How to Successfully Work With Independent Consultants

The demand for independent consultants is on the rise. Organisations are increasingly seeing the value that quality independent consultants can deliver. As a recent publication of Deltek (2018) illustrates, more than half of management consultants (55%) are concerned about increasing competition, with 42% seeing independent consultants as an increasingly important competitive threat to traditional consulting.

Why are organisations turning to independent consultants?

The on-demand economy has appeal to organisations for numerous reasons. First of all, independent consultants provide specific expert insights due to their experience in the industry and having actually done the work. Next to that they can be hired on a role or project basis which brings flexibility, ease, and speed of contracting. Last but not least, they offer good value. By being paid directly for their delivery, independent consultants – even when contracted through a platform – lack the high overhead costs that come with traditional consultancies. For 48% of organisations in The Netherlands, price is even the main reason for choosing independent consultants over traditional consulting services (Odgers Connect, 2017). No more consulting ‘christmas trees’ required, with the possibility of quickly ramping up or scaling down teams of independent consultants.

Reasons for choosing to work with independent consultants. Source: Adapted from Odgers Connect (2017)

Common concerns to tackle in the gig-economy

Source: Adapted from Kelly Services (2017)

Now, of course this all sounds great. However there are some downsides to the gig-economy. Administrative hassles, inconsistencies in quality, lack of continuity in execution, as well as resistance from employees have been cited as key concerns for working with independents (Kelly Services, 2017). Next to that, a survey by Deltek (2018) found that 46% of respondents consider gaining and maintaining trust as a key strategic and commercial challenge. And let that just be something that’s more difficult with independents, since they often lack the well-established portfolio or reputation that big consulting firms have.

To minimise the impact of these concerns and still get to the ‘good stuff’ of the open-talent economy, organisations need to rethink some of their setups on sourcing – as well as how to work with independent consultants. Below are our tips to get to the best results and value for money.

1. Be smart when sourcing consultants

In general personal networks (20%) and recommendations from others (20%) are still the main way to go for organisations to find independent consultants (Odgers Connect, 2017). These options address trust concerns providing an indication on the reliability and quality of the consultant, however it becomes difficult to source independents at scale. Connections ‘via via’ rarely lead to larger teams and/or volume of specific talent. For example, finding 20 data scientists for your company can be a very manual and lengthy process. Or trying to recruit all the expert profiles and seniority levels required for a digital transformation by just asking around…

Companies should be able to focus on growing their business instead of worrying about head hunting and contracting paperwork

Attempting to source consultants outside of your own network is therefore often the next step. However with the high number of independent consultants out there, crawling over LinkedIn can feel like finding a needle in the haystack. Especially when you are sourcing for a position that you personally have little background in, it can be hard to assess the quality of the person. This is where many companies will go down the recruitment agency route. However, even they may lack insight to find ‘the sheep with the five legs’ best suited for the job. In addition to that they do not have a stake in the actual project, which leaves the risk of quality delivery on the company.

An alternative solution would be to go to online platforms. They provide access to a network of pre-vetted independent professionals eliminating a big part of the hassle whilst still providing scale. They can help out selecting top talent that meets your specific needs, or even build teams and fulfil talent plans. Sourcing consultants through a trusted platform reduces the risk of hiring consultants that need frequent replacing, and takes away the burden of having to source talent yourself. Next to that, many consulting platforms will take care of the entire process including contracting and administration, as well as quality of delivery. This means that you can focus on growing your business instead of worrying about head hunting and paperwork.

Sources for finding independent consultants, adapted from OdgersConnect (2017)

2. Select consultants based on project and cultural fit

Working successfully with independent consultants starts by learning everything there is to know about the consultant’s experience, skills and background. This ensures not only that the consultant has the right skills for your role or project, but also that the consultant is a right fit for your corporate culture. For example, A consultant who values collaboration and consensus might not play well in an environment that is dominated by hierarchy and authority. Investing in getting to know potential consultants before hiring them gives you the chance to align their profiles with your objectives and prevents conflict or surprises later on when there are discrepancies between attitudes or working styles.

A consultant needs to have the right skills for your role or project, but also needs to fit your corporate culture.

