Q: We’d like to hire a consulting firm to help our business grow, but we’ve been burned in the past. How do we find a good fit? — Bobby A., San Diego
When I first started my consulting agency, I took on every client who showed interest in our services. We were new, and I truly believed we could add value anywhere. It was a huge mistake.
Early on, we were a catch-all branding agency, trying to be everything to everyone. We offered public relations and design services, and we specialized in growth — building an audience, creating social marketing, helping sites convert audience members into customers. We had too many clients to juggle and lacked focus. We ended up with some hits, sure, but we had way too many misses.
Today, we reject more than 90 percent of the folks who knock on our door, and that’s been the best move for our clients and our business. Deeper integration means better results, and better results means better case studies that demonstrate our work and impact. The job of a consultant isn’t to have lots of clients — it’s to add significant value to every single client.
Your task, Bobby, is navigating through smoke and mirrors to avoid another bad partnership. Before you start contacting consultants, develop a way to measure success and predetermine what would be worth your time and money. Some agreements are clear: You pay money and hope to make it back, and then some. Others have wrinkles, where the payoff isn’t immediate, such as building an audience or acquiring leads. Those all have worth, but it’s up to you to decide how much.
After you’ve built your assessment, separate those who look good on paper from those who can actually take your business to the next level. Most people are happy to talk about their strengths, so ask a potential consultant to discuss their weaknesses. Who’s a client he can’t help? What services can’t he provide?
For example, my team stays away from companies without any infrastructure. Our short-term goal is to build and execute strategy — and then hand it over to a team. If a business can’t sustain what we build, it’s not a good fit. We also avoid companies that don’t think tech and digital media can help them. We work with many brick-and-mortar businesses, and it’s important that they’re eager to learn how advancements in tech can keep them relevant. (If you want to piss into the wind, that’s fine. But, we’re not going to stand next to you.)
Once you’ve weeded out the wrong candidates, ask the remaining consultants to name two clients they’ve worked with that are similar to your business, why those clients were a good fit for the agency, and the results of the partnership. I’ll be the first to admit that this can be a tricky situation. Most clients we work with — especially big names like Microsoft, DirecTV and Equinox — require us to sign a nondisclosure agreement, so the information we can share is limited. But, if a consultant has done the work, he should be able to communicate wins even if he can’t offer specific numbers.
When you think you’ve found someone who can walk the walk, you can either decide to move forward or make one last request and ask to speak with a former client. This final step isn’t necessary, but it can be incredibly helpful — especially if you’ve had bad experiences in the past. Besides, the best consultants are excited to share their work because they have very satisfied clients.
This is a long process, no doubt. But, these steps will not only help you avoid entering into a bad relationship, they’ll also provide clarity about what your business truly needs to grow — and that will continue to pay off long after you’ve hired a consultant.