companies pursuing ISO certification frequently begin the process by hiring consultants. Although certification bodies must meet certain accreditation requirements, ISO consultants have no overseeing bodies to qualify their competence. Many ISO or quality consultants have a variety of licenses and certifications showing mastery of specific knowledge, but education and special training don’t necessarily make someone the right person to help your company achieve certification. What follows are some simple issues and criteria to consider when hiring an ISO consultant.

ISO consultants

Contractors vs. consultants

It’s important not to confuse contractors with consultants. The difference between the two will affect outcomes, expectations and fees. A contractor will spend a significant amount of time at your company performing tasks such as conducting audits and writing procedures. The contractor provides an additional set of hands to do certain tasks for you. Contractors may spend 50 percent or more of their time working with you over several months. The contractor is a worker, not an adviser, and generally doesn’t take part in the strategic project planning necessary to achieve certification.

Contractors are useful for companies whose employees lack the ability, time or inclination to do their own auditing and procedure development work or who need a significant amount of hand-holding to work through these tasks. Contractors are also useful in lean organizations that lack readily available personnel resources or that contract out many functions as a strategic choice.

One of the primary difficulties in hiring out the ISO development work to a contractor is that your full-time employees may not be directly involved in building your quality management system, so they may not fully buy into the ISO quality system and make it their own.

Consultants, on the other hand, are advisers who help lay out a strategic plan and organize the necessary resources. A consultant acts as a coach on the sidelines, encouraging and motivating your employees to perform the tasks necessary to reach certification. The consultant helps everyone stay on track, brainstorm solutions and knock down barriers. Knowledgeable and capable consultants have worked with several companies and have learned first-hand some of the typical pitfalls companies face when pursuing certification. Because they have identified many of the same kinds of problems before and understand that it’s possible to overcome these problems, consultants are less likely to be discouraged or frustrated by bumps in the road. Moreover, because consultants don’t own the process and have less emotional commitment to the organization than do full-time organizational members, they may be able to bring an unbiased and unemotional perspective to problems and evaluate a variety of potential solutions.

One of the most obvious indicators of whether the individual you are considering hiring is a contractor or a consultant is the amount of time and the kind of work the person proposes to do for your company. If the individual willingly takes on specific work or determines that he or she must spend a great deal of time with you, you’re dealing with a contractor. Consultants, on the other hand, will make a concerted effort to ensure that you’re able to stand on your own, deal with the requirements of the standard and be prepared to undergo your certification audit. Good consultants want to minimize the time they spend at your location; they strive to provide you with what you need in order to do your own work and take hold of the ISO quality system as your own. Most important, consultants want to help clients figure out their own solutions based on what’s best for their company and customers.

The most important advantage of hiring a consultant rather than a contractor is that employees are able to use and maintain the system after the consultant leaves the company. If you plan to maximize the value of your ISOcertification, you should design a quality management system that’s owned by your line and operations personnel. A consultant should be able to help you start your project and meet with you periodically to assess your current status and help you evolve your plan. Once the project is up and running, the consultant should work with you one or two days about every six weeks. Between visits, you and your employees work on your ISO project.

Quality vs. management perspective

ISO isn’t a quality issue; it’s a management concern. The ISO standards provide a framework upon which to build a management system that ensures customer satisfaction by reducing nonconformance and variation in work processes, products and services. ISOcertification is definitely not a quality control or inspection activity. Consultants need to be knowledgeable about quality issues, the standard, and auditing and documentation practices. However, because ISO is a management issue, the consultant also needs to understand–and have experience with–business strategy development, project management and resource budgeting. Given a choice between a consultant with a strong quality background and one with more management experience, all other factors being equal, you’re probably better off hiring the consultant with line management and budget responsibility experience. This individual will most likely be better able to help you and your staff understand how ISO works in and affects all elements of your company.

Industry experience

Most ISOcertifications have been in manufacturing companies and within certain types of industries. More recently, service organizations and other industries new to the standards are discovering the value of certification to their bottom line. As more types of companies seek certification, demand for industry-specific experience rises. However, expecting to find a consultant with 20 years’ experience in your specific industry may not be feasible, and it’s probably unnecessary.

