Ten ways to get the most out of your consultant

It costs upwards of £500 to hire a consultant for one day. Unless your company habitually blows that kind of wad just to keep the finance dept ticking over (and some do), you'll want to get the most out of that day. The advice below may help, from the point of view of someone on the opposite side of the fence who's had more than a few frustrating jobs.

NB. The following does not reflect the opinions of and is not sanctioned by my employer or any of my employer's partners. Hence it may not be couched in customer-friendly terms. It might taste foul but it's good for you.

  1. Be clear about what you want to achieve.
    Too many customers have only the vaguest notion of what they want from the day and whether it is achievable or not. Sometimes that's why they hired the consultant in the first place, but try to define your problem(s) and issue(s) explicitly.
  2. Make sure you have all the prerequisites.
    No, I don't travel with a complete set of Sun products in the boot of my car (I wish - I'd flog the lot). If it's an install, I need the software...and manual...and the license keys...and best of all, a machine to work on...preferably with a chair and a desk. A consultant is usually one extra body in your office that often you don't have space for, but try to make some.
    Quite often, the consultant will need to liaise or work with some of your own staff, and may require assistance testing their solutions. Make sure you're in a position to come up with with the goods. Otherwise you've just wasted money hiring someone to sit around, drink coffee and look bored while thinking of better things to do.
    Example: The large telecoms company who, after agreeing to try some mods for their under-performing application, said: "But we can't schedule a rebuild until next week." And they didn't have any chairs either.
  3. Keep the consultant fed and watered.
    None of us carry signs saying "Do not feed the animals" so don't be shy about being hospitable. Most sites lay on a cuppa on arrival and several more throughout the day but some - memorably - don't. At least point us at the machine. A caffeine overdose can make a person do crazy things, but lack of the same often leads to unfortunate mistakes, sometimes involving your production server.
    We don't expect a slap-up lunch - although we won't object - but appreciate being told where the canteen or nearest pub is and what the opening hours are. Pet peeve: asking and being told "Oh, the canteen's shut now. You can get a Mars bar from the machine."
  4. Let us in.
    Everyone seems to employ labyrinthine security arrangements now, most of which exist purely to make life difficult for legitimate workers. If we're on site for more than a week then it helps to have a guest pass, swipe card, parking permit, MI5 clearance or whatever is required, rather than having to scratch at the door like the cat.
    Happily, often these security measures are subverted by lazy employees and it's no longer a problem. This leads to scenarios where sites spend £50,000 on an Internet firewall for machines that anyone can walk off with.
  5. "The impossible we can do at once, miracles take a little longer."
    Often we leave home before 6am to drive for three hours on the motorway in rush hour traffic in order to be at your place by 9am. Only the hopelessly naïve would expect someone to be bright-eyed and busy-tailed at that point. Give us time to wake up, and start gently.
    To those who say, "Well, you should travel the night before and stay over": thanks, I have my own life too.
  6. You're getting an expert...but not a custom-built one.
    Surprisingly, you can pay top dollar and still hire someone who says, "I don't know the answer to that." That's OK. You haven't paid for someone who has all the answers at their fingertips - in the mad world of enterprise computing, such a person doesn't exist and anyone who claims to be this mythical beast is more likely an inveterate bullshitter. You've paid for someone who knows where or how to find the answers and has the time to do so; in other words, RTFM.
    "Yes, that's right! I am trained in the art of interfacing workgroup servers to dot matrix toasters. They'd been keeping me in a broom cupboard until you called."
    ...Ain't gonna happen.
  7. If you have a problem with the consultancy, tell the consultant first.
    On at least two clearly memorable occasions, the client perceived a problem with the level of service I was capable of providing. Rather than initially raise their concern with me, thus promoting a gentlemanly, rational dialogue, they chose to call the contract arranger. Who called my employer. Who called me. Who knew nothing.
    Obviously I didn't refer to the client as a "two-faced S.O.B." to their face, but the thought was there for some time afterwards, accompanied by a deep level of mistrust and resentment. Hey, I'm only human.
    Please - address your concerns to the consultant in the first instance, and give them a chance to respond, either by explaining their position better, calling for additional assistance or improving their execution. And then, if you still don't get satisfaction, take it up with their manager.
  8. The consultant has little empathy with the salesman.
    Sometimes, a consultant wants to tell you things that are the opposite of what the salesman who sold you your setup originally said. And occasionally, they accidentally do. If they happen to go "off-message", don't scream and shout and shoot the messenger. They're only being honest; they can't help themselves. Ask for a practical workaround or call your vendor, don't get the poor sod fired - they may be in an awkward and unenviable position.
  9. Take away what you're given.
    Believe it or not after reading the above, most consultants have a keen and sympathetic interest in ensuring that you obtain value from their work, that you will not need to hire another consultant in the near future but that if you do, you will ask for them by name (if this does not appear to be the case, they probably don't want to come back because you upset them by not reading the above). They're generally in this line of work because they enjoy it and they're good at it., so forgive them if they want to share this enthusiasm with you. Often, a consultant tries to explain what they've done and what you need to do to maintain their work when they've gone. Do them the courtesy, and yourself the favour, of listening. It probably matters.
    Pushing them out the door as fast as possible once your problem is solved without finding out what they've done is funny. But the joke is on you.
  10. The consultant is god. Only joking. We can dream.

14th October 1998