How to Choose the Right Consultant for Your Online Business

By Shannon Belew, Joel Elad

After you decide that you need help with your online business, you have to choose a specific consultant who best suits you and the needs of your site. Finding the right consultant is tricky because in most cases, you’re forming a long-term, intimate relationship with the person.

You’re putting your trust in this person to help guide the future of your business, and that process gets personal. At times, you might feel uncomfortable because the consultant questions your management style, the direction of your online business, and even your routine daily tasks.

The person’s honesty and your willingness to listen are critical, however, to turning your site around. Trust and experience are not only important but also crucial to finding a good match between your consultant’s style and personality and your style and personality.

To ultimately achieve a good relationship, carefully consider these issues when you’re hiring an outside consultant:

  • Expertise: Knowing that you have to match a consultant’s area of expertise to your problem is a no-brainer. Regardless of whether you need someone who specializes in search engine optimization, Internet security, or long-range business planning, however, verify that the person has the educational and professional credentials to back up the claims about their expertise.

    That evidence can include formal education, on-the-job training, professional certifications from accredited affiliations, and any other applicable and verifiable background information.

  • Experience: The consultant should share with you any accomplishments and successes with other projects or clients. Request detailed specifics on the consultant’s experience with other clients and the results he or she achieved.

    Don’t ask for only finished results. Discuss the processes and methods used to reach those goals. By listening carefully, you discover a great deal about the consultant’s approach to solving problems, in addition to confirming whether he or she met the intended goals.

  • References: Never accept a consultant’s word and stop there. Do a little digging. Ask for references, and call them. Talk about what that client liked and disliked about the relationship with the consultant. If you can, contact one of the consultant’s previous clients whose name wasn’t offered as a reference.

    Be fair to the consultant, too. Ask which projects didn’t go well and why. Find out which client relationships didn’t last. Trust us: Disastrous projects aren’t always the consultant’s fault. Sometimes, a client isn’t willing to listen or to make recommended changes. In that case, success is hard to come by with any consultant!

  • Philosophy: Discuss the consultant’s belief about what makes a project work and what doesn’t. Find out exactly what she deems a successful client relationship and what she needs from you to accomplish that goal. Then decide whether you can agree to those terms.

  • Working style: Uncovering a consultant’s working style involves understanding his approach to problem solving. Does he require full 24/7 access to you, your employees, and the online business? Or does he use more of a hands-off style and want to deal directly with you? Will he take a while to analyze your situation from a distance? Or does he prefer to jump right in and get his hands dirty from the start?

    You need to decide whether you can live with, and agree to, the consultant’s approach in helping resolve your problem.

Check out these resources to find the right match for you:

  • Institute of Management Consultants USA: Search the member directory for a consultant, including those with certified credentials and professional status, in one of its nationwide chapters. Consultants specialize in a variety of fields, including finance, technology, marketing, logistics, manufacturing, and human resources.

    Before making your final hiring decision, verify whether your consultant is a member of a professional association for consultants, or if he or she has any applicable certifications.

  • PATCA: The Professional and Technical Consultants Association features professionals in over 200 areas of expertise. You can search the site’s database of consultants or post a project online.

  • Guru.com: Hire an independent consultant on a project-by-project basis using this global Internet site for freelancers. Check the Business Consultants category for a complete list of available professionals and specialty areas.

  • Organization of Search Engine Optimization Professionals: Locate a search engine optimization consultant or an Internet marketing consultant from this organization’s consultant directory. The directory lists consultants from both inside and outside the United States, and you can use the site’s RFP Generator tool to create a Request for Proposal.