifications will stand you in good stead when deciding which is the right consultant for you. You may also like to think about how they will fit into the existing team. A good consultant will be deft at building relationships quickly with all employees. If possible, introduce the interviewing consultants to the people they will be working with and get the staff’s feedback on each interviewee before making a final decision.

There should be no surprises when it comes to costs. Be clear from the start what the consultant will charge and what they will deliver for this money and make sure you understand if the consultant’s fees includes expenses or not.

Agree project boundaries and limits and an exit plan so that if the project needs to be extended it can be as part of the original formal contract.

A successful consultancy project is one that is meticulously planned and managed throughout so businesses should continue to review the project’s aspects and how the consultant is working on a regular basis. In addition, it may be best to also appoint a project manager who is solely responsible for managing and liaising with the consultant, to ensure the project stays on track.

Visit the Institute of Consulting’s website more information on the guide to buying consultancy services and best practice behaviours that organisations should expect from consultants