Our reporter, Sergio Russo interviewed Colin McAndrew who recently started his own HR consultancy firm, Col HR Ltd and asked him why…?
Can you tell us why decided to launch your own consultancy firm?
I established my own HR consultancy because I personally felt it was the right time for me. It is something I had been considering for a number of years but I had other priorities to consider. I have been fortunate enough to have had a varied and exciting career that has taken me all over the world and allowed me to utilise my skills while expanding my knowledge. It is this international aspect of my career which has given me the confidence to establish my own consultancy. I looked at the markets in my region and saw that I had skills that other consultants did not have. I decided to capitalise on that and establish my own firm.
Today’s consultancy market is extremely competitive and standing out from the crowd can be very difficult. Which clients do you target? Do you believe it is more important to offer a general consulting service or specialising as a niche consultancy?
I target clients for different kinds of work and for different reasons. The companies who want to work with me are generally companies that are growing or going through significant change. I tend to find that I will be engaged to manage a particular project, which frees up the existing HR resources within the company or I am asked to provide knowledge and expertise on a specific area that the HR professionals within the company don’t have. I think there are too many “generalist” consultants in the market. To be competitive, you need to be able to offer something that others can’t.
Do you work with clients overseas? If so, how do you make sure you comply with legislation abroad?
Yes, I do work with a number of clients overseas. One of my selling points is that I can offer support to companies based in the UK and have operations overseas, requiring support there too. I have spent a significant portion of my career working in various countries around the world, so I have to learn new legislation depending on the contract location. I also find it useful to keep up to date with employment law changes in countries where I have previously worked. There are various ways to do this such as studying government websites, networking with colleagues, attending training seminars specifically for labour law in the target country. Experience has taught me that the best way to prepare is to do as much research as I can before I go. Once in the country it is easier to put what I have learned into context and being on site provides a more comprehensive understanding of how local employment laws are applied.
Consultancy is a client-oriented business, but misunderstandings on the nature of the service can be frequent between provider and purchaser. What is your ideal strategy to develop a productive relationship?
I am not a salesman selling a product, I am an HR professional selling a unique service. I do not go to a client and tell them what they need, sell them unnecessary services and make promises that can not be kept. In order to build trust and gain respect I prefer to keep it simple. I maintain regular contact with my clients and listen to what direction they are taking the business, the goals they have set and the timescales involved. If I feel there is a way that I can add value and support their initiatives then I highlight this to them. Sometimes clients do not have the experience or knowledge of how HR can add value in some of the high priority work they are doing. The same things applies when I meet with a new client, my priority is to listen to their needs. If there is a way to support them, I explain how. If I do not see a way to add value, then I explain why and give them some advice on what might be the appropriate solution. Honesty, integrity, professionalism and manners cost nothing but make good business sense and provide the foundation to form long lasting relationships.
How do you manage those clients who hire you for your expertise, but still want to have a say on how you carry out your work?
Not one client is the same and in every organisation there are different personalities and some individuals are more strong willed than others. There will be times when there is a reluctance to share particular information or resources. The key is having the ability to maintain a good relationship and ensuring that the job gets done. You have to be mindful that some people in a business have considerable knowledge, so to tap into this information and benefit from it you have to show a certain level of respect. Every client is different, so I have to adapt my strategy depending on the client and the nature of the project.
Client retention is vital for a consultancy firm. Which practical advises would you recommend?
I probably answered this in my first response. If you are professional and can demonstrate a return on investment, then there is no reason why a client will not give you repeat business.
Evaluating an assignment is a critical part of the consultancy process, but sometimes it is complicated as it might deal with intangible benefits. In these cases, how can we demonstrate that our involvement matches our client’s expectations?
It’s like I mentioned earlier. We need to make sure that we listen to what the client is trying to achieve and where they see us fitting in. Only when you have listened to their needs can you evaluate how to support them effectively. Planning and strategy is essential when approaching assignments because we have to consider all possible issues that the client may not.
A career as consultant can be very attractive and rewarding, but also frustrating (i.e. long hours, lack of steady income, etc). Which tips would you give to new starters?
Don’t go into the consultancy world half heartedly. You need to prepare, plan and be sure that you know what you are getting into. Do you know your market? Which industries will you target? How connected are you in terms of networking and leads? Do you know people who will recommend you to others? What are your selling points? Why should a company choose you over another consultant? Consider your capabilities, do you have the tenure or experience in HR to make a quick impact in a company? These are all questions to be asked of yourself and there are a lot more, some that you will ask even once you have established yourself as a consultant. Lastly, do not assume that you know it all. We are learning every day and as the challenges we face within business are changing, HR is constantly evolving to tackle them.
The UK economy is slowly recovering after the recent financial downturn. Which challenges can you see ahead for consultants in the next five years?
I think that the main issues will be related to cost and investment. Companies are trying to streamline wherever possible, so engaging a Human Resources Consultant needs to be cost effective for them. Gone are the days where a company will hire 4/5 consultants on high day rates and let them drag contracts out for months on end, working on mid priority projects. Companies want to see return on investment, so consultants who can advise, support and deliver quickly at a reasonable cost will do well in this current climate.