As  a retail consultant I have to empathize with my clients.  Many of them are new to hiring outside assistance.  They look at it like buying a car or appliance.  Go with a brand you know.  Back in the 1990’s I remember talking to a multi-national CIO about their technology platform for a new BI tool.  His answer: “No one has ever been fired for going with Microsoft.”  A few years later, they had to rip out that entire platform and replace it with one from Oracle.  He got another job. But that’s another story….

    Truth is, there are just a few questions a client should ask a consultant to measure the “fit” of the consultant to the engagement:

    1. What Retail Positions have you held in the past? Look for the fit: Chief Merchant for a multi-channel or big box store works great for a merchandising, pricing or vendor integration project.  Supply Chain Officer for a specialty mall-based retailer works great for an import project. If the partner has NOT worked in retail – it is NOT a fit.  If your prospective consultant talks about other consulting projects but NOT LIVING WITH THEM AFTERWARD, they will undoubtedly dump an unfinished initiative on your desk when they leave or hold you hostage to implementation and adoption phases after they complete the strategic work.
    2. How much time will the thought leaders be onsite at our company? If the partners who have real expertise are spending less than 60% of their time at your site, they are working on another client (or more.)  Meaning they are getting most of their knowledge about your company and its unique challenges second-hand through one of their associates.  Meanwhile, you will be charged for their time while they are really just getting briefings before heading into executive meetings.  Demand the full attention you are paying for.
    3. Can I talk with your three most recent clients? No consultant worth their salt should say no to this request.  I don’t care what their confidentiality agreements say, every good consultant has built enough of a relationship with their clients that they would at least field a call from a prospective customer.  It may not be “on the record” but if they can’t cough up a reliable name to talk to at their past three clients, you have to believe that the engagements were not successful.  Then CALL and ASK QUESTIONS about the value the consultant brought, the success of the engagement and the payback versus the early estimates for the projects.

    This isn’t like buying a product.  When you buy knowledge and expertise, you place your company’s success and, often, your personal career in the hands of an unknown.  Make sure you select someone who has truly walked in your shoes, knows the trail and the way to foresee the obstacles.