How and Why To Use Consultants

From my past life as a consultant, I can recall some notable occasions in which a company thought better of hiring me for an engagement. There are a few reasons consultants commonly hear for these decisions: to save money, to save face with management, and even to avoid the embarrassment of someone else seeing “how messed up we really are.” The results were often like watching the U.S. men’s basketball team in Athens: hard to keep your eyes off of, yet even harder to watch. Some of these companies decided to go it alone and made some tough choices, like:

  • Choosing an ATS that would go out of business in the next year
  • Building a website that looked like it was designed in 1995
  • Buying an expensive technology tool that they really didn’t need
  • Selecting a technology vendor for their international needs that had never done an international implementation
  • Spending A LOT of money on an advertising campaign that yielded almost no qualified candidates

Now that I’m no longer a consultant, I want to let people in on the big secret: the right consultant, for a relatively small price, can have a dramatic, positive, and lasting impact on how you recruit and the results you achieve. Here’s a short primer on how to know when you need to bring in a consultant, and how to choose the right consultant for the right job. Managing Change You’ve cut your time to fill in half. You’ve lowered your cost per hire. But for some reason, senior management and hiring managers alike seem extremely dissatisfied with the recruiting team. You wait in fear every day for the next angry email you’ll receive. You feel like you’re doing your job to the best of your ability, but significant problems that you think are virtually unsolvable keep your team from making it to the next level. In examples like these, consulting firms like ERE author Kevin Wheeler’s Global Learning Resources act as partners in helping companies understand the root causes of their issues. Once the real issues are identified, they go to work as the catalysts for change. A unique part of GLR’s approach is a focus on the entire spectrum of human capital solutions, which may include workforce planning, employee development, training and even corporate universities. Kevin cites an example of a prominent technology company that had unknowingly failed to understand the needs of its hiring managers and senior management. The numbers looked great, but a deeper examination revealed intense dissatisfaction among senior management and line hiring managers. By engaging with Kevin and GLR, the company was successfully able to move from a reactionary recruiting function to a proactive organizational partner. New processes for evaluating, recruiting, and developing internal talent were implemented, and new team members were hired to fill in a skills shortage gap. Programs to help build the people function’s reputation within the company were implemented that had a huge impact on how the team was perceived. “It was something that definitely could not have been done from the inside,” Wheeler points out. “They really needed a neutral set of eyes that look past cultural limitations and barriers and help make the dramatic changes that needed to happen.” Generating Revenue Another regular ERE contributor, Dr. John Sullivan of Dr. John Sullivan & Associates, gives an example of a company that had a difficult time proving the value of its HR programs. By the end of his assignment, he had proved to a skeptical CFO that the new employee referral program he helped implement had generated $26 million in revenue. He showed how retention programs implemented in another company he worked with generated over $75 million per year for the company through reduced turnover costs and improved performance. “People would be surprised to know that a lot of the ‘soft stuff’ can be measured quite easily,” says Sullivan. “If the marketing team can tell you the monetary value of the company’s brand, HR programs can be translated not just into hard dollar savings, but into actual revenue.” Beating Your Competition Everyone wonders what’s going on at their direct competitors and how to get a competitive edge. Good consultants will have a wealth of competitive benchmarking information at their disposal beyond the major industry studies, and can help you put programs in place that will give you an edge. They are often skilled at helping you get new information from a subset of your best competitors (no one strives to be average) ó the kind of information that you could never get on your own. One major technology company I worked with was able to get cost-per-hire, time-to-fill, workforce planning, and recruiting programs data from nearly all of their “thorn in our side” competitors, which helped them plan their budget and tactics for the upcoming year. In some rare cases, you can get more than just data. Sullivan cites one very interesting example where he helped negotiate a deal between two major technology companies that occasionally competed for the same talent pool. Company A had a very effective referral program that was generating a majority of the company’s hires, while Company B needed to build one. On the other hand, Company B had a well-developed remote management program, while Company A did not. A trade was negotiated that gave both of these companies the secrets of each others’ success ó and both companies felt like they got the better end of the deal. Leveraging Domain Expertise What makes consultants like Kevin Wheeler and John Sullivan effective is their understanding of the human capital space. They’re not just MBAs fresh out of college, who just started at a large consulting firm and have a system for approaching assignments that they try to apply to recruiting. They have actual experience in the recruiting field, including what works, what doesn’t work, and what is likely to work for you. Digging a level deeper, there are times when you need the help of an individual with expertise in a specific area of recruiting ó like technology. Recruitment technology consultants like Kelly Cartwright with The Newman Group can help you navigate the complex technological landscape in recruiting, where every vendor seems to say, “You need our solution,” “The ROI will be in the millions,” and, my personal favorite: “We can do that.” Companies very commonly select a technology product based on emotion, says Cartwright, either by looking at functionality they’ve seen in demos or based on their rapport with a certain sales representative. There is very often a big difference between what technology vendors say they can do and what they can actually do. There are even “shades of yes” when they respond to an RFP. It’s no wonder why companies often spend months refining a shortlist of systems that have about as much in common as Michael Jackson and Mike Wallace. Consultants like Kelly Cartwright and The Newman Group know the real reasons why ATS implementations are successful or unsuccessful. They have experience implementing and optimizing technology for many companies on many different platforms, and they know where things can break down beyond the demo. Companies spend thousands or even millions of dollars per year on recruiting technology ó and paying 5% to 10% of your yearly licensing fee upfront seems like a very small price to pay to bring in an expert. Selecting the Right Consultant for Your Needs Just as with any endeavor, there is an element of risk ó choosing the wrong consultant can be a big waste of time and money. Once the decision has been made to seek outside advice, some of the following questions will help you determine the right consultant to work with: Do you need a specialized consultant that deals with one area of recruiting (like technology), or do you need to start by examining big picture issues first? How do the consultants you are evaluating…

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  • Quantify results?
  • Identify obstacles to success?
  • Utilize data in their decision-making processes?
  • Generate competitive data?
  • Collect and distribute general best practices?

Have these consultants…

  • Done this before? (If so, ask how many times, ask for a copy of what their work in this area, and determine if the actual consultant that will be assigned to your organization has done work in this area.)
  • Worked with or for your organization? (This will help them understand your culture.)
  • Implemented sustainable programs? (Ask for demonstrated improvement after they finished their assignments.)
  • Established contingency plans for common obstacles?

By choosing the right consultant for your needs, you can have a huge impact on how you recruit and the tools you use. Choose wisely!

Dave Lefkow is currently the CEO of talentspark (, a consulting firm that helps companies use technology to gain a competitive advantage for talent, and a regular contributor to ERE on human capital, technology, and branding related subjects. He is also an international speaker on human capital trends and best practices, having spoken in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Malaysia and Australia. His consulting work has spanned a wide variety of industries and recruiting challenges with companies like Starbucks, Boeing, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, Washington Mutual, Nike and Swedish Medical Center.


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