Like lawyers, consultants are often the butt of harsh jokes. Did you hear the one about the consultant who’ll borrow your watch to tell you what time it is? But who’s having the last laugh—the fellow who borrows the watch or the sucker who pays him to do it?

Each time they must hire a project management consultant, IT managers and CIOs face the danger of looking foolish, not to mention losing thousands or even millions of dollars. To make matters worse, most of the consulting industry’s tried-and-true firms have recently merged, split, disappeared, reappeared, or reconfigured at least once. The new crop of unproven firms only further muddies the waters.

How can you be sure to choose the cream of the crop when it comes to project management consultants? Sometimes the best advice comes from the trenches, so we asked our IT Consultant community to provide advice for hiring a project management consultant.

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TechRepublic members Michael Greear and Katherine Bolt wrote us with their advice for separating the good from the bad when interviewing a prospective project management consultant. Greear is an information systems director, and Bolt is president and owner of Bolt Telecom Consulting in Atlanta. Here are their suggestions.

Test the consultant’s knowledge of your industry
When salespeople pose as consultants, they often make empty promises. It’s imperative to find out the depth of a prospective consultant’s knowledge about your particular industry. Bolt suggests asking the consultant to provide a generic project plan, task list, or other documentation relevant to your industry.

“For example, if you need a project manager for telecom billing implementation, a knowledgeable consultant should know the basic tasks, from gathering client requirements through testing, final implementation, and training,” Bolt said. “Ask how they bring showstopper issues and problems to the attention of the client, how they recommend avoiding problems in the first place, and what their techniques are for bringing all business experts of the project together.”

Keen listening skills will also help you hone in on knowledgeable candidates. A great way to gain insight on potential project managers is to evaluate the questions they ask you about your company and needs. Bolt advises that candidates should ask:

  • Is there an approved budget and timeframe for completion of each phase of the project?
  • What equipment or vendors are already in place?
  • What client involvement is expected?
  • Who is expected to provide vendor management?
  • Who will provide sign-off and oversight duties for the client?
  • What infrastructure and support (PCs, copiers, LAN access, software, and testing tools, etc.) is the client providing?

Find out how the consultant deals with failure
Even the best consultants are likely to have some less-than-successful moments in their work history. Both Bolt and Greear suggested conducting the selection process as if it were a job interview, asking specific questions about the consultants’ past projects, proud moments, and failed efforts.

“Ask detailed questions to see if the consultant places all blame on the client or accepts partial responsibility for any problems,” Bolt said. “I would want to know how consultants handle political issues.”

“If they can’t tell you a time they failed, why, and what they did [to remedy the situation], then they either have no experience or you can’t trust them on anything else either,” Greear said.

Check out the consultant’s affiliations
Like politics, IT consulting makes strange bedfellows. Before signing any contracts, managers should discuss the nature of any agreements, affiliations, or partnerships the consultant may have. Bolt recommends that all candidates provide written documentation of any financial interests they may have in vendors.

“For example, as a client, I would want to know if my candidate consultant owned stock in a billing vendor that he or she is recommending for my company or if their spouse owns the engineering firm they are recommending,” she said. “That shouldn’t keep you from hiring the consultant or the related vendor but may help you decide whether to keep the consultant out of that decision-making process.”

References, references, references…
Of course it’s important to check a potential consultant’s references, but Bolt and Greear suggest that you go about your reference checks in a very calculated way. Bolt recommends asking for specific referrals from as many previous clients or firms as possible to decipher an established pattern of service. Greear advised that the type of references is as important as the number.

“Ask around at similar businesses,” Greear said. “It’s very important to find references from other businesses that are similar in culture to you, not just similar in product or service.”

Know what you want, and get your staff to “buy in”
Too often, managers rely on consultants to tell them what they want. Greear suggests that although you may not know the details of achieving your goals, you should start any consultant search with a clear understanding of your desired result.

Once you know where you’re going, Greear suggests allowing your team the chance to participate in the selection process. “If they don’t buy in, there is little or no hope for the long-term success of the project no matter how good the consultant is,” he said.

Get a clearly written contract and accurate cost estimates
After you know where you want to go, you need to know what it will cost to get there. Greear suggests that you choose your project manager based on “dollars per outcome, not dollars per hour.”

To calculate that ratio, you’ll need a consulting contract that specifically states your desired result, the road map to achieve that result, and accurate cost estimates to complete the project. Greear warns that fudging the numbers to keep your budget in line is as dangerous as allowing “additional work” clauses in your contract.

“The consultant who underbids the contract and leaves a clause for additional work will almost always cost at least 2.2 times as much as the original bid,” he said. “If you are going to do this because it’s the only way to get funded in your organization, at least be honest about it up front, and expect the consultant to be also. If they are obviously underbidding and won’t admit it, you’ll most likely be stung badly later.”

Look for a consultant “who has developed a consistent pattern and technique of completing projects on time and handing their jobs off to the clients,” Bolt said. Such consultants are ones who prioritize the clients’ costs and needs without milking the client, she added.

Did a consultant make a fool of you?

Were you the victim of a slick salesman, an inept technologist, or a well-meaning but unprepared consultant? What happened, and how did you recover from this nasty turn? Send us an e-mail or post your comments below.