How To Manage A Data Consultant

It took a bunch of work, but you finally found the right consultant for your project and worked out a contract you're both happy with. Now you can relax and let them do their thing!

If only.

It's true, using consultants increases what you can do. But consultants aren't genies: you can't rub a lantern, make a wish, and expect everything will work out. If you want to have great results and at least come close to hitting your project budget, you need to manage your consultants well.

In this article, I'll give you a simple framework for how to structure your consultant management so you get the best bang for the buck for your business.

Getting started with a consultant

Starting off on the right foot can make a world of difference in how well your consultant project works. Here are a few tips for kicking off a project:

Set clear expectations up front

Ok, in one respect, hiring a consultant is like summoning a genie: you need to be very, very clear about what you’re asking for. Unlike some mythical genies, consultants aren't looking for a way of giving you results that aren't what you intended (although sometimes it can feel that way). But in a fast-paced business, it's easy for consultants and their clients to be out of sync.

Here are a few tips to make sure you and your consultants are on the same page:

  • Get it in writing—briefly. Whatever your goals, expectations, and constraints are, make sure to write it up. Unlike big corporations that do multimillion dollar consulting deals, you don't need to generate a lot of paper; shorter is sweeter. (NOTE: If you need your contract to be run by a lawyer and they need a lot more detail, that's a different story.)
  • Pressure test plans that feel optimistic. If you think some of their expectations are too optimistic, now is the time to push back. Ask for more info on why they are confident they can get it done quickly and check to see if they've made any assumptions about your project or your business that are off-base.
  • Set up lightweight risk management. Is there anything about this project that makes you nervous? Are there issues that you know could derail the project? If the consultant hasn't asked you about risks, now's the time to briefly write up your top concerns and how you want the consultant to plan for and mitigate them.
  • Identify the resources they should use. Having a consultant waste time and money reinventing the wheel is pretty aggravating. Be sure the consultant knows what internal resources they should be using, which could range from subject matter experts to existing queries to database admins.
  • Explain how they should address serious problems. For example, let them know when they should take care of an issue themselves versus bring the issue to you. An open line of communication will help reduce both wasted cycles as consultants figure things out and lead to a better outcome on both sides.
  • Set time boxes. No matter how clear you think you've been, the only way to learn whether you and your consultant are truly on the same page is by seeing some results. So make sure to break the project into smaller, time bound iterations so you can see for yourself whether they understood what you want.

Get them properly set up—and do it sooner rather than later

You know what's a great way to waste money and/or time? Having your consultant spend a bunch of time trying to get a password, some server space, access to the databases and analytical tools they need to do their work. So carve out some time up front to make sure your consultants have access to everything they need to get going quickly.

Speaking of things they need, if you have onboarding materials, share them early. In fact, if you're going to be working with many consultants and new hires, now's a good time to pull together an onboarding checklist and briefly write up the info they need to get started

If time is precious, make the consultant a priority early on

Once you've hired the right consultant, it can be tempting to shift gears and focus on the bazillion other things on your to do list. Don't give in to that temptation—especially if the project is time sensitive. Make time to ensure they get off to a good start.

This is also helpful for keeping the project in scope. You don't want to discover late in the game that you should have invested more time more at the beginning, because at that point there's nothing you can do about it.

Keeping consultants on track during a project 

Your consultant is onboarded, your expectations and priorities are aligned. You’re golden, right? Sort of. While you shouldn’t need to babysit consultants, staying hands-on throughout a project’s lifecycle is incredibly important.

Schedule regular, short check-ins

No matter how great a consultant is, you're going to need to check in with them on a regular basis to make sure everything is on track. A few times in my life I didn't bother checking in regularly because the consultant was such a rock star that I didn't think I needed to. That turned out to be a mistake. Every. Single. Time.

But check-ins don't have to be long or complicated. When things are going smoothly, a 15 minute chat can be remarkably effective, especially since you’re (hopefully) time boxing the project. 

