Picking a Partner: Tips for finding the right consultant.

Chemistry lab beakers.Earlier today, I spent an hour with the fine folks who attended the mStoner webinar, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Making it work with external partners.” The hashtag we used — #HEpartners — might let you partially recreate the fun we had.

The RFP and the RFQ
Naturally, the RFP and the RFQ made it into my slide deck for the webinar. I know we all roll our eyes and grimace about the Request for Proposal or Request for Quote process. But even if you are lucky enough to avoid the pain and bureaucracy of having to do either, you do at least need to write down some bullet points before choosing a partner.

The process of clearly outlining what you need, what you hope the consultant will deliver, and even a preliminary timeline and budget will ultimately help you narrow options as you find a company to help you. It’s also important to have this in written form because most consultants can respond with a better proposal when you can share this level of detail as background.

Don’t think of writing an RFP as only painful. If you are part of a committee, drafting an RFP can tease out inconsistencies or misunderstandings about what you would like the consultant to do. Writing an RFP also will help you get consensus about the project or the initiative. Finally, you can learn a lot by observing prospective consulting firms during a pre-bidders conference, and from the questions bidding firms ask you during the established proposal preparation period.

Speaking of questions
Another topic during the webinar was knowing the right questions to ask to effectively evaluate consultants. Now I know how these things go…sometimes you’re the one wearing the red ruby slippers and you can hire, or at least control the process for hiring, the consultant. Other times, there are wicked witches and flying monkeys in the way, meaning someone else hires the right (or wrong) partner. Regardless, the evaluation of the consultants you could work with should include some very tough questions. You might try these:

  • Ask questions to determine competency. (Do you know how to do this?)
  • Ask about experience. (Have you done this before?)
  • Follow up about results and outcomes. (What happened when you did this elsewhere?)
  • Find out about capacity. (What resources will you devote to us?)
  • Always ask about deliverables. (What will we have in our hands after you have finished?)
  • Find out about the team you’ll be working with. (Who will actually do the work of our project?)
  • Question them about risk factors. (What could go wrong? How will you prevent that?)
  • Finally, find out about philosophy and approach. (How do you work with clients?)

While I don’t underestimate the importance of answers to the questions above, really, a lot of this is about chemistry. When you are evaluating external partners you’ll need to get a sense of their style and see if it meshes with your own, your team’s and that of your campus. So much about an effective relationship with a consultant has to do with your ability to collaborate with the individuals you hire. Pay attention to your gut. Trust the impressions you get during an in-person presentation of the proposal from the company you’re considering.

Download the slide deck I used for the webinar.

More on picking a consultant from the mStoner blog:


Author: susantevans

Susan T. Evans is director of corporate and foundations relations at the College of William & Mary. She is a proven strategic leader with deep expertise in advancement, communications, brand management, marketing, digital strategy, technology, administration and organizational development. She is known for creative and strategic approaches to challenges within higher education, nonprofits and business.

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