Working with Consultants

What follows is an updated version of a piece I wrote a few years ago, based on some training sessions I delivered for GEM about how to work effectively with consultants. As then, my thanks go to consultants Ali Bodley and Vicky Dawson for their input into the thinking behind this piece. 


1. Scope the work carefully, and make sure a consultant is really what you need

There are plenty of circumstances when freelancers and consultants can add real value to an organisation's work. Maybe you need skills and experience you don't have in-house. You might need fresh ideas, a new approach, or specialist advice to help with a project. Perhaps you just don't have the capacity to deliver an important piece of work without extra help. However, a consultancy contract might not be the only - or the best - way of delivering what you need to do. Could it be a secondment, an internship, or a part-time employee? What will bring you the best value for money? Once you've scoped the role, check against HMRC's guidance to make sure it meets the criteria for a freelance contract rather than a job. 


2. Write a great brief

The brief is the most important step in a successful consultancy assignment. In it you set out what kind of person you're looking for, the work you want them to do, and what the outputs and outcomes will be. Try to define this as clearly as you can and include SMART outcomes - this will help consultants cost the project accurately, and will help you to monitor and evaluate their work. Include any important contextual information and give a clear summary of the kind of skills, experience and knowledge you have in mind. Make sure you have adequate time to recruit and deliver the work properly. Consultants are not miracle-workers, and good people will be booked up months in advance. An unrealistic timescale will reduce the number of people available to apply for the work and hamper their chances of doing a good job. The clearer the brief, the more likely it is you'll get good, realistically costed proposals from people with the right experience and skills. There are some great tips for mistakes to avoid over on the Museum Freelance blog.


Make sure the fee you're offering is realistic for the work you want doing and specify whether it includes expenses and VAT. There are no hard and fast rules, but a freelance day rate includes tax, national insurance, and the overhead cost of running a business, including sick pay, holiday pay, pension contributions, marketing - and time spent responding to briefs. 


3. Ensure you have a robust, fair recruitment process

 Just as when you recruit staff, a consultancy recruitment process needs to be inclusive and fair. It should also be proportionate to the size of the project you're commissioning. Many organisations will have rules on tendering, depending on the value of the work being commissioned, and some funders have their own procedures they require you to follow for contracts over a certain threshold.


Decide whether you'll operate an open or closed tendering process, and be clear about your reasons. Consider asking for short initial expressions of interest and using that to compile a shortlist for the tender process if you don't want to wade through hundreds of proposals. Try not to include unnecessary bureaucracy or ask for information you don't need. Writing a tender is an incredibly time-consuming task, and an overly complex procedure will put off the people you are hoping to attract.


4. Put your agreement in writing

Make sure you have a written agreement, at the outset. If you work for a larger organisation it's likely you'll have a standard contract with places for you to vary specific terms and to add an appendix with your agreed outputs. It's hard to overstate the importance of a written agreement in clarifying the timescale, outputs and expectations of both sides and it will reduce the likelihood of difficulties later when you both have different recollections of what the consultant was supposed to do.


Ensure you agree on issues such as copyright, moral rights and confidentiality. Include procedures to deal with disputes or if one party wishes to end the contract before the work is complete. If you need the consultant to have a certain type or level of insurance, make sure this is clearly set out as well. Include the fee and payment details you've agreed on, including your organisation's payment terms. If you need to vary the terms of the contract part way through, ensure you do this in discussion with the contractor and formalise your agreement in writing.


If you're contracting for a small piece of work you might not feel you need a formal contract, but you should still set out your agreement in writing and ensure both parties agree it. A letter of appointment, accompanied by an official purchase order, will help build confidence in the working relationship and gives you something to fall back on if any problems crop up at a later date.


5. Make the commissioning meeting work for you

A commissioning meeting marks the beginning of the contract and is a key opportunity to clarify the brief and agree timescales, outcomes and your respective responsibilities. Don't rush this meeting. You may to set aside half a day or longer to ensure the consultant really understands your organisation, introduce them to key staff members and volunteers, and show them round your premises. Without drawing them into workplace politics, make sure they know about any issues or sensitivities that might affect their work. The commissioning meeting is also a good chance to hand over any paperwork the consultant will need and talk them through lists of key stakeholders.


6. Be an active manager
Hiring a consultant isn't an easy option. While most consultants will work from their own premises rather than yours, you still need to manage and monitor their work. Keep in touch, and don't assume no news is good news. Minute meetings and circulate any decisions or action points. Give feedback promptly, and make sure you keep to your own deadlines for signing off their work at key milestones. A freelancer will be working on other projects at the same time as yours, and any delays may affect their ability to complete the project on time.  


If you realise that the outputs are going to differ markedly from what you agreed at the outset you should renegotiate your contract with them.  Remember the psychological contract as well as the legal one. Consultants aren’t members of staff and their relationship with you is different. That’s not to say they won’t be dedicated, but they are likely to be very task focused and you won’t be able to vary the scope of the work draw them into other areas of work like you would with employees. 

7. Raise any concerns promptly and constructively
Freelancers do their utmost to do a good job for clients, but occasionally things will go wrong. If you're unhappy with any aspect of a consultant's work you should raise it with them straight away and ask them to remedy it. Many concerns will be easily resolved through communication. Be as clear as you can about what you’re not happy with and what you expect them to do as a result. Most people will be keen to resolve any difficulties, do good work and keep their reputation intact. You shouldn’t make a final payment until you’re happy that the contract has been fulfilled and that the standard of work is up to scratch. If you have employed a consultant to do specialist work that is outside your area of expertise, you could ask a colleague from another organisation to give you a second opinion on their work and help you formulate your feedback.

Ensure your disputes procedure is set out in the contract. If you have serious concerns, raise them in writing and ask for a formal meeting. Refer to the contract, make sure you have evidence to back up your complaint and be sure of your facts. Have a colleague or other witness present at the meeting, and ensure discussions are properly recorded. If you need to end the contract, ensure you have paid for and secured copies of all the work that has been completed so far.

8. Pay on time
Make sure your payment terms are clear the outset, and stick to them. Many consultants are sole traders for whom cash flow is crucial. If your organisation develops a reputation for not paying on time you may find that good people won't want to work for you, or that contractors require a bigger proportion of the fee up front. Sole traders and small businesses are entitled to charge interest and late payment penalties if you don't pay them on time, and many do. The Prompt Payment Code gives further guidance.

9. Say thank you!
You'd be surprised how many clients don't give any feedback at all. Freelancers don't know you're happy (or unhappy) unless you tell them. If you were happy with someone's work you could write a short testimonial for them to use on their website or on professional networks such as LinkedIn. Consultants and freelancers are reliant on word of mouth and references to get further work, and your vote of confidence will help them stay in business.