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When is Using a Local Consultant the Wrong Answer?

weighing options (cropped)When considering a professional consulting resource for a back office systems project (accounting, donor management, HR, etc.), many people immediately assume that they want to find someone local who can complete the project.  The superficial reasons are obvious – why would I want to potentially pay travel costs any time I need to have a resource on site for consulting, training or otherwise?  A local resource won’t charge me to drive across town for an engagement, but the firm from out of state definitely will.  A “no brainer”, right?

Maybe not.  In over 20 years of project work, we have unfortunately seen many organizations base their selection of their partner for mission critical IT projects based solely on proximity to their location.  While this makes sense when you are comparing two alternatives that are exactly equal in every other respect, but in real life that is never the case.

Travel cost and potential future availability to provide timely on-site support should both be factors in your decision whether to work with a partner on mission-critical projects.  However, those factors should not blind you to other factors that deserve equal or greater weight in your selection process.  As a nonprofit considering spending a substantial amount of money on a project (let’s assume over $20k), there are much more important considerations than a couple of thousand dollars in estimated travel fees.

Here are three things that we recommend that you weigh more heavily than “local presence” when comparing options:

  • Experience – Can your provider demonstrate past success through verifiable references from similar projects?  How many projects?  How many years has the organization been in business doing this particular type of project?
  • Industry Knowledge – Does your provider understand the nonprofit space and the unique requirements of organizations in this sector?  Is nonprofit their focus or only a small part of their business?  Do they speak the language?
  • Scale – Is the organization large and diverse enough to bring all of the necessary skills and competencies to the table that your project requires?  Does the organization have a deep bench to ensure coverage in the case of turnover or other disruptions?  Do they have the ability to grow with you in the event that you experience explosive growth?

One of the most important expectations you should have about your consulting partner on this type of project is that they will help you manage risk.  Converting to a new critical business system is an inherently risky, potentially disastrous endeavor by its very nature.  Favoring local presence over experience, industry knowledge and scale potentially puts your organization at risk of never achieving the Point B you have defined.  Do your due diligence

To be fair, there are cases where proximity is a definite advantage.  For instance, if your organization has significant local compliance requirements that people from outside of your locality couldn’t possibly be familiar with, it should be a bigger factor.  Also, local presence can be viewed as an excellent tie-breaker in the event that you identify two consultants with roughly similar characteristics to support your project.

In any case, if you have a local partner that meets your needs in terms of the three factors listed above, then it truly is a “no brainer”.  At JMT we have hundreds of clients to whom we are a local resource.  However, we work tirelessly to ensure that they choose to work with us because of our ability, not our location.

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