Weigh Considerations about Adding a Consultant to the Team

Disclosure: I am a consultant who makes my living by selling my services to those who conduct surveys. Despite that challenge to my objectivity on the topic of consultants, I will presumptuously press on to address what I have experienced to be the pros and cons of retaining a consultant as a member of a survey project team. Being bullish on trained consultants, I will begin with benefits from retaining an experienced consultant.

Experience and knowledge: Having assisted with surveys before, consultants know how to take the various steps in a project, such as to craft questions that avoid subtle biases. A consultant’s experience reveals itself in judgment, such as when to extend the due date and by how much. A consultant might not bring substantive knowledge about the topic of the survey, but that is, after all, properly the contribution of the sponsor’s employees or SMEs.

Timeliness: A capable consultant is likely to speed up the project, especially if they are working against a fixed fee. Other members of the project team have full-time day jobs, but consultants focus on promptly completing the tasks for which they are to be paid. They can arbitrate internal disagreements on methodology or whatever so the ball keeps rolling.

Resources: Based on previous assignments or their own marketing, consultants might have target emails or contacts they can call to bolster the rolls of participants. They can field email questions or telephone calls about the hosting software and its quirks. Inevitably, someone loses their responses or is foiled by an error message. A junior consultant can be enlisted by the senior consultant for work that deserves lower rates. A consultant who has conducted online surveys before should have templates that jump-start the planning.

Tradeoffs and close calls: A consultant can mediate or weigh in on important decisions. As an example, I have opined on the balance between adding more questions and the risk of reducing the number of participants. Another common area of decision is how many respondents of what kinds does the survey need to collect.

Blame: If a difficult decision must be made, it’s always handy to have a consultant to blame. Why did we ask about gender, or fail to ask? Who made the call to drop the Trusts & Estates practice group? Shouldn’t the paralegals have been asked to participate? Wag finger at hapless consultant …

All is not peaches and cream, of course. Hiring a consultant may bring with it a variety of downsides.

Cost: Consultants charge by the hour or they may work against a set fee. Either way, it is cash out the door, and expensive cash to boot. Worse, projects have been known not to finish on budget. In my experience, data cleanup particularly can be a costly, unforeseeable time suck.

Delay: It takes time and effort to find eligible consultants, describe for them what you want, receive and evaluate proposals, make a decision and then negotiate the Statement of Work (SoW). Also, once a consultant crawls under the tent, more scheduling challenges can arise for the enlarged team. On the other hand, it is hard to persuade a busy partner or Associate General Counsel to spend time reviewing draft questions. As always when teams grow in size, more viewpoints and disagreements follow along.

Legalities: If a consultant assists you, that might raise questions about who owns what rights regarding the data and the all-important email contacts. You might try to restrict the consultant from working for competitors or on a similar topic. You have to get approval from purchasing and set them up as a vendor to pay the consultant’s invoices.

Learning transfer: Each time you retain a consultant, to some degree you inhibit your internal staff from learning by experience. That loss, however, may be counterbalanced, by a quicker learning cycle for your staff when they can learn from an experienced mentor.

As suggested already above, a few considerations about consultants cut both ways. Perhaps delay, but also horsepower; perhaps budget impact, but less time from costly senior staff; less do-it-yourself learning, but more teaching; perhaps more views to be reconciled, but also a neutral voice.