Find a Cyber Consultant

Better than online dating services, new online suppliers allow companies to find the perfect consultant for a job and let the enabler do all the pre-qualifying work.


[From iSource Business, December 2000] Summer before last, Dr. Matthew Clark was handed a tall order. The product director for EMAX Solutions, a Newton Square, Penn., company providing Intranet chemical inventory systems for pharmaceutical companies learned he was to head an ambitious software development effort and he didn't have a lot of time to get it started. In fact, their partner in the job, Sigma-Aldrich, a St. Louis, Mo., honcho in the manufacture of research chemicals, needed the first phase of the project to be completed in two months. Plus and this was the real clincher no one in the 95-employee company had the required expertise. Neither did any of the consultants in the area.

What Clark eventually did was to turn to something unexpected a Web-based service that helps customers find and hire consultants. Unexpected because, even in these days of rapidly growing e-commerce procurement, services still aren't what first comes to mind when you think of shopping in cyberspace. It's much more common for sites to sell products, since you don't need to develop an intimate working relationship with the maker of coil steel for a transaction to fly.

As it turns out, at least a half dozen Net markets exist to aid in the selection of the 200,000 or so consulting firms in operation, according to Dataquest/Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research group. And, indeed, for Clark, the decision to try the Internet worked out well. "We needed a way to speed up the process of finding a candidate as efficiently as possible," he says. "And we did."

It all started in August 1999, when EMAX agreed to develop an e-commerce-oriented inventory system for Sigma. Five-year-old EMAX provides Web-based systems to pharmaceutical companies that help them track chemicals used for research, so they know what's in stock, as well as the status of regulated, hazardous materials. What Sigma wanted to develop was something that seemed a perfect fit for EMAX's capabilities: a system that would permit a pharmaceutical company's inventory system to link up to Sigma's product catalog. So, if a researcher couldn't find a chemical in stock, he or she could search Sigma's catalog and, with the press of a button, order the chemical.

It was a great opportunity for EMAX, only the crucial first step of the project producing the basic structure that all later programming would rest on needed to be designed using the XML language. And therein lay the problem. EMAX was a small company (it was recently bought by Sciquest.com and doesn't break out revenues) and no one on the staff was conversant enough in the language to do the job. There wasn't enough time to train anyone in-house either. Clark decided to do the obvious: look for an outside consultant with the requisite expertise.

However, the consulting firm had to be located nearby, so their consultants could come and go easily. "It's much easier if people can meet in the office," says Clark. "You need a more intimate kind of communication." Clark embarked on an intensive search to find the right one.

It was a frustrating experience. After four weeks, he'd interviewed and heard presentations from six firms, spending one-fourth of his time each day on the task. Total cost to the company: between $5,000 to $10,000 in lost time. And not a single firm was acceptable. Clark had to face facts: "We just weren't finding anyone with enough XML experience to give us confidence they could do the job."

Then, Clark got a bright idea: try the Web. He did a search for consulting firms, and e-mailed about 10, asking for bids on the project. Nothing promising came back. But, in the process, Clark stumbled on an interesting find: a site called PENGroup.com (now called www.ProSavvy.com), which promised to help customers search through a roster of about 1,500 pre-screened consulting firms to find ones that matched their needs. The site claimed it would not only make the procedure more efficient, but also help the client find the best fit possible. Clark decided to try it.

Of course, what Clark didn't see was what went into ProSavvy's behind-the-scenes screening. To make it on their list, each consulting firm had to provide information on their past three year's projects, not just a few select ones most likely to provide positive reviews. Firms also had to allow ProSavvy to interview previous clients and rate their responses according to six criteria, like level of responsiveness and overall satisfaction. And then all that information was put into a standardized form that could easily be compared to those of other firms. "By definition, that helps the user make a more informed choice," says David Gold, CEO of the Englewood, Colo., company.

What Clark did see was a basic request form, in which he detailed the specifics of the project, the type of expertise needed and other requirements, like geographic location. The next day he found about 15 responses from interested firms, each presented in the same format, listing previous projects and describing the firm. After a quick read, it was clear that three of them were worth a further look. "We needed someone who had worked with the pharmaceutical industry on a similar application and was within easy travel distance," he says. Clark e-mailed the three companies and set up appointments to talk over the phone. After a 20-minute conversation with each, Reston, Va.-based XSystems Inc. seemed the best.

Still, Clark didn't feel he was ready to make his decision without some off-line work, too. "A big part of a successful consulting selection is that their management style jibes with yours," he says. "There are dynamics you can only see by having a face-to-face conversation." He arranged for three XSystems representatives to meet with him and Terry Graber, director of software development, at their Newton Square office. In a two-hour meeting, XSystems made a formal presentation, outlining how long it would take them to complete the project, how they'd do it and the cost. Clark decided he'd found his match.

There wasn't a moment to lose. The total time to make his choice, from his first request to ProSavvy through the final hire, took just two weeks. But that was on top of the month he'd spent before. XSystems got started in November, and, two months later, they were done.

Clark's ROI was reduced search time. The efficiencies of effectively aggregated sites that screen for quality consultants up front saves the buying organization from picking through the heap in the traditional way, hoping to find the right consultant. As today's systems become more powerful, finding the right consultant might work better than today's online dating services.

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