Profitable Times Newsletter

Hiring a Consultant

If you are in need of independent insight into the planning or performance of your retail presence, it may be valuable to engage a museum store consultant. This article is about some of the key considerations of this process.

Reviewing Your Needs for an RFP

The first step in hiring a consultant is creating a request for proposal (RFP). To do so, focus on understanding what you want from a consultant/partner and how to get the results you need. The best way to get comparative information about consultant methodology, fees, and other factors important to your project is to provide specific guidance about the scope of work and other expectations.

Typically, expertise and experience are two major considerations. Expertise most closely relates to breadth of general knowledge and know-how. Experience includes the depth of knowledge and the number of similar clients the consultant has worked with in the past. Having similar clients is incredibly important because each point of contact gives the consultant more information that may be applicable to your project. For museum stores, a consultant's experience may broadly encompass the retail presence in other nonprofit institutions, or it may be more focused on other museums of similar size, exhibition focus, and mission. Experience can also be gauged by reviewing the consultant's published works and presentations made at conferences and by visiting the consultant's website.

The second level of needs should be more specific. Do you need a focus on revenue generation and profitability; product selection and proprietary product development; store functionality, layout, and design; staff training; merchandising and display, or something else? Or do you simply feel the store should be more profitable and could better enhance the visitor's experience.

Regardless of the specificity of the questions you ask, it is better to start with an open range of possible consulting focuses rather than narrowing the scope of work too soon in the process. Given a broader mandate, an experienced consultant may very well assess the store and find issues that you had not previously considered. For example, we start all our assessment projects for existing stores with a very extensive questionnaire to be completed by the client. Invariably, the questionnaire answers lead to consideration of topics beyond what the client expected. For example, during one project, the initial focus was on store functionality, including fixture layout and design and back-of-house organization. Responses in the questionnaire that were ancillary to the initial focus, however, led to an analysis of benchmarks for key performance indicators (KPI) that unearthed significant financial issues.

Institutional Background

Part of the purpose for an RFP is to inform the consultant candidates about your institution. Yes, they should be directed to your website, but in addition, be explicit about the mission of the institution and the store as well as about any characteristics of the institution and store that may be lesser known but are important to customers, visitors, volunteers, staff, stakeholders, and others.

Selection and Screening Criteria

What selection criteria are you going to apply? Again, experience is a major consideration. Experience can include number of years consulting in the industry, number and type of previous clients and special focuses on your type and size of institution.

More subjective attributes are also important. These can include:

  • Character: In simple terms, do you believe the consultant will be willing to tell you things you may not want to hear? Does the consultant care about your institution beyond it just being a project?
  • Communication: Does the consultant have outstanding communication and interpersonal skills that will connect with all levels of the institution? And, perhaps most important, does the consultant know how to listen?
  • Contact: Was the initial contact process organized? How easy has it been to reach the consultant and how responsive has the consultant been to you. Was the initial contact focused on your needs, and did it include perceptive questions and topics to think about?
  • Effectiveness: What is your perception of the consultant's approach to maneuvering around difficult situations? Will there be a balance of tact, confidence, and assertiveness about proposed solutions?
  • Flexibility: Although the consultant may have an established methodology, how flexible can the consultant be to work with shifting individual and project schedules and other unexpected circumstances?
  • Reputation: What can you learn about the consultant's ability to relate well and to command the respect of museum management, especially those who may have an impact on the funding and execution of recommendations? Will the consultant be accepted as an experienced and objective third party?
  • References: Absolutely ask for related references... and check them. Also make less formal contact with associates. Be sure to ask if recommendations were actionable and practical.
  • Availability: Is the consultant generally available when you think you will need the work done?

Of course, cost is a factor as well, but it can come last because it should be considered as part of the overall return on investment. A higher-cost consultant who meets your criterion may very well be less expensive in the long run.

What to Include in Your RFP

  • Timing: Desired start and/or required completion date.
  • Methodology: Is there an approach that you feel will work best for your museum?
  • Fees: This can include hourly, daily, and overall project fees and may be further broken down by onsite and telecommunications consulting. In my experience, a fixed overall project fee is welcomed by many nonprofit organizations, but for the protection of both the institution and the consultant, this requires greater detailing of all aspects of the project.
  • Scope of work: This includes preparation for the project, execution of the consultation, writing summary reports, and — often overlooked — follow-up consulting to help evaluate progress and make course corrections depending on results. This can be viewed as helping to hold the feet of those responsible for implementing the recommendations to the fire.

The worst way to get quality, apples-to-apples comparative information about consultant methodology, fees and other factors important to your project is to not provide specific guidance about the scope of work and other expectations.

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