In this blog, you will get to find out what consultants do for their clients and how they help to add value to a business. Not to be confused with medical consultants as that’s a completely different role.
- A consultant is someone who gives expert advice on a particular topic. But, be careful as literally anyone may call themselves a consultant so look for some proof that they are who they say they are.
- Whether you’re a one-man-band or a multi-national conglomerate, you can benefit from the help of a consultant. Consultants commonly deliver their advice in the form of a report or presentation.
- Consultant either work solo, for a consultancy firm or are housed internally within a company.
- Depending on the industry, a consultant will normally hold a relevant degree, possess ample industry experience and may also have a professional designation. But depending on your problem, you may not need someone with such impressive credentials.
- The onus is on the client to research consultants to verify their expertise. It’s probably wise to avoid those who make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims.
Introducing the consultant
So, before we explore what consultants do, let’s lay the important foundation: defining consultancy. Consultancy involves the provision of services that offer expert advice in a particular field. Therefore, a consultant is someone who provides said expertise to an organisation or individual usually in exchange for a fee.
Now it’s important to recognise that the title of ’consultant’ is not legally protected and so, in theory, anyone may call themselves a consultant. So, it is important to see some evidence of relevant experience and knowledge on sale in the form of case studies, qualifications or trusted testimonies. A typical consultant should demonstrate some of the following qualities:
- Lends expert advice and support to their clients.
- Operates separately to their client more akin to an independent contractor rather than an employee.
- Provides a professional and high-quality service that is backed up with the necessary qualifications and excellent customer care that builds a solid rapport.
Why would you want to team with a consultant?
Say you’re in the market for buying your first home. Understandably, this would be a nerve-racking endeavour for a first-time homebuyer. So naturally, you seek advice on how to best approach this exciting new opportunity. You seek advice from someone who has had a fair amount of experience buying properties. And you do this because you want to make sure that you don’t make any avoidable and costly slip-ups. You consult a trusted person or people, perhaps your parents or close friends.
Reasons to consider using a consultant
If you’re an SME or a multinational organisation you can certainly benefit from the expertise of a consultant. Typically, the reason is that the consultant possesses the knowledge necessary to solve the client’s problem. The idea is to save the client valuable time, money and effort. There are some other good reasons for using a consultant:
- They are less prone to internal politics.
- Working with a consultant has the potential to save you money over seeking and hiring an employee for the same task.
- Consultants can come to the rescue in the event an organisation has a shortage of staff to tackle a problem.
- They provide a fresh pair of eyes and an objective perspective of your business.
- When it comes time to make tough and unpopular decisions, consultants can step in when no one internally can.
What their help looks like
So, in what form does a consultant actually provide expertise to a client? Well, that all depends on the client’s needs. Normally, consultants package their advice into a report or presentation. I had previously done some consultancy work for a manufacturing company. I had to produce a report covering all of the products on the market including cost analysis and a recommendation. Discussing cost to businesses is highly expected. The client may be looking to make a critical investment in what appears to be a revolutionary piece of tech. But, if the payback period is more than 10 years then you’re going to have a tough time convincing the finance team to make the purchase. On the odd occasion, consultants may be tasked with developing a product for their clients like a piece of software or equipment.
In the past, I have provided consultancy services to a chemicals company on the FTSE 100 dealing with precious metals. Now, this client had in their possession a lump of metal. They had some idea of what this sample was made of, but they wanted to know the exact makeup. So, I was approached to run a series of tests using some high-tech equipment to accurately find out the composition of their sample. Long story short, I wrote up my findings in a report with recommendations included. In this, scenario, the client didn’t have in their repertoire the means to analyse their sample nor the skill or expertise to carry out the job. This was a big enough problem for the client that they deemed it necessary to outsource the work for somebody else to solve.
Where can you find consultants?
Consultants tend to work for consultancy companies, work freelance or alternatively operate internally within a business. When I was working for a manufacturing business, I worked internally on a project that investigated new up and coming water treatment technologies and whether they would be a worthwhile capital investment. Of course, if you have the in-house resources to perform such consultancy roles then great, use them as this can be cost-effective. However, in most instances, businesses are unable to spare the talent to perform such tasks or just lack said talent in which case someone external is brought in.
What kind of qualification should a consultant have?
Well, that all depends on the industry. For certain industries, it is advantageous for a consultant to hold some form of academic degree and/or relevant professional experience in combination with a professional designation. Say, for example, a client in the UK wants some help on designing a chemical process, they would naturally turn to a chemical engineer for expert advice. Said chemical engineer would normally hold a chemical engineering degree, ideally accredited by the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), have several years of industry experience working on similar projects and perhaps be a chartered engineer under the IChemE. Similar credentials can be expected of an accountant or solicitor, but it’s up to the client to decide what qualifications and experience they value most.
If you’re looking for someone to help you optimise your website to get more exposure on search engines, you won’t necessarily expect that somebody to hold a degree in Computer Science and have worked 10 years at Google. It would be great to have such an expert to hand, but expect that at a premium. Normally, one would go with someone who works in the IT industry who may or may not hold an IT-related degree but might have an impressive portfolio of work and glowing reviews.
My personal take…
Perform background research
At the end of the day, the onus is on the client to do some due diligence on potential consultants. The internet is a powerful tool. Now more than ever has it been quick and easy to Google someone to find more information. Unfortunately, anyone can say anything on their LinkedIn profile. Just like on CVs there are tendencies to embellish the truth. Try to look at how many endorsements and recommendations someone has for their skillsets and pay particular attention to who has endorsed them. Is it a respected professional in the field? Is it a well-known professor? Or is it just a colleague repaying the favour? Hard to tell, but it always pays to scrutinise these things.
In academia, an academic’s publication record is often seen as a measure of the individual’s reputation and prestige within their area of specialism. This is very difficult to fabricate. You can search online any and all publications which are often published by reputable journals sometimes available to the general public. You could then take it a step further in this scenario by finding out whether this academic is the main author in most of their articles as well as checking the journal quality (impact factor) and h‑index.
How much of an expert do they need to be?
We’ve established at the start of this blog that individuals can refer to themselves as a consultant and by extension may refer to themselves as an expert. Well, what makes an expert? Malcolm Gladwell came up with the 10,000-hour rule. He stated that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field. This rule of thumb can seem a bit of a generalisation. This rule came about because a study was done on a group of violinists concluding that 10,000-hours of practice gave rise to elite players. It assumed that natural talent was just the result of someone practising more than others. Whether this is true or not won’t be discussed here, but it’s clear that what constitutes an expert can be subjective. But don’t forget that certain problems won’t necessarily need the assistance of an expert.
In the digital age, we have access to a wealth of knowledge and information that is largely free. It’s always worth Googling your question to find what answers may be out there. Just make sure the topic is relatively well-known and not some obscure subject. It’s really down to the client to decide what their definition of an expert is and whether their problem requires a consultant. Also, how big is your problem and how important is the solution to you? If you’re suffering from a heart condition, you most certainly would want the advice of the best heart specialist you can find. Though, putting a plaster on a paper cut does not necessarily need the advice of an expert.