Organisations have expressed concerns that traditional consultancies don’t attempt to align their values with those of the client’s business (Consultancy UK, 2018a). Independent consultants offer an advantage here because they lack the loyalty and commitment to the values of a corporate culture, therefore they have more flexibility to adapt to the client they’re working for. Platforms for independent consultants offer many possibilities here, they understand the consultants profile and take into account a personality and cultural fit when matching with clients needs. Traditional consultancies are more rigid in this respect since all consultants are hired, trained and promoted based on the same set of core values that run throughout the consultancy. As a client you have little say in who works on your project and whether they are a right fit for you.

3. Clearly specify your needs

Before you start looking into hiring independent consultants make sure that you have a clear idea of what needs to be done in your organisation. The process for hiring individual independent consultants to fill specific functions differs from hiring independent consultants for outcome-based project work. In the latter, you might need to assemble a team of consultants and require additional help to aid in selecting the most suitable team for your needs. A team of independent consultants, each with a unique area of expertise of skill-set, can offer exponential value over individual know-how. This indicates it is beneficial to consult trusted consulting platforms that are able to orchestrate the most effective team.

A team of independent consultants – each with a unique area of expertise of skill-set – can offer exponential value over individual know-how

Once you have a clear understanding of your own requirements and project scope, it is important to set expectations with the consultants to ensure that they understand how they are involved. In some cases independent consultants are brought in to define the problem, whereas in others they are needed to address an already established problem. Agreeing on a way of working and project requirements before the kick-off helps to align expectations and avoids unanticipated extra costs or output that differs from what you wanted.

4. Provide regular and constructive feedback

Of course independent consultants don’t fall into your usual performance and feedback system. However depending on the project they can have high impact on the organisation. Feedback is essential to understand/highlight/show how someone is performing so they can improve in time before the project or role ends. This has to be done frequently from the start to make sure in-flight improvement can take place as some projects are high pressure or limited by time constraints.  

Feedback aids in ensuring consistent execution and project delivery. Surprisingly its an aspect that is often missing when working with traditional consultancies.

Giving independent consultants constructive feedback lets them know what they should change or keep doing in order to keep the focus on the goals of the project. This will not only help to improve the quality of the results, but also show that you are interested in their personal development which will make them feel appreciated and enhance motivation and commitment.

Furthermore, feedback aids in ensuring consistent execution and project delivery. Surprisingly it is an aspect that is often missing when working with traditional consultancies. More innovative consulting models are jumping into this space since it increases the agility and flexibility to adapt to new developments and changes in the environment, hence continuously improving their services and quality delivered by the professionals in their community.

5. Foster effective working relationships

In a survey of independent consultants by B2E Consulting (2017), 77% of respondents indicated that they felt that they were sometimes treated as a commodity and that the client lacked interest in their personal career goals and objectives. Independent consultants will have more motivation to deliver results when they feel they are appreciated and welcomed into the team and corporate culture rather than being treated as outsiders.

Source: Adapted from B2E Consulting (2017)

Putting effort into integrating independent consultants into your organisation creates trust from both sides; the consultants will feel valued and the client will in turn gain higher quality output. An effective way of doing this is by setting up collaborative projects where employees co-create side by side; therefore increasing the employees understanding of the process and outcomes and undoubtedly leading to a higher rate of implementation and adoption after the consultants have left. Consequently, permanent employees feel less threatened by the external consultants coming in.

A key element of building effective working relationships is an open and transparent communication system to help consultants connect to the right resources and people in your organisation, rather than treating it as a one-way street. As Steve Jobs once said accurately “we don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do, we hire them to let them tell us”.

Closing thoughts

Many of the concerns for working with independent consultants can be resolved by working with platforms. They assemble teams of top-tier independent consultants and take care of sourcing, vetting and administrative processes, such as contracting and feedback.

Organisations are able to maximise the effectiveness of their work with independent consultants if they consider and adapt according to the outlined suggestions. Clear project briefs and regular feedback will lead to effective and credible relationships based on mutual trust. Sourcing consultants smartly and paying extra attention to cultural fit and personality will drive and motivate them to achieve the results you desire.

Overview of how to successfully work with independent consultants

 


Interested in reading more? Here is a selection of articles and reports documenting the changes and developments in consulting that are discussed in this article: