by Alan Weisenberger

I got a great deal on my first major data cable installation. But I was hiring people to fix it right up until we moved out of that building ten years later. Advice from experts can spare us lessons like this, but choose your source of expertise wisely:

Your admin assistant’s brother-in-law’s dentist’s cousin. Look hard enough and you’ll probably find a volunteer (or volunteered) person who’s willing to donate their expertise. Your challenge is to assess their abilities and whether they fit your needs. Some questions to ponder:

  1. How critical is this particular need to your organization? Can you risk costly bad advice with no recourse to recover that cost?
  2. Are the volunteer’s qualifications relevant to your situation? “I installed a wireless router in my house” doesn’t qualify someone to touch your network. Look for expertise that’s rooted in diverse experience. And if checking references on volunteers seems rude, you’re accepting risk by not doing it.
  3. Do you have multiple “experts” who can validate each other’s ideas?
  4. If someone is actually doing work and not just offering advice, will you require ongoing support and will that person be able to provide it? If not, and they build something like a database, website, or app that needs ongoing maintenance (they always do), you could end up with a system you can’t maintain and be forced to hire someone who can. Free can be expensive.

A sales rep. Even if they call it consulting, their job is to sell you their product. Document your needs before you talk to vendors, and resist their suggestions to add features that aren’t on your list. Talk to more than one vendor, and ask each one why they don’t offer features their competitors say you need. Free can be expensive.

Consultants. Sometimes paying a consultant, even a high-priced one, is the least expensive way to get the job done. But you have to find one who understands your needs. Look for experience with organizations similar to yours in size, needs, complexity, and culture. No consultant is unbiased, since everyone tends to recommend products they’re most familiar with. But a truly independent one will work with multiple products and competing vendors. You may need to challenge your hired gun’s recommendations to make sure you get solutions that fit your needs.

We may gulp as we sign that check, but good stewardship means not being penny-wise and pound-foolish. If you’re spending thousands of dollars on new technology, a consultant who helps you get it right the first time can save more than enough to cover their cost.

Expensive can be free (or at least pay for itself).

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