What to look for in a consultant

January 24, 2014 By and    

Consultants do help, but first you must know what qualities to look for in this person

With the ever-changing and complex world of information technology (IT), it’s pretty normal to feel a little insecure about your fleet’s particular roadmap.

Fleets have always juggled strategic versus tactical concerns simultaneously. However, these days it seems the stakes have been raised. Consultants can play a valuable role in not just understanding your operation, but the world around retail propane.

Socrates’ mantra about knowing what you don’t know certainly applies here. He states that honest ignorance is way better than self-deceptive ignorance, and I couldn’t agree more. We’ve all fallen prey to that line of thinking at one time or another.

So now that you’ve concluded you need some assistance, what should you look for in a consultant? Just as in every walk of life, there are great, good and mediocre consultants. While there are no definitive attributes to look for, some of what I outline here will provide a good foundation on which to build.

The highest priority is that you are sufficiently convinced they are experts in the subject(s) in which you need assistance. Generalists need not apply. Companies need to clearly identify the opportunity, task or problem and get buy-in from the consultant. Too often the absence of clearly defined goals lead to ambiguity, and in extreme cases the initiative will die on the vine victimized by too many forks in the road.

Once you’re comfortable with expertise, then communication, character and honesty are essential. Remember that whomever you hire will most likely need to understand the good, bad and ugly within your operation in order to properly do their job. It’s important they have the freedom to research and give their honest opinions and impressions. No one needs a patronizing consultant. Part of their job is to challenge your assumptions and help uncover those false assumptions you’ve been working under. It’s imperative that they help you separate logic from emotion and that they don’t substitute their logic for yours.

Another pitfall is measuring the value of bringing someone else into the fold. Consultants who are confident their services deliver value should capture a variety of measures as a standard business practice.

From the beginning, the client should make it clear that measuring value is critical. It’s the consultant’s role to work with you to identify the expected result that will serve as a benchmark. They should also be able to provide accurate timelines, and be held accountable. Most are hypersensitive to the negative stereotypes or connotations and will go out of their way to avoid being associated with the worst-case scenario. I would also not allow consultants to negotiate with vendors on your behalf. I believe that is your job and your opportunity to begin management of your chosen vendors.

Yes, it’s a tightrope walk, but worthy consultants are great communicators who are consistent, understanding, reliable, patient and very importantly – themselves. It’s always best to work with an actual person rather than someone who is playing a role.

Since I last penned this column, the world has lost one of its greatest “consultants” in Nelson Mandela. His ability to stay focused on what was most important is a lesson for us all – and who could argue with the results?

One of my favorite Mandela quotes is: “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” The same could be said for your operation. In our quest to improve both individually and in the workplace, it’s important to remind ourselves that no one person or entity has all of the answers.

So having quoted both Socrates and Nelson Mandela a few paragraphs apart, I’m not sure there’s a lot more I can do in the space I have left. I will finish by saying that a fresh pair of eyes is never a bad idea and that a great consultant can have a large positive impact on your fleet.

I wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014.

Vinny Mullineaux is the CEO of Vertrax, a provider of propane-focused back office and mobile technology. He can be reached at vmull@vertrax.com or 203-952-7666.

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