I have rarely known of a problem or challenge within a CPA firm that could not be successfully solved with the help of the right consultant, properly directed. What do consultants do, and what makes good ones good? Read on to find out!
Why Look Outside?
Why might you choose to bring in an outsider to tackle some of your firm’s trickiest and most intimate challenges? The chief reason is that, although the issues are yours, they are not uniquely yours. A specific problem you may see once or twice in your career has presented itself frequently to an experienced consultant. Why risk “practicing” solving it? Instead, turn to a proven expert. After all, that’s the reason your clients choose and trust you.
It’s also been successfully demonstrated (by Everett M. Rodgers, author of Diffusion of Innovations, and others) that a credible outsider can be a powerful change agent, spurring innovation, especially among “early-adopter” clients. As well, good consultants help build self-sufficiency among their clients.
Tools and Talent
A consultant brings not only familiarity with similar issues, but a methodology and skills to the task – skills that might not be present among your partner group, and a methodology representing the application of techniques. I think of a good consultant as a honey bee, cross-pollinating best practices among his or her clients. They have seen what works and what doesn’t and they have a well-honed knowledge of the nuances critical for an objective to be accomplished.
Initiatives can range from long term, less quantifiable objectives to short-term projects and everything in between. Some consultants focus on firm-wide, multifunctional discipline issues like team work, strategy, planning, leadership, mergers and acquisitions, succession and compensation. Others specialize comprehensively within a functional discipline, such as enhancing practice growth, optimizing use of technology, or implementing a human resources function within a firm. And a third type focuses on specific tactical projects within a functional discipline such as lead generation campaigns, going paperless or recruiting.
When engaging consultants positive results are a team effort between the consultant and the firm’s sponsor. Consultants can bring advice, counsel, techniques and 2 tools. And they can influence, but cannot control a firm’s commitment or appetite for implementation. If the firm loses interest or is unable to build ownership into the process, the consultant can’t be a miracle worker.
Selecting the right consultant starts with understanding your purpose and goals. When someone contacted me recently to ask for assistance with sales training, further discussion uncovered that what she really wanted was help in growing the firm. Sales training is only one of the components to make growth possible. Make sure you’re not targeting a symptom, but are focused on the larger business problem at hand. It is fair to expect that an exploratory discussion with a consultant can help identify a problem versus a symptom, but it’s best to do as much of this as you can in advance of your first discussion. That way, you can better hone in on the short list of potential consultants to consider.
In order to help assure a good fit, you may also wish to determine if the consultant:
- is compatible in terms of size – some work best with large firms, and others prefer a smaller firm environment
- is a good match with your firm’s culture, including work style, pace, degree of formality, etc.
- seems to understand and “connect with” your large business objectives and specific goals
- has specific experience in the areas in which you need assistance.
Our profession is blessed with an impressive number of talented and capable consultants. Understand your objective, focus your search and you’ll have much to gain from their contributions.