Small business owners have to wear lots of hats, but sometimes making the right decision means hiring expert assistance instead of trying to get the information yourself. The economic downturn has led to a bold new business world filled with experienced, savvy consultants trying to build new careers after being downsized. If you have some time to shop around for the services you need, you probably won’t have trouble finding a consultant with an impressive work resume who can solve your marketing, efficiency, production, purchasing or human resources challenges.

What You Need to Know About Hiring Consultants

Not all consultants are created equal. Before you start thanking your lucky stars for that lion of industry who is willing to work his magic for peanuts, take a day to evaluate your good fortune:

Know what you’re buying. There are consultants and consultant wannabes. Just because a candidate has an impressive employment history doesn’t mean that his experience will translate well to a consulting career. Prefer someone who’s been in the consulting trade for three years or more unless he comes with a killer recommendation from someone you know and trust. The consultant you choose should be known in your industry or in his areas of expertise, like human resources, and have trade associations and industry affiliations you can verify.

Beware of “consultants” who are really job seekers in disguise. Downsized workers trying to make ends meet are consulting on the side in bigger numbers than ever before. If it looks like you’re being promised the moon and the stars, that consultant who sounds so impressive may evaporate once you make it clear you don’t have anything permanent on the horizon. Make your needs and the scope of your project clear from the beginning.

Conduct a thorough interview. A consultant will learn a great deal about your business during the course of his work, so make sure to vet him carefully. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of a consultant as a trusted advisor who ought to be accepted on faith. Consultants should be willing to provide background information and references. When you do get reference sources, check them thoroughly.

Scale and industry are important. To be effective, your consultant should be an excellent match for your business. A consultant’s previous projects should be consistent with the type of work you need to have performed. Scale is important too. The consultant you choose should have experience with helping businesses that are of the same size or somewhat larger than yours.

Establish a timeline. Even for small projects, have your consultant agree to a specific timeline. If he is juggling your work with applications he’s submitted for larger projects or even full-time employment, you may be shunted to the side unless you have a deadline specific agreement.

Pay attention to the details. Get a signed contract that specifies everything you’ve agreed to verbally, and always have your consultant sign a confidentiality agreement.

Lay the groundwork. Once you do hire a consultant, discuss the plan with your employees before he arrives to evaluate your business processes. The more comfortable and non-threatened your workers feel with having a stranger asking sensitive questions, the easier it will be for a consultant to get the information he needs.

When you’re taking the extra step of hiring a consultant to help grow your business, be sure you’re getting what you pay for by evaluating the candidates carefully. An “apples to apples” match is important, and this is the best time in recent memory to find plenty of candidates with the experience and expertise necessary to take your small to medium sized business to the next level.