What is a consultant?

A consultant is broadly speaking someone who helps you achieve your objective. This objective could be solving a specific problem, developing a specific product, or making a move to expand your business. A consultant’s help can take the form of advice on how to achieve this objective, or even an active role in achieving the goal by taking the necessary steps.

Advisory

Consultants often take on an advisory role. This happens when a business has the internal capacity to develop strategy and make decisions, but needs an external perspective with more experience in the sphere. For instance, the CEO of a company might be an expert in strategy, but could still require advice from a strategy consultant to work on business planning and growth.

Strategy or management consultants often operate in this avatar, although various other types of consultants – such as supply chain, finance or human capital consultants – might also work in an advisory capacity in the strategic and design phases of projects in their respective field.

Implementation

In most cases, consultants will take the reins to achieve a strategic objective. This usually occurs when the business leadership itself lacks the expertise or manpower to do so. Digitalisation is an example of this. A pharmaceutical company that wants to develop its digital capabilities, for instance, would bring an IT consultant on board, who would identify what the company needs and then develop a solution to match these requirements.

In this case, a consultant covers a gap in expertise in an organisation, and takes on a more execution-related rather than an advisory role. Consultants with a specific scope of expertise such as IT, human resources (HR) or public relations (PR) are examples of professionals who take on such an active role.

What to look for in a consultant

The word consultant can take on a variety of other meanings. Unlike other professions such as medicine or law, the title ‘consultant’ does not have any legal protection, and is subject to overuse. Consultants can come in the form of independent experts in a particular field, or attached to a major consulting firm. There are also internal consultants – internal employees that work in a consultancy capacity.

These are the consultants that take a more legitimate form. When searching for consulting support, one is also likely to come across a number of people who claim that title without necessarily having much expertise or backing. As a business, it is important to be weary of such actors and hire the right consultant.

To sift through a sea of consultants and find the right one, businesses must prioritise the following considerations: expertise & qualifications, professionalism and independence.

Expertise & qualifications

Consultants are often brought on board to cover a gap in expertise within an organisation. In such a scenario, it is imperative that the consultant has demonstrated expertise with proof of previous experience, either as part of the track record of a consulting firm or an individual.

In some cases, this expertise is evident in the manner in which the consultant/consulting firm is branded. For instance, many consulting firms position themselves within a specific domain of expertise, such as IT, human resources, finance, procurement, management, etc.

Other times, usually in the case of large consulting firms, there is a diverse talent pool in place to offer advice and solutions in a variety of domains. In such a scenario, consultants will often have an established reputation or a portfolio of previously managed projects to demonstrate their expertise. At any rate, it is important to look out for proven expertise and qualifications, as it is one of the key marks of a consultant.

Professionalism

In addition to expertise, it is important that consultants know their job. This is evident if consultants have professional mechanisms in place that allow them to give advice and solutions, complete with an understanding of their legal boundaries and professional responsibilities towards their clients. Consultants should have a clear idea of the kind of products and services that they have the capacity and willingness to deliver, and a detailed timeline of when they can complete a task.

Independence

Lastly, it is crucial that consultants are independent, for a number of reasons. Firstly, consultants are often brought on board due to the objectivity and professional distance that they can offer. When business leaders are involved with solving a complex problem, an objective third-party can be of tremendous help in offering perspective and possible solutions.

This objectivity is also useful when difficult decisions need to be made. For instance, a consultant can be appointed to recommend and implement staff cuts within an organisation – a decision that business leaders might not be in a suitable position to make themselves due to their fear of disrupting the morale and culture within an organisation.

These are often crucial tasks, which have far reaching repercussions on the business and potentially on people’s lives, giving consultants a hefty responsibility. To this end, it is critical to ensure that consultants are independent and have no conflicts of interest with any part of the organisation or its people.

Consulting firms

The majority of proficient consultants work at consulting firms. While consultancies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, they can be categorised into generalist consulting firms (they work across industries and service areas), industry/functional specialists (focus on a specific sector or function), niche consulting firms (a narrow focus within an industry and/or service area), and boutique consulting firms (small players).