10 Tips for Working with Outside Experts

May I call it the expertise business? As a provider, I made a good living with business planning consulting on my own for 11 years and as an employee of larger consulting companies for nine years. As a client, I’ve worked with some excellent attorneys, some good and not-so-good accountants, and good and not-so-good package designers, copywriters, graphic artists, and public relations consultants. And I’d like to suggest some tips for buyers of expertise, to help you get what you pay for.

  1. Map the different species. Different experts have different standard behaviors. Some experts do the work for you, some tell you what to do, some help you do it. Some are obvious, like the accountant filling out the tax forms for you, the lawyers writing the legal documents, the designers designing, and the graphic artists drawing. But the lines get blurry. Accountants and lawyers, for example, don’t just do things, they also give advice and charge you for it. Coaches and consultants have some obvious differences. Know who does what.
  2. Define your real needs. So you have to think through whether you’re looking for somebody to actually do things, or to help you do them, or maybe just deliver a consulting report and walk away. In business planning, where I’ve spent most of my career as an expert, people don’t understand that they need planning, not just a plan; having somebody do a plan for you is as smart as having somebody do your exercise.  In graphic arts and design, where I’ve been a frequent client, you want the finished work, not just coaching.
  3. Find multiple candidates. Never hire any kind of an expert without first looking into three or more candidates.
  4. Research those candidates. Get recommendations, search the web, and always check references from past clients. Insist on a client list: not just one happy client you can call (that’s too easy to fake), but enough to keep them honest. Check the references, don’t assume anything. And as you talk to possible candidates, be fair about not asking them to give you their expertise for free, and work into the discussion that you are talking to more than one. Don’t be shy about rates and terms.
  5. Know what you really want and communicate that clearly. If you’re not sure and you’re looking for advice, say so. If you are sure, say for example that you want coaching not consulting, you want help not reports and instructions, you have to say so.
  6. Make your timing clear, and your scope realistic. If you don’t know fairly well what you’re talking about, then listen first. For example, when prospective clients go to programmers wanting a morph between Facebook, Amazon.com, and Google, for $5,000, smart programmers run away. When prospective PR clients start expecting to be in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Huffington Post, and TechCrunch all at once, smart PR people run.
  7. Get it in writing. A written understanding protects both sides. Agree on the scope, timing, and fee schedules, write it in plain English in a short document, and sign it. Don’t try to foresee all possible problems and put in a clause for each. Assume reasonable is good enough, avoid legalese, and put it in writing.
  8. Use letters not contracts. (Attorneys please skip to the following point. Do not read this.) Contracts with professional vendors are a waste of time and money on both sides. Disputes will be solved by negotiation, not contract; and in the worst case, mediation. Just make sure that both sides of the relationship understand the main points. Avoid legalese. Save the contracts for deep fundamental stuff, long-term ownership, long-term employees, alliances, etc.
  9. Start simple. Think in Steps. Don’t do the equivalent of agreeing to scale all of the stories of a 40-story building if you can agree to a simple first-step engagement that gives you and the experts a chance to work together and get to know each other. I use the term “abandonment point.” As a consultant I always scoped a job in a way that allowed me and the client to fall out quickly and drop it soon. That makes it much easier to sell, and much easier to buy. Make your first agreement a simple step one.
  10. Manage: review, evaluate, communicate. Find a happy medium between driving your expert crazy with repeated meetings and hand holding, on the one hand, and leaving them alone with no feedback or communication for way too long, on the other. The more time that goes buy without reviewing progress, the more risk of disappointment and problems. You have to give feedback. You’re the client.

By the way, I conceived of this post after I saw eConsultancy’s post listing the five clients you should avoid like the plague. I was amused by the taxonomy of client types, but it also struck me that there are two sides to that question. It isn’t just about avoiding annoying clients; it’s also about understanding both sides of the relationship. You don’t want to be one of those client types.

Trite but true: there’s no such thing as a win-loss business relationship. You both win or you both lose.


Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.

9 Reactions
  1. Thanks for the tips I especially like the advice on use letters not contacts. I can see how this would encourage discussion and the outcomes would be more positive hopefully allowing your business to create more goodwill.

  2. So often these relationships come down to expectations. Did the expert set them at an appropriate level? Did the client communicate their needs well? A strong understanding of expectations will serve as a strong foundation.

  3. Great post, as usual, Tim.

    I like how you pointed out what types of experts do what things. (Species.)

    That was great!

    The Franchise King®

  4. Hi Tim,

    You have given some very useful tips, a lot of times people know that they need business advice yet they have no clue how to go about finding the right one that would also be cost effective. I am sure this information would be a good guideline to follow. You and your readership may be interested in this article: The importance of seeking Business advice.


    Thanks for sharing!

    Riya Sam

  5. Finding multiple candidates is important as the work will be divided and you will get more ideas…

  6. Tim,

    As an experienced purchaser this post is deligthful reading material!

  7. Great post, great advice well done. It’s clear you’ve been around the block a time or two! In the process if engaging a new client, so this is valuable.

  8. Excellent advice Tim, I’ve been thinking about contacting someone about Market research. This article sure does come handy.