5 Questions to Ask a Sustainability Consultant Before You Hire Them

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Eight years of sustainability consulting experience have taught us a bunch of things. For example, never reserve the last airline flight of the night, unless you want to risk spending an unplanned night at the airport hotel. 

But perhaps the most important thing we've learned is that the #1 factor in determining the success of a sustainability consulting engagement is NOT technical expertise. Shocking, right? Don't get us wrong, technical expertise is really important. But it's not the make-or-break factor that affects most consulting engagements.

The truth is that fit is the most important factor you should be looking for when hiring a sustainability consultancy. When we talk about fit, what we mean is whether or not the people you'll be working with are aligned and congruent with the way you work and your organizational culture.

To put it another way, most of the time it's relatively easy to find consultants who have the sustainability know-how you need. But consultants who are the right fit are going to be dramatically more difficult to find.

To help speed up the process of determining fit, try asking prospective consultancies the following questions: 

1. What makes you think that your sustainability consulting firm is the right fit for us?

Listen carefully to this answer. Nine times out of 10, the answer you hear will be all about the consultancy -- about their technical credentials and about their past experience. What you should be looking for, however, is an answer that speaks directly about YOUR organization. Do they demonstrate an understanding of the challenges you're facing? Have they asked probing questions to get at the heart of your needs, or rushed to present a proposal that reflects "their way" of doing thing? Can they reflect back to you the real reasons that you're looking to hire a sustainability consultancy?

2. How do you measure the success of your sustainability consulting engagements?

In our experience, this is an often-overlooked issue. Most proposals will specify deliverables -- a report, a carbon footprint, etc. But few will take the next step and clearly outline how they (and the client) should judge the success of the consulting engagement itself. It can be extremely helpful to make sure you're on the same page here. For example:

Bad: "We judge the success of the engagement based on client satisfaction." (Really? How will you measure "satisfaction"? Who is the "client" in this case -- the CEO, the average employee?)

Good: "The success of the engagement will be determined by this question: can 90% of incoming questions about sustainability (from retailers, customers, etc.) be answered within one hour?"

3. Who will be working on this project?

Fit is important at the organizational level, but also at the interpersonal level. Make sure that you have met the people who will be working on the project. The most important person will be the account manager (or the project manager) -- the person who will be your primary point of contact on day-to-day matters. But it's also helpful to jump on a video conference (seeing them in person makes a huge difference here!) with the entire project team.

4. What obstacles do you see in reaching full and effective implementation of most engagements?

This question gets at two important things. First, a good consultant will be able to quickly and clearly identify common obstacles that they will come up against. If they don't have a good answer, you should take that as a big red flag. Second, a consultant's response to this question will give you a heads up about what kind of interpersonal, time management, scope of work, and other problems they may encounter. Every consulting approach has its weakness, but you should go into it with open eyes. What you're looking for in a good fit is a) a consultant who thinks proactively about the challenges that will inevitably occur and b) a consultant who will work together with you throughout the engagement to quickly surface and resolve obstacles that stand in your way.

5. What kind of status updates should I expect to receive from you?

Lots of sustainability consulting occurs remotely -- in fact, you may find that only 10-20% of billable project hours are spent onsite at your facilities. That means you need to get comfortable with working in a non-face-to-face relationship with your consultant team. So before you commit, find out how often they expect to be in contact, what forms of communication are preferred, and how they deal with regular status updates. There is no right answer here, but the key is to discuss the options and find a mutually agreeable working relationship.

If you are in the market to hire a sustainability consultant, we hope that you'll contact us for a complimentary consultation with one of our lead consultants. We love working with new clients!