The title of this post could alternatively be called "How To Avoid Getting Suckered In By Consultants".
Recently we used a consultant to help us in our transition to the new MS Office Suite.
I don't want to get into too much of the specifics of what work they did (or were supposed to do), but rather focus on some general lessons learned from the experience.
Lesson one: Don't fall for the sales presentation. Do your homework by getting references and talking with them about the consultant or vendor thoroughly. Find out what they are good at and what they aren't.
A sub-comment of this is why do most consultants charge hourly rates just to meet with you to discuss what the project is about. I would say that in the future, I won't work with anyone who does this. If you want my business, show me.
Lesson two: Get someone local. Find someone that can do the job that is within 15 miles or less of your site. In other words, make sure that travel time isn't going to affect the performance of the consultant. Of course, if you can't find a good local consultant, then you don't have much choice in this one.
Lesson three: Be the expert for your environment. You know your existing systems better than anyone (you better, because they are yours!). So when a consultant says something that doesn't jibe with your experience don't give them the benefit of the doubt just because they are the hired "expert". Test their way against yours to make sure that it fits with your systems, methods and procedures. Nothing worse than getting 95 percent done with a particular part of a project to find out that you were given bad advice by the consultant.
Lesson four: This is the hardest one. Learn when to walk away. If you aren't happy with a consultant at 35%, 50%, 75%, etc. of the scope of work try to work out the problems but don't try for too long. If you hired a consultant to create documentation for you, and they just can't give you properly edited work, don't keep hitting your head against the wall by having them create more poorly written documentation.
You are after all, hiring the consultant to save you time, not cause you to spend more of it! At the rates that they charge you deserve good value and you should demand it.
Lesson five: Beware of cost overruns. Whatever the consultant says something will cost at the beginning, double it and budget for that at least. Unless you have done a specific project type a lot, you will not know how much time it actually takes to do a large project and these things are fluid with plenty of variables, so be flexible in your budgeting, but at the same time, make the consultant stick to what they promised as much as possible or get someone else. If at all possible, get a fixed contract before the contract starts. I would say that any consultant that is an expert in a certain type of project or process should be able to tell you up front within a certain range, how much something will cost. You want to pay them enough that you get good work, but you shouldn't subsidize incompetence either.
Lesson six: It's not a good idea to be the "experiment" for a consultant. If they haven't used a particular product or done a particular project at least once before, don't hire them. Go find someone who has, or make them charge you less for the project because you don't want to subsidize the consultant's "learning curve" on a new experience.
And remember, that you are the one running the show. You hired them, not the other way around, so don't let a consultant treat you like you owe them anything but a check at the end of the day.