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4 tips for using consultants without breaking the budget

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Stunned silence. The suggestion made by the marketing consultants for Smoothie King was so simple and easy that no one spoke, recalls Dan Hannah, VP of business development for the QSR.

It was a “Why didn’t we think of this?” moment for the chain’s leadership team. Its outlets in the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans provide free beverages to artists before their performances in the arena. The firm suggested promoting photos of celebrities holding Smoothie King cups.

“Sometimes you are so close to the environment, you can’t see the picture,” Hannah says. “Consultants come from a different angle, a different point of view.”

From simple solutions to improve marketing or menus to major projects such as overhauling a concept or launching a new one, restaurants turn to consultants to help operations and sales. But, while prices vary wildly, consultants don’t come cheap. Here are some approaches to get the most out of outside help.

1. Budget for it

Toppers Pizza sets a yearly line item for consultants or a new hire, says Scott Gittrich, founder and president of the better-pizza concept based in Whitewater, Wis. But going the consultant route can save money, he says.

For example, one year, rather than add to the marketing department, Toppers contracted with a third party to do an analysis of information his team already had gathered. While the cost-savings isn’t an “apples-to-apples comparison,” he says, Gittrich estimates Toppers spent about $20,000 less than it would have on a salary and benefits. The larger perk, says Gittrich: “We got a different take on the data and quicker results.” And it was a more in-depth analysis than an internal hire would’ve been able to give.

2. Get creative with funding

In the early years of growing Silver Diner, based in Rockville, Md., the company offered consultants stock options, says President and CEO Robert Giaimo. “We don’t do this now, but if a consultant was beyond our pay reach—say a fee was $25,000 or $50,000, we would pay a portion of that [in cash] and the rest in stock options,” Giaimo says. “He then had an interest in our success.”

3. Set expectations

Specify a time limit on projects so costs don’t creep up, says Hannah. “If a consultant is here for more than six months, they ought to be an employee.”

To accomplish that directive, Hannah suggests bringing in consultants for a specific task. “This is our issue. This is our logjam. This is where we are having problems. Then be specific about the time you want the project completed,” he says.

4. Choose wisely and integrate

Before hiring a consultant, do research, talk to their previous clients and make sure they are a good fit, operators say. Once they are involved, keep spending time with them and make sure they are in the restaurants, meeting staff and watching the operation before making a recommendation.

“Where people go wrong is they do not integrate the consultant with the team,” Giaimo says. “He has not been working in the field and the advice is sterile. A consultant can’t just work with the CEO.”

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