Hiring the right consultant or business advisor can be a cost-effective way for a small- or medium-sized business to leverage specialized knowledge. Consultants will be able to help businesses in a number of key areas, such as SEO or marketing, and help develop strategy, improve efficiency, and expand into new markets. Conversely, hiring the wrong consultant or business advisor can cost more than money—it can also cost you a lot of wasted time and energy. Because small businesses are already working on a small budget, it's key that the right consultant is chosen, and this can more likely be achieved by knowing which questions to ask consultants before hiring them.
These are the questions that small- and medium-sized businesses should ask consultants and business advisors before hiring them, and why it is important to ask each question.
1. Are you collaborative? Businesses do not want a consultant who will work in isolation, as there is a danger that they could take the business down a route it shouldn't go. How will you keep us informed of changes you make to our website? How often will you report on your work, and what will it look like? For example, a monthly report is fairly standard for SEO. How will we contact you?
2. Do you have knowledge of our industry? While it is important to have industry knowledge, a broad knowledge of other industries will allow a consultant to bring fresh ideas to the table. Prior to hiring a business consultant, make sure they have experience with your type of business (B2B is very different from B2C or SaaS), as well as others.
3. Can you tell me about your process for going about work? It is important that they are able to demonstrate a strategy and process for achieving the results that the business wants. For example, for SEO you might ask, "what is your process for improving traffic and conversions from search engines?" A strategic planning consultant should give evidence of a path to achieve this, but with the understanding that this might need to be tweaked along the way.
4. What do you think is the biggest change that has happened in (consultant's sphere of knowledge) the last year? For example, you might ask an SEO consultant about Google's recent algorithm changes and how they might affect a website like yours. You might also ask about any recent courses or interesting content the candidate has completed or read recently.
5. Can you guarantee success? This is a trick question, as success is never guaranteed. For example, you might ask, “Can you guarantee that our site will rank No. 1 for a major search term?” This type of question will weed out the salesman from the trustworthy candidate. A follow-up question could be, “How do you determine if you’re successful?” Do they aim to increase traffic by X percent in Y months, for example? It's useful to see some sort of metric.
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6. What is your payment structure? It’s important to know how much and when exactly you will need to pay so that you can factor it into your budget. Many consultants and agencies ask for a percentage up front and then the remainder when the work is completed, or the month paid up front.
7. What happens if we terminate the contract? This is for your own protection. It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. Find out if there are any fees written into the contract and how long ahead you have to give notice. Negotiate these if you feel they are unfair.
8. Why should we hire you over other consultants? You may need a consultant, but is this the one? Do they have something special, such as a key piece of experience or knowledge, that is a great fit for your company?
9. What access do you need to our data? If you are hiring a digital marketing consultant, they will often ask for access to Google Analytics, Google and Bing Webmaster Tools (Search Console in Google), any tools you use for website monitoring, Adwords, and paid distribution accounts if you do any paid acquisition, any keyword tracking you've been doing, and more. It's best to know ahead of time what access is needed so that you can get this to them as quickly as possible in the project.
10. Will you sign a letter of confidentiality? Will you refrain from working with our competitors? Again, this is to protect the business, as you do not want key information being leaked, and you want to stay a step ahead of the competition.
Ensuring you find the right questions to ask a business advisor to help your business grow is a large investment, and even if a consultant or agency is very good that does not automatically mean that they are right for you and your business. With the right questions about both how they think about growing your business and how they work as a person or agency, you can find the right one to help your business and keep you sane at the same time.
John Doherty is a San Francisco-based entrepreneur and growth marketer. He is the founder of getcredo.com a marketplace to connect great businesses with the best digital marketing and growth consultants and agencies online. In his free time he is a rock climber, cyclist, and generally an outdoors enthusiast. He spends his weekends adventuring with his wife and their very large black Labrador Butterbean.