Getting Past Third Base with Your Consultant

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You have a consultant booked. The booking is for the installation of and training on a new system, or perhaps an upgrade or augmentation of an existing system. There are several techniques that will enable you to reap maximum return on this investment, and they start long before you first clap eyes on your consultant.

Here’s a scenario: you’re reasonably happy with the out-of-the-box reports your system spits out, but you want more from them. You could pay your vendor to create additional reports, no problem. Except that this doesn’t make a great deal of financial sense—you’re going to want several new reports and your requirements may change. This could become a really expensive proposition. Instead, why not have a consultant come on-site for a week and train your in-house staff on the data model of the application? This would involve a higher initial cash outlay but in the long term is much more fiscally sound.  You’ll be able to create many different reports and make changes on the fly, without incurring hard costs every time your needs shift.

But how do you ensure that you maximize the value you’re getting from this expenditure? There are some hard and soft considerations to take into account. And if you treat your consultant right, you may hit a home run.

The most obvious but sometimes overlooked step is to define your needs. What type of data do you want in your reports? How do you want the data grouped, subtotaled, ordered? Throughout the planning phase, when working with the vendor’s project manager for your account, it is invaluable to talk about the output you want to see. After all, some data are not relatable in a database because the database just isn’t designed that way. Imagine the frustration of spending a week with your consultant only to discover that what you want was never possible in the first place. A great way to ensure you don’t leave out any details is to mock up the reports you want to see. This exercise will help you hone your requirements. Send these mock-ups to your project manager and your requirements will be validated before you even need to pick up a pen to write a check.

The next logical step: identify your training team. There’s perceived value in putting as many people as possible in these sessions when you’re paying thousands for a week of an expert’s time. But too many participants and your training may lose focus. If your consultant’s pulled in too many directions, you could easily derail the whole process. Involve too few people and you may not achieve the depth needed to disseminate the training effectively and to retain the imparted knowledge in-house in the event of turnover. Selecting the correct audience is key.

So you know what you want and you know who you want to do it. Now it’s time to get a detailed statement of work (SOW) from your vendor’s project manager. The project manager will likely be using a boilerplate SOW. It’s essential to review it and ensure that all the points specific to your engagement are included. You and the project manager may be in agreement on what needs to happen, but the relationship with your consultant is a bit of a wildcard. Chances are your consultant is working on other projects and has not been party to your discussions. Beyond your requirement for training on the data model, the consultant is probably unaware of your specific needs. E-mail briefings from the project manager may have omitted a detail or two. But if it’s spelled out in the statement of work then it’s clear to all concerned.  If you created mock-ups, it’s at this point they start to truly pay dividends.

In my experience as a consultant, I usually received the project details, including the SOW, midweek before the job was to occur. A tailored SOW would give me a good idea of the direction the training would need to take—which table structures demanded great depth, and which ones needed only general overviews. However, mock-ups would provide a concrete example of what needed to be accomplished. Then I could even assemble some snippets of code as instructional aids. The consultant can teach to those mock-ups. The goals of the session are better focused. Progress is easily monitored as well. At the close of the week your staff doesn’t just have an increased knowledge of a data model; your reports are functional and in hand with a staff that is properly armed to tackle further augmentations to those reports.

The only thing left to do is take care of some details before your consultant arrives. These may seem blatantly obvious, but I’ve experienced situations where they were overlooked and wound up creating an initial half day of unproductive frustration.

  • Make sure that everyone involved has a room with ample network connectivity

  • Have a projector available

  • Ensure that someone actually knows the password for your database!

  • Verify that the consultant will have access to necessary resources as needed: network, printer, key card for entry etc. (I actually got locked out of a client’s once because I didn’t know that the door had a magnetic lock on it and the client forgot to let me know/give me a swipe card.)

A few "soft" considerations to factor in would be things like giving your consultant a quick tour of the work area, pointing out amenities like washrooms, coffee room and the like. Let your consultant know what good lunch and dinner options there are nearby.

Your vendor likely has a travel policy in place regarding things like allowable air carriers, grade of hotel, and per diem. If your consultant chooses to fly in Sunday evening to avoid an early morning commuter flight, then it’s for the best. You wouldn’t likely be in top shape getting up at 4:00, dealing with the circus of airport security, flying and then driving to an unknown location in order to work a full day. Or in the case of a transcontinental flight west to east, instead of taking a redeye home on Friday, choosing to leave Saturday morning. The cost of the extra hotel night is 99% of the time going to be offset by the decreased airfare anyway. The point being that your consultant is only human and is likely on the road upwards of forty weeks a year. It’s small things like this that make life on the road a lot more bearable.

Some of these points may seem incredibly obvious. However, I’ve experienced scenarios where these considerations were not taken into account. None of the engagements went off the rails because of them, but they weren’t maximally effective. Why get to third base when you can hit one out of the park? Consultants take pride in their work and want you to get the most out of their expertise. If you are clear about what you want at the end of the engagement, in concrete terms, then you will garner many more benefits than if there is any ambiguity in the equation.
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