Hiring an IT consultant can be a daunting task for many small business owners, especially if they are not very familiar with technology themselves or if the scope of an IT project is undefined. However, there are several steps you can take to ensure you end up with a trusted consultant who fits your project requirements and budget.
Often, the first hurdle is where to start. The best method is to begin by defining the project objectives, timeline, and budget before you contact a third party. You may not know exactly what kind of technology your company needs, but you should have already determined what the investment needs to accomplish and how it will help your company meets its core business goals.
The next step is to write a Request for Proposal (RFP) that lays out the terms of the engagement, the objectives, a timeline, and a budget. RFPs are pretty formulaic and there are scores of examples online and in books that you can use as a guide. The RFP doesn’t need to be lengthy or highly technical, but it does need to clearly state what the company’s needs are and what criteria it will be using to select a consultant. Check out Preparing a RFP for guidance on drafting this document.
With the RFP in hand, you can begin the process of contacting technology consultants. Ask other business owners in your industry if they can recommend a dependable IT consultant, and do some research online to locate consultants in your area. As you are selecting professionals to contact, make sure that their areas of expertise align with your project goals. While it is not essential for the consultant to be local, you are likely to get better results if you can sit down with the person and communicate your business needs. It can be tempting to consider offshore IT help, where projects like building applications can be much cheaper, but there is added security in having a local partner who is more readily available to answer your questions and respond to any technical problems.
If keeping costs down is a major concern (and it usually is for most small business owners), you do have the option of working with a local consultant to define the project’s specifications and then have them outsource the actual work elsewhere.
You can also submit your RFP to one of a handful of auction-type Web sites where technology professionals bid on projects. This method may give you a variety of responses with wildly varying budgets. Just remember that the lowest bid might not yield the highest quality work.
No matter what you do, make sure to get references from the consultant’s previous clients before you engage them. You can also ask to see samples of their work or case studies that outline how they solved similar business problems.
These safeguards can help you feel better about working with a third-party contractor. But the most important steps in selecting a reliable IT consultant are checking references and finding someone with whom you can communicate and who truly understands your business objectives.
Scarlet Pruitt is a freelance writer and business consultant based in San Francisco. She has covered business and technology for publications in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.