Bill Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Recently I was looking through the Consumer Reports 2006 Buying Guide to see what it has to say about buying a snow thrower. The Buyers Guide does not give brand recommendations. Instead it gives tips to help the buyer make a good choice. I noticed that for each item in the Buying Guide, Consumer Reports has three sections to describe how to buy each of the products. “What’s available,” “Features That Count,” and “How to Choose.” Consumer Reports is silent for products that information developers want to buy. In our next eight e-newsletters, CIDM will fill the gap by discussing buying tips for typical services and products that you, as an information developer, might be interested in buying. The eight products and services, listed in alphabetic order, are

  • consulting services
  • content-management systems
  • controlled language tools
  • editing tools
  • localization services
  • production tools
  • technical writing services
  • training development and instructional design

I’ll start the series this month by considering tips for purchasing consulting services. In the coming months, I will be asking others to contribute.

Consulting Services

What’s Available

Most of the services that consultants provide break down into five categories: management consulting, user and task analysis, process analysis and redesign, information design, and requirements analysis.

Management consulting

Management consultants look at your management problems, both internal and external. They look at the level of the maturity of your processes. They do explicit benchmark analysis, or they compare your management with other companies that they have analyzed in the past. Look for management consultants with lots of experience with many companies. They do not make value judgments about you or your staff.

User and task analysis

User and task analysis consultants help you learn about the needs of your customers, both internal and external. They may create questionnaires, or they may interview your customers at your site or at customer sites or organize focus groups. Look for user and task analysis consultants who have experience using a variety of techniques to understand your customers. Avoid academically oriented consultants who confuse user and task analysis with psychological research and waste your money.

Process analysis and redesign

Process analysis consultants study your current (as is) process and recommend improved processes (to be) that allow you to efficiently make use of new technology that you want to add or help you increase staff efficiency. Look for consultants who use a wide variety of process analysis tools and provide real recommendations you can understand, rather than yards of spaghetti-like flow charts.

Information design

Information design consultants help you design your information (PDF, Web, hardcopy) to meet the needs of new products and customers or take advantage of new technology to improve your publishing efficiency. Choose consultants who are flexible about information design, rather than those who try to push proprietary designs or tools. Look for consultants familiar with the nature of the design you want to incorporate.

Requirements analysis

Requirements Analysis consultants work with you to create a request for proposal (RFP) or request for information (RFI) from vendors, primarily for hardware or software. Look for consultants who have no financial interest in any of the products. Consulting organizations associated with vendors, integrators, and some independent consultants with commission agreements with vendors may have a conflict of interest.

Features that Count

Every consultant can give you a variety of reasons about why he or she is the best or unique. But there are a few features afforded by consultants that you should look for. Ask about deliverables when you engage a consultant. Insist that the consultant give you a written report. The report converts the consultant’s recommendation to your company’s knowledge base. Without a written report, the consultant’s recommendations may be lost to future department leaders. You may want to see an example report before you sign the contract.

You don’t want to pay the consultant forever, so be sure the consultant is willing to tutor you and your staff and transfer knowledge to your company.

Most consulting projects that fail, do so because of the absence of a change management process. Change management is necessary to move your stakeholders in the same direction. Make sure that change management is part of your consultant’s process.

Not only will you get a better consulting result from a consultant with a broadreputation and lots of experience, but he or she will be more likely to convince your management, staff, and stakeholders about the results of the consulting and the recommendations to pursue.

How to Choose

The cheapest is not the best or the worst

Looking for the lowest price for a consultant is not a good tactic. Consulting is not a commodity. Every consultant’s work will be done differently. Conversely, higher price does not buy quality. It might just buy consultant overhead.

Create a carefully crafted request for proposal (RFP)

Before you begin your search for a consultant, work with your staff and stakeholders to put together a detailed request for proposal. The more information you give a consultant about your needs, the more precisely the consultant can craft a proposal. A vague and ill-defined RFP will cause consultants to give a higher bid so they can protect themselves from an ill-defined project.

Make your RFP functional

In your RFP, describe your functional needs rather than how you think those needs can be met. Let the consultant tell you how he or she proposes to do the consulting project. For example, instead of putting a request for focus groups in your proposal, describe what information you want to get. Let the potential consultant propose how to obtain the information.

Is the proposal complete and well written?

If the proposal from the consultant is incomplete, poorly written, and contains errors, it is likely that any report produced by that consultant will be incomplete, poorly written, and contain errors. If the proposal contains lots of boilerplates in the sections that should be customized, your report will likely be full of boilerplates.

How long has the consultant been performing the service you are buying?

It is common for people who have lost their jobs to become instantaneous consultants until they find another job. Recently, a number of software and hardware developers have added consulting groups to lure in unsuspecting customers to their primary products.

Ask for references

Ask about similar services performed for other companies along with references. Quality consultants will be happy to provide information and references about past projects. Don’t fall for the ploy that because their projects are proprietary, they cannot give you any information or references. The vast majority of customers are more than willing to give references for quality consulting projects.

Is consulting the primary business of the consultant’s company?

Many hardware and software developers as well as integrators and even accounting firms have consulting groups. These groups act to bring in business for the company’s primary businesses of hardware sales, software sales, or custom software development. Work with a consultant who has no financial interest in his or her recommendations. Beware of consultants who have become agents for hardware, software, and integration companies and receive a commission based on sales of these products.

Does the consultant have a gimmick that is used in all projects?

Many consultants create or use a scheme or software product for all of their consulting projects. In essence, they do the same project for all of their clients. Beware of consultants who seem more interested in pushing their software product or copyrighted design tool rather than understanding your needs. It’s a good idea to check references.

Does the consultant provide knowledge transfer as part of the project?

Quality consultants will provide some way of transferring knowledge related to your project to your staff so that the gains realized through the consulting project can be continued after the consultant leaves. This transfer may be in the form of tutoring or workshops. Beware of consultants who want to stay on forever.

Does the consultant guarantee staff assigned to your project?

Make sure that the proposal offered by the consultant contains information about who will be assigned to work on your consulting project. Beware of consultants who show up with their big guns during the proposal stage but use entry-level staff to perform the consulting project.

Will the consultant be available after the project ends?

Use a consultant with a long history who is likely to be available after the project is completed. Beware of instantaneous consultants who will be gone as soon as they find a real job.