If you surveyed a hundred business people in the street in Melbourne or Sydney, and asked them what comes to mind when they hear the word “consultant,” what kind of a picture would they paint? You’d probably hear a fair amount about corporate jargon, bloated invoices, and results that are mediocre at best. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that a legacy of wasted resources has been created by consultancies who talk a big game but deliver next to nothing. And yet, business consulting is an $8 billion industry in Australia. It continues to flourish and grow because businesses need help, and because the right consultants don’t fit the negative stereotypes. Instead they deliver perspective, strategy and advice that really does solve problems and save money.

The question is, how do you know if your consultant is any good? How do you know whether they’re really walking the talk, or hiding behind a smokescreen of fancy words and hefty fees? There is something to be said for the alchemy between individuals, and the overall management of a project or initiative. That said, the following four questions can give you a much clearer idea of what kind of consultant you’re dealing with.

Note: For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on consulting that deals with the recruitment, development and retention of talent for an organisation. However, these questions can be loosely applied to almost any area of consulting.

1. Do they really understand your business, your culture, and your exact needs?

Taking time to really understand who a client is and what they need is, unfortunately, not a strong point for many consultants. Some are more concerned with landing a contract, and they’ll say just about anything to make that happen.

Consider the following factors:

• How long the consultant spent inside your business before developing a plan or proposal

• How many conversations they had with different people

• How long it took them to brief you on the proposed strategy

The necessity of hard efforts is obvious, especially in a field like recruitment consulting. How can the consultant deliver the right candidate to your doorstep if they haven’t even taken the trouble to understand your company? The reality is, they probably can’t.

The next time you meet with your consultant, ask him or her to describe your company culture and your management style. If a blank look follows (or worse, a long silence on the telephone) it could be a sign that your consultant is dealing in smoke and mirrors.

2. Do they add value to your entire talent lifecycle (recruitment, training, restructure and outplacement)?

Good consultants are involved at all of these levels. They bring real value to the table, offering expertise that aligns the recruitment process with your business culture and strategy. They deliver highly experienced personnel that really do take the stress and pain away. This is what you’re paying for – not just a lot of fancy sounding jargon.

If a consultant is merely throwing resumés at you, it’s time to start asking questions. If it were a simple matter of running an advertisement, interviewing a few people and hoping the client likes one of them, then almost anybody could throw their hat in the ring as a recruitment consultant.

But good recruiting should be based on an accredited process that has proven effective time and time again. It should have depth in research and experience, and should ultimately deliver the right candidate across all levels: skill, talent, experience and cultural fit.

It shouldn’t stop there, either. Beyond merely finding the right candidate, it should uncover and identify the areas in which your new recruit needs development, and be able to assist you in providing that development.

Here’s another red flag: A consultant is brought in to assist with a large-scale outplacement process, but their strategy lies mainly in consoling the people who have been made redundant, offering a few words of cursory career advice and wishing them all the best.

Good outplacement is far more important than holding a few group meetings and talking about how to brush up a resumé. Again, anybody can do that. The true consultant must understand what people are feeling, what they need out of the situation. The consultant must be ready with a complete, fully-documented program created by experienced professionals who have been through it themselves. This is the only way they’ll be able to offer real help and advice to people as they transition to their next role.

Does your consultant add value in all parts of the talent lifecycle, taking a holistic view of talent within your organisation? If not, it may be time to reconsider.

3. Do they guarantee their work?

Good consultants don’t just fly by night. They treat their work as a matter of tangible results and customer satisfaction. They stand behind their recommendations and their work—not only with words, but with a guarantee.

Here’s an interesting question for your recruitment consultant: “If my selected candidate leaves in 3, 4 or 8 months, what happens? My company will not have recouped our investment on the employee, and we’ll need to start over and invest again. Will your company do anything to help?”

Good consultants know their recommendations are right, and that the chosen candidates will stick around. They’re happy to guarantee it. That’s called peace of mind in any Manager’s books. What does your consultant give?

4. Do they have depth of experience?

Has your consultant been around for decades, or have they only recently flung their hat into the ring? There’s no overestimating the value of experience when it comes to choosing a consultant. There is no shortage of people trying make a go of it on their own these days, but one can’t help but wonder if a 25 year old with no real management experience – or life experience, for that matter – can truly understand what a seasoned manager is facing in their organisation. How does a consultant effectively recommend a candidate when they haven’t lived, worked and gained experience in organisations themselves? Understanding the nuances of politics, bureaucracy, and other organisational dynamics is crucial to evaluating a new candidate’s profile and fit for a role.

So – is your consultant any good?

The next time you hear the word “consultant,” try not to think of fancy words and deplorable invoices. Instead, think along the lines of a proven business partner with years of experience, clean strategies, and detailed techniques that bring results you can actually see. Then you’ll truly be able to see whether or not your consultant is really worth the investment.

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