More important selection criteria for a consultant include the similarity between your company’s size and that of the other companies the consultant has worked with; the kinds of markets and technology experience he or she has; and the specific kinds of line, budget and management experiences the consultant brings to your project. For example, an individual who has significant experience working with a major international organization or who’s spent a career in a highly regulated industry will have to make a mental adjustment to understand how a smaller or less-regulated company successfully manages its tasks. Similarly, the consultant needs to understand your markets and your types of customers and what you need to do to satisfy them.

Benchmarking and sea stories

Benchmarking is key to organizational improvements and the support of ISO. This process is based on the idea that a company can study how another company, from any industry, developed a superior solution to certain tasks or activities. The idea is to find a company that has devised a streamlined, effective and efficient way to accomplish an activity and then use those ideas as a starting point or model to devise your own solution. Smart consultants are always looking for and learning new ideas that can be adapted to fit their clients’ needs.

The “sea story” consultant is a proponent of the “how we used to do it back at my old company mentality. There’s wisdom in experience only when the experience can be tailored to fit current needs or to avoid traps, errors or delays. Capable consultants are able to parley their experiences to find new, unique solutions.

Personal rapport with the ISO consultant

One of the most important characteristics a consultant can have is the ability to work well with you and at every level within your organization. Good consultants can work with senior management as comfortably as with the most junior individual in your organization. You must be comfortable with him or her. Because your contact time with the consultant will be limited, you need to be sure that you can work cooperatively and efficiently together so that this time will be productive.

It’s worth investing in an airline ticket to have the consultant visit for a day before you make a hiring decision. The consultant should be willing to waive his or her daily fee for this visit. You should have a fairly extensive list of questions to ask, issues to address and concerns to satisfy, but all of the factual issues–such as experience and fees–should have already been resolved. Your meeting day should be devoted to arriving at a clear consensus of what you’re looking for and what kinds of help you need, as well as planning how the consultant will work with you. The consultant can help you achieve this goal. The consultant is your vendor or subcontractor; therefore, you should use the care that you would use to assess any subcontractor who is important to your company’s strategic success. Both you and the consultant need to make sure that you both clearly understand your expectations of each other and of the desired outcomes before you enter into a consulting agreement. If you’re unable to clarify these expectations and establish a level of comfort and trust with the consultant, find someone else. Similarly, good consultants walk away from a project that they believe is a poor match for their strengths and weaknesses.

Distance vs. availability

A very old saw says a consultant is someone with a suit and a briefcase who travels more than 50 miles, looks at your watch and tells you the time. Organizations seeking a consultant may be inclined to look for someone located close to them, thinking it will save time and money. However, you may be doing your organization a grave disservice if you limit your search to local talent. Contractors should be local, but airfares shouldn’t discourage you from hiring the right consultant. With careful preplanning and good scheduling, this expense can be minimized.

A more important consideration is the consultant’s availability and responsiveness to your needs. Telephone, fax and e-mail are all useful tools for staying in touch with your consultant. Regrettably, some consultants overbook themselves–either from greed or from a failure to understand their own limitations–and have difficulty spending the time necessary to focus on and be available to their clients. Obviously, the only thing a consultant has to sell is time and expertise. The consultant who must catch a red-eye flight to get to another client the day after visiting with you is probably overbooked.

Experienced and savvy consultants spend up to 50 percent of their time marketing their services and performing administrative tasks to establish a steady pipeline of business. They have considerable flexibility during those scheduled marketing/administrative periods, so they often can respond to you on short notice. In contrast, road warriors try to book every minute several months in advance and lack the flexibility to respond appropriately to their clients.

Your consultant also needs your cooperation to schedule meeting times as far in advance as possible. Scheduling is an important issue, so you need to resolve this question early to make sure that your potential consultant will be able to meet your needs.

A final note on hiring an ISO consultant

You don’t need to hire a consultant to help your company achieve certification. ISO is not an esoteric and complex undertaking. You can always learn the standard yourself and figure out how to apply it to your business. Companies hire consultants for one reason: to bring experience and insight to their certification projects, thus saving time and smoothing the process. An ISO consultant should help you organize your project and avoid or resolve difficulties in this process as well as help you devise the simplest system that works well for your customers and your company.

Your primary consideration when hiring a consultant should be value. Most consultants charge comparable fees, so cost shouldn’t be your most highly prioritized factor. Instead, establishing what you want from your ISO project and what you need from a consultant to help you reach your goals should be the basis of your decision. Thinking through these issues will help you establish a mutually satisfying and productive relationship with your consultant.