Watch the money—and the scope

You're accountable for the project's budget, deliverables, and timelines. Here are a few tips on keeping them in line:

  • Watch your financial burn rate. You might think this is obvious. But here's the thing: you are probably extremely busy, which is why you hired the consultant. So it's easy to just let the project drag on without realizing that you’re burning through the budget.
  • Be on the lookout out for scope creep from in-house staff.  This can especially be a problem because the consultant may not feel comfortable pushing back against stakeholders or other team members' demands.
  • Consultants can cause scope creep. Don't let your consultant go down a rabbit hole if the hole isn’t relevant. For example, quality is great, but do you really need it at 99.9%, or is 80% good enough? Or perhaps your consultant keeps trying to drag your project toward their area of expertise (or interest)? Keep them on track and laser-focused. Ironically, scope creep can be more of a problem with rockstar consultants because Ms. Hammer-of-God may have a tendency to treat every problem like it's a nail.
  • Don't let a foot of scope creep turn into a mile. If you have to extend the scope of the project, be super clear both internally and with the contractor about the limits of this expansion. And be on your guard against too many nice-to-haves being slipped into the new plan.

When there are problems, be diplomatic but clear

Course correct as you go. Don’t wait until you've got a massive, "almost final" deliverable that’s a hot mess. And if you’re having a problem with a consultant's work, be diplomatic but very clear about what's not working

It can feel awkward to point out problems early on (after all, you’re still in the relationship-building phase!). It’s critical, though, to make sure your expectations are in sync early on so both you and your consultant are satisfied with the end result.

Keep an eye on how consultants work with your team

For example, if the consultants are men and there are women on your team, are they respectful? If you have junior team members, are they treating them well or as n00bs? And how do they treat the admin assistant who helps unravel billing issues?

Unprofessional behavior shouldn’t be a frequent concern, but it can happen. And if you see signs your consultant isn't treating in-house staff with respect, you need to deal with it ASAP.

Consider having knowledge transfers throughout the project

As I discussed in the article on when to use consultants vs do work in-house, one of the disadvantages of using consultants is that when they leave, everything they learn during the project usually leaves with them. So figuring out a strategy for knowledge transfers is crucial.

Many businesses focus on ensuring there is a knowledge transfer at the end of a project. That’s a good minimum, but you may be better off having knowledge transfers at important milestones during the project.

Transferring knowledge doesn't have to be complicated. For example, if you have a weekly check-in with your consultant, take some time every few meetings to ask them what they've learned so far and dump some quick and dirty notes into a "Lessons Learned" Google Doc.

Similarly, rather than having them wait until the end of the project to work on documentation, ask them to create a draft as they go. It is much, much easier to make sure they capture all of your company’s quirks and edge cases if they've been jotting down notes along the way.

Be mindful of payments

If your billing department is a little lax or slow, consultants can get understandably snippy (or leave). And if they've written a decent contract, you can end up paying more if your business is particularly slow on cutting checks. So keep your consultant happy by ensuring they get paid on time.

While handling invoices may not be your job, in many ways you’re the internal advocate for your consultants. Let them know that they can reach out to you if there are issues and have a plan for how to follow up if that happens. Open communication and quick action can go a long way toward smoothing ruffled feathers.

How to wrap up a consulting project

The last deliverable is in hand and you’re ready to launch—congratulations! Both you and your consultant should celebrate. But before you bid your fond farewells, tie up a few loose ends.

  • Do a formal knowledge transfer. If your consultant hasn't been transferring knowledge along the way, now's the time to make sure that you get all the info you need before they disappear. And if you've been doing this as you go? Take a step back and ensure nothing fell through the cracks.
  • Make sure everything gets properly closed out. Shut down their network account if they have one, change their access to your Google Drive, etc. And, of course, don’t forget about that final check.
  • Take time for a retrospective. Decide whether it's worth doing a quick and dirty after action. Unless it's a huge project it's probably not necessary. But if there were any bumps along the road, now’s a good time to briefly discuss the project with the consultant and/or in-house staff to see if there are any useful lessons to learn from the project.
  • Offer up a review. If the consultant has done a great job, let them know that you’ll be happy to write a short review or to speak with their future clients about their work. Jotting down a few lines in a LinkedIn recommendation only takes a few minutes and it’s a fantastic way to make them eager to work with you again.

Conclusion

There are a lot of factors that go into properly managing a consultant. But it doesn't have to be a huge hassle.

Just being aware of what your consultants need, troubleshooting potential problems before they happen, and making yourself available for regular check-ins can make your consulting relationship a positive one.

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