If you’ve ever brought in a consultant to help you overhaul your marketing, get you on the right track with business growth, or put together an effective strategy, you know the good ones are worth their premium, but certain things make it run like clockwork, and other things can make it unnecessarily expensive or time consuming. We understand getting health evaluation and advice from a doctor, or legal advice and representation from an attorney, but technology can seem like a mysterious field where the rules are somehow different. They aren’t, really. These are the rules for success:
Rule #1: Pay him. A consultant has a limited number of hours every day, spread out over many clients, and a minimum number of hours that must be paid for. The best consultants need to be paid for all of the hours they work. Avoid asking for freebies – the ‘just a favor’ or ‘just one more thing’ or ‘just a couple of quick questions’ – all of which are lingo for ‘please pull away from your other appointments and projects, stop the paid work, and focus on my marketing for free’. A consultant who can’t pay his bills or feed his family, because he’s giving away free time, isn’t sustainable, and doesn’t understand enough about business to give you good advice.
Rule #2: No laundry lists. Handing someone a long list of things you want them to do, think about, or answer, isn’t the same as asking those questions on the phone or one at a time. The laundry list forces the consultant to work with your existing assumptions instead of help you change them, in a format that isn’t efficient, and so expect him either to push the list back and say ‘let’s address your questions in our next session’ or ‘I can address all the things on the list, but I will charge additional time to do it, and I’ll need clarifications on several items to give you effective answers’. Even then, the questions may not be the right ones, and would open up more areas that would really need to be addressed one on one, nullifying the value of the laundry list in the first place. Plan to spend far more time making the list, clarifying the list, and getting answers to the items on the list, than if you simply had the conversation. If you’ve ever filled out an idiosyncratic government form, where there were things you needed to ask just to make sense of the questions, you understand what the consultant is facing. Non-technical language and ‘plain English’ can be just as vague and inscrutable as a bunch of jargon, and just as much work to sort through.
Rule #3 Be low maintenance. Don’t inundate him with e-mail messages, haunt his cell phone (texting included), or hunt him in chat networks. You’re asking the rates to go up. The same is true if you’re always leaving voice mail messages that say “call me” with no indication as to whether you’re asking to set a paid appointment or trying to pull him away to a freebie conversation. Five minutes is an hour minimum of consulting time, because those hours are blocked out during the day for many clients and projects. If you really need on-demand service, and lots of individual communications, however brief, expect to pay the highest premiums, if your consultant is any good. Someone who’s available all the time, and will do a large number of communications continually, likely either doesn’t have enough other work, or isn’t going to be able to sustain himself by getting it. Save questions in your own notes to ask in your next session, wherever possible. Or if you really need the discussion bandwidth, ask for a rate for a certain number of e-mail questions per month – and that rate may go up for open ended questions like “what can I do to improve…” vs. closed ones like “should I buy this or use this?”. Understand that unscheduled time is always an interruption for prized consultants, and be very sparing about communications outside of scheduled time. It may seem like it only takes him a few seconds to respond to an e-mail or look at something you’ve created and evaluate it, but most good consulting is the result of careful thought, well-chosen words, and focus – focus you’re pulling away from the rest of his schedule if you hit him with lots of notes.
Last Rule: Don’t be scared to ask questions. Just do it in the time alloted, and make appointments. Appointments are you-time. Imagine if you called your massage therapist to chat about your back while he was with other clients, or on a date, or over dinner. Does your doctor or lawyer provide his cell number or instant messaging? The best consultants bill like doctors and lawyers (because doctors and lawyers are consultants, primarily), and they work a lot like them too. Consultants get paid to think about someone else’s projects, give coaching and direction, and for advice. If you’re asking those things, or for them to do related things, treat it like your doctor or lawyer and you won’t go far off track. And when it’s you time, you have a right to expect that they’re not fielding incoming queries from other clients. Some consultants have personality quirks (often the best ones do), that you might cater to a little bit (if Warren Buffet or David Ramsey was your consultant, it probably comes with a certain amount of diva-ness), but mostly there are just some industry standard expectations and protocols that you follow, that are well-trodden, well-plowed, and things not only run smoothly, but you get maximum value – the full attention and focus of someone who does this every productive hour of the day, without having to put him on the payroll for the full 8-16hrs/per.