Tight budgets and a sector in a state of flux. Could a consultant be the answer?

John Charnock
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Having moved from gainful employment in a print company to establishing a network of consultants around the world, I have been amazed at the dichotomy of opinion regarding this area of the sector.

 Love them or hate them, though, they are a growing aspect of the international print industry. On the back of this, I thought I would provide the stimulus to discuss the merits or otherwise of the rising occurrence of consultants in the industry.

So, why are they increasing? As the industry contracts and the number of businesses decline, either through consolidation or administration, the sector’s ‘experts’ are finding it increasingly difficult to find full-time employment because few businesses can afford to keep highly paid specialists on the long-term payroll.

Adding to the problem, companies that do invest in these specialists generally want to keep them and have an incumbent, resulting in few opportunities – especially in the specialist and niche sectors.

When it comes to the specialist, there are fewer and fewer capital projects within a single company and their experience at the cutting-edge effectively begins to decline – the only real option is to spread expertise across multiple businesses.

This enables the organisation to control cost and the expert to gain a wider range of knowledge and experience. In my view, this ‘freelance’ model provides two functions. Firstly, it keeps skills within the industry rather than letting highly skilled people disappear into other sectors and, secondly, it allows smaller businesses to switch the cost on and off as and when required.

You’re the boss
As with employees, there are good and bad consultants. I have had experience of people working in this area that overcomplicate a simple process to stretch out the project and maintain a meal ticket. The biggest benefit of consultants over full-time staff is they are very easy to remove if you are not happy – they are generally paid on results.

Many industry commentators appear to take the view that consultants are an unwelcome cost to the sector. I can certainly understand that view when it’s from skilled and well-trained professionals watching a consultant come on board and state the obvious before extracting relatively large amounts of cash from the business.

But when well managed and focused, my belief is consultants can add value to the process and help bring a different perspective to the business, often much needed in these difficult times.

So if you’re planning to use a consultancy service, there are a number of things that must be considered. Be very clear what the project scope is and be cautious of them moving to areas that they want to get involved with rather than concentrating on the business requirements. Be clear of the budget and the expectations in advance, get feedback from your own staff and management first.

If you do not understand what is being suggested, don’t be afraid to question. Be cautious of unfocused, extended projects – some consultants dream of these. The more ambiguity, the easier it is for a consultant to expand the scope, and therefore cost, of the project. Also, stage the job: you may only need advice at the beginning, middle or end rather than the entire process. Hold regular reviews and if you are not happy with a consultant’s progress, tell them – their business is to make your life easier and should respond accordingly. Ask the consultant who else they are working for (if they can tell you); if there is a secondary interest, at least you will know.

In my experience, consultants, manufacturers and organisations can work together in harmony and consultants can be used to complement your existing staff and fill gaps in their knowledge and experience. In these times of fluidity and change there are some strong reasons for getting good external expert help.

John Charnock is the managing director of Print Research International
• Like it or not, consultancy is a growing aspect of the international print industry
• As the industry contracts and the number of companies operating dwindles, either through consolidation or administration, print veterans, despite their wide-ranging expertise, are finding it increasingly difficult to find full-time employment
• The ‘freelance’ model keeps these skills within the industry and helps smaller businesses to manage costs, calling on outside expertise only when required
• As with all workers, there are good and bad consultants
• When well managed and focused, consultants add value to the process and can bring a fresh perspective to a business
that can be invaluable in tough times
• Consultants, manufacturers and organisations can work together in harmony and consultants can be used in addition to existing staff, helping to fill any gaps in knowledge or experience
• In these times of change and economic uncertainty, there are many solid reasons for bringing in external help to bolster your business

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