A good many people believe that outside experts, whatever you call them, will charge you large amounts of money to spend time learning your business and then tell you what you already know. Certainly there are a range of jokes about it:
Big Name Consultant drives up to field where a Tunisian shepherd tends his flock.
Big Name Consultant to Tunisian Shephard: “I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have and where they are. All I ask is one sheep.”
Shepherd to BNC: “Okay.”
BNC jumps in car, turns on computer, grids local area, and counts sheep.
Big Name Consultant to Shepherd: “You have 63 sheep and they’re all in that field.” With that he picks up an animal and puts it in the back seat of his car.
Shepherd to BNC: “You came here from far away, knowing nothing of my business and overcharged me for what I already knew. And by the way, that’s my dog.”
I’ll note here that I am a consultant, so I’m inclined to believe that outside counsel is a good idea for many companies. But from the owner’s point of view, why pay an outsider money to tell you how to run your business? Below are some of the key reasons small (and large) businesses bring in external help:
You want an outside eye on the problem.
When your business faces an intractable or otherwise challenging problem, an outsider may be able to help you reevaluate the specifics in a different light and without the influence of history: Your business has been declining, despite your best efforts. Should you streamline, close the business, hire a marketing firm…you have a vested interest in certain outcomes. The consultant doesn’t, and should be able to help you evaluate the long term effect of each scenario – and even provide scenarios you hadn’t considered.
To enlarge the Big Picture
When you are running the day to day operations of a small business the ‘big picture’ can recede into the noise of just getting through today. As that increasingly happens, your business can begin to suffer as you delay making big decisions, planning, and other long term investments in favor of serving customers and making this Friday’s payroll.
That refocus is critical when you are faced with major decisions. The consultant or coach has likely seen similar situations and can help clarify issues you may be viewing through an emotional lens. Should you abandon your current plant in favor of one which is less expensive but further out of town? The consultant can acknowledge both your tie to the current location and your concern over employees having to travel, but should be able to evaluate the pluses and minuses with a detachment you don’t have.
You need a special set of skills
You need an engineer to reconfigure the plant. Your marketing plan and materials are circa 1990. Your growing company needs help with long term planning. Consultants are experts for hire. Go get one.
To plug a hole in your own knowledge
No one can be expert in everything and no one should be embarrassed about having holes in their knowledge base. Traditionally, people who started businesses did so because they had a skill set which was saleable in some fashion. So if your skill set isn’t technology or accounting, go find someone with experience in those areas.
You need project, or short term, help and don’t have the employee hours to spare
Perhaps a large client has made extraordinary demands, you have decided to do a marketing push in advance of a new product, your technology no longer serves you well. Time for an outside consultant. He or she can help you evaluate your needs, and even take over the tasks you can’t make time for.
To provide distance
A consultant can also insulate you from difficult situations: employee terminations, reorganizations and other internal shakeups, messy public relations problems, and other acrimonious or otherwise unpleasant situations in which you may benefit from some distance.
Your participation is required
However, before you call in that briefcase-toting luminary, there are some things you should understand about this new relationship:
- You are going to have to invest a good deal of time in helping the outsider understand your business, your culture and what it is that you want.
- Depending on the type of coach, you may need to assure unfettered access to everyone and everything, from the entire physical plant to all personnel and even external people like lawyers, accountants, board members and stockholders.
- The individual will likely need workspace and you should establish in advance what other needs he or she may have, such as assistance from an employee, technology requirements, or transportation. It should all be spelled out in the contract.
- In the best situations, the coach or consultant will partner with you to solve your issues and any which may arise out of delving into the business. If you assume the advisor is working in your best interest, rather than creating more problems (which happens), you will get more out of your consultant.