Working with a consultant for the first time carries some risks. There’s a lot of trust involved – you discuss your project and they disappear, leaving you to hope they produce what you need, on time.

Commissioning assistance is an important decision, and the outputs will either reflect well or poorly on you. It’s the consultant’s job to help you to be successful, and it can be a brilliant combination that allows fast progress to be made on specific elements while you hold the whole programme together and manage all the stakeholder relationships.

Here’s a way to assess whether commissioning an external provider (who may be called a consultant or a freelancer) to complete work for you is a good return on investment.

  • Impact – Can their services make a significant difference to your project, that you cannot achieve with the available in-house resources? (Low, medium or high.)

  • Confidence – Are you confident they will deliver a high-quality service, on time? (Low, medium, or high.)

  • Effort – Will they be easy to work with, or will you need to provide a lot of oversight? (Low, medium, or high.)

  • Affordability – Does the price pass the ‘sniff test’ – how comfortable will you feel if the project price is discussed by management, councillors or the public? (Low, medium or high.)

If you decide the return on investment is positive (with all, or almost all, high ratings) the next step is to choose someone to do the work. Here’s how you can find out about someone before commissioning them to work for you, maintain a positive working relationship during the project, and achieve cost-effective outcomes for your council and community.

Risk management

1. Consider reducing the risks of working with someone for the first time by initially commissioning a small, low stakes, low profile project.

Initial enquiries

2. Recognise the value of booking in ahead of time, to give yourself the best chance of your preferred provider saying yes to your enquiry. One of the biggest challenges as a consultant is to create a steady workflow, rather than having too much, then too little, work.

3. If the person you contact is too busy to help you, ask them if they can recommend someone else. They are likely to know of people who provide similar services.

Commissioning work

4. An initial email or phone enquiry followed by an online meeting (such as a Microsoft Teams or a Zoom call) to discuss the potential project is a cost-effective way to gain an early sense of how comfortable you feel with the person, and to invite their input on options for completing the project. This is an opportunity for you both to decide if you and your project are a good match with the consultant.

5. Providing the following information during the meeting is likely to be helpful.

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • How does this project fit into the overall work programme?
  • What does success look like for this project?
  • Who else is involved in this project (or is making decisions about it)?
  • What is your timeframe?
  • Are you talking to anyone else (any other potential providers of this service)?
  • Is there anything else the consultant should know about it?

    (Acknowledgment: I learnt these questions from Ilise Benun, of marketing-mentor.com)

6. You can ask the consultant for any of the following information, to benefit from their experience of doing similar work for other councils:

  • What do they need from you in order for this to be a successful partnership?
  • What similar work have they done for other councils?
  • Any suggestions on the structure of a document or scope of the project?
  • Any suggestions about how the process can work, and realistic timeframes for each step?

7. If you feel comfortable with the consultant by the end of this meeting you can ask for a written proposal. This can include: proposed solutions to your issue/problem/project, as well as the costs, timeframes, the proposed process, and some detail about them that is relevant to the project (e.g. previous experience with this type of work).

8. You may also wish to ask them for names of people they have previously completed work for who you could call. This gives you an opportunity to ask these former clients questions related to the delivery of quality work by the agreed time, and what the consultant was like to work with.

9. Depending on the project, you may also wish to ask them to provide samples of previous work, or a brief CV. This may be particularly valuable if you are not the decision maker, and need to be able to pass on this information to your manager.

Negotiating fees

10. Consider whether a fixed fee or an hourly rate is a better approach for your project. In some cases, there may be more value to both of you of a fixed fee, as this provides budget certainty – which is particularly valuable when working with someone for the first time. However, if it is a large project with many moving parts, an hourly rate is likely to be a fairer option (at least for the revisions process).

11. If the project involves travel, it’s a good idea to reach an explicit agreement on how travel time and costs will be charged.

Progress reports

12. Think about how you would like them to communicate on progress. For example, do you want to receive a regular email update, or would a conversation be better? If you are booking a series of meetings with them, ask what time of day would suit them best, to make sure you are not interrupting them during their best working hours. (You want them to be focused on delivery of your project during their highest quality hours, rather than talking about it!)

Receiving and reviewing their work

13. It will be helpful to explain early on how any revision of the documents or other outputs are going to work (as there may be multiple reviewers at your council), and the timeframes for those revisions. It’s likely to be best if the consultant has one contact person at the council, who communicates with everyone else in their organisation who is involved in the review process. (To reduce distractions, avoid copying the consultant in to staff email discussions about the project unless it is essential to include them.)

14. If the consultant sends you a large or a final document, it will make a big difference to them if you let them know you have received it, rather than it disappearing into a void. Any feedback on their work will also be appreciated, so they are not left wondering how it has been received at your end.

15. Sending a link to the final publication, or providing an update on outcomes which relate to their work, is also likely to be highly appreciated.

If you would like to know more about what it’s like to work as a freelance consultant, you are welcome to read Survival Skills for Freelancers.