How to choose an ISO 9001 quality consultant 

1. Do you mind if I ask you some questions? 

If they do, they probably don't want your business. And you certainly don't want them.

But you should choose a reasonable time to ask your questions. When is that?  Perhaps when you meet. Or at a mutually arranged time. But do expect any good consultant to want to know something about your particular situation before offering you advice or a price. 

What isn’t reasonable: phoning up out of the blue and expecting a busy consultant (if we're good, we're usually busy) to stop whatever they are doing and give you an immediate specific quote and/or provide a large amount of information right then and there. Especially if you've never even met or spoken before. That said, we'll be happy to talk to you, and even more so if you've read through some of the most frequent questions on ISO 9001 on our website,

2. How long have you been in the field of quality management? And as a consultant?

It's important to know something about their history and experience. What's their background? What have they achieved?

How much experience do they have? And in what fields?  You really don't want to be the first client for someone who just got made redundant (or even sacked) and decided to 'become a consultant'. Or do you?

3. What do you see as the most important factors in getting ISO 9001?

Their answer will give you some clues to their approach, their values and their priorities.

Do these sound compatible? Is there any fit with your ideas?  Or are they completely different?  

4. What do you mean by ‘quality’?

This will tell you if they've even taken the time to think about this, let alone develop their own definition. Can the consultant explain to you what they mean by quality?  Does what they say align with any of your thoughts? Do their eyes light up, or their voice fill with enthusiasm? Do they sound interesting and interested?  And do you understand what they say?

Some warning bells: they spout a lot of incomprehensible ‘quality speak’ at this point, and/or quote the official ISO definition to you rather than using their own words.  Or they get very vague and waffle on a lot. If so, watch out; it's most unlikely this will improve on further acquaintance.

5. What would you need from us? What can we do to make this project go smoothly and minimise the cost or time?

You’re looking to see if the way you want to approach getting ISO 9001, and the way that they do, are going to be compatible. Are they?

Caution: If they say anything like 'You just get on with what you're doing; I'll do it all for you and make it all happen without any need for you to be involved', run away.  Very fast.  Because that's a pretty good indicator that you're going to get the 'consultant cookie cutter' instant system, which is invariably a disaster.

6. What’s been your best quality (or ISO 9001) job? And why?

Some possible answers here might be a job that: 

Listen for what's important to them and note the criteria they use. If they indicate the job where they earned the most or took the longest, probe further. If their main motivation appears to be fees or income, think twice if not three times!

You should feel you're in partnership with a consultant, not that they're out to gouge every last possible dollar.  All the good consultants I know want to contribute and be part of something that is an improvement.  Contrary to certain myths, we certainly don't just want to stick our hands in your pockets.

7. What was your most difficult one?

Any experienced consultant will have had at least one difficult job, and usually more. How did they respond? Do they lay blame or accept some of the responsibility? Did they learn anything (if so, what?) or do they see it as all the fault of their client?

Recruiters love to ask this kind of question, because the answer usually indicates how someone dealt with difficulties in the past, and thus what their approach is likely to be in the future.

8. Are your clients mostly in services or manufacturing?

Partly you're just gathering information about their experience and history. But also, you're looking to see if they understand your field. Manufacturing ('making stuff') and services ('doing stuff') are very different, and require the ISO 9001 Standard to be interpreted and applied in different ways.

Are you in a service field?  If you are but the prospective consultant only has experience in manufacturing or industrial businesses, I'd be cautious. Very cautious, because it's only rarely successful.  Too often, someone who has only ever done it in a manufacturing business tries to do it just the same for a service business.  And the fields really are different. I'd always want one with experience of how to apply the Standard in service sectors. The opposite is also true: a consultant with experience only in service industries may lack understanding of manufacturing.

But don't be put off if there isn't an exact match, or they don't have experience in your precise field or business niche. Because 1/ it may not happen and 2/ with a good consultant, the skills and knowledge are transferable. A good consultant without specific experience in a specific field is infinitely preferable to a poor so called 'consultant' but who does have experience in your field. Infinitely!

9. Could you show me some samples of your previous work?

Samples will give you some idea of their approach, their style of documenting/writing and their skill (or lack of it) in presenting information.

If they show you a manual that would double as a doorstopper, or documents that make your heart sink just to look at - let alone try and read, stop there.  Thank them and recall an urgent appointment that you need to start preparing for. And keep looking.

They probably can't show you a full set (we keep our client information confidential, remember), but any reputable consultant should be able to show you some samples. If they can't show you anything at all, why not?

10. Can you give me some references?

A good consultant would be able to give you provide contact details for a few previous clients, or written referrals / testimonials, or both. If you do follow up references, contact at least a couple of people. Were they happy with the services? Also, look for references that are relatively recent, say within the last 18 months to 2 years. Warning: if testimonials refer only to the 1994 version, run a mile. The consultant is so far out of date it's not even funny.

Some fine consultants may not have written referrals or testimonials. Not everyone asks for them and many organisations have definite policies about not providing them in our litigation-prone days. But if you cannot get any kind of feedback at all from any past clients, I'd be extremely suspicious.

11. Will you give us a written proposal?

Even for a relatively small job or project, you should receive something in writing that sets out some basics. You both need to be clear about what will be done, who is responsible for what, as well as the deliverables (ie, the services, documents, training sessions, or other artifacts that will be delivered), the timing and of course the costs and terms.  Never engage a consultant without having some agreement in writing, so you're both clear about what the assignment is.

12. If we do decide to use you, how will progress be tracked?

You should know how you will be kept informed. For example, does the consultant provide written reports, or are there scheduled progress meetings, or just email check-ins? If they have no plans to do this, how will you know how things are going?  This is particularly important if you yourself aren't interacting directly with the consultant.

Getting a quality system in place and achieving certification is a project - you need a consultant who understands at least the basic disciplines of project management. And if you don't want to know and think it's all entirely up to
them (after all, that's what you pay them for), then please rethink, preferably right now! If any slippage or holdups occur, you risk not finding out that things are off the rails until too far down the track. Which is usually expensive, among other negative outcomes.

13. Are you willing to do a part of the project first, such as a gap analysis or a project plan to an agreed price?

This enables you to try them out without committing yourself further at this point. For example, the consultant might do something they call a gap analysis, 'benchmarking', or 'scoping'. This is quite a common practice among professional services consultants.

Unprofessional or bad consultants won't like this suggestion. If they refuse or become agitated, say goodbye. Now.

14. Is there a guarantee of your services?

If you aren’t happy with some aspect of their work, what will they do? What will you do? Trades people provide guarantees – why shouldn’t consultants?  (And yes, I practice what I preach here.)  

15. If we use you and don’t get our certification first time, what will you do?

If you ignored the advice of your consultant (which should be written if it is something important), and then do not succeed at your certification audit, that is your prerogative and the consequences are yours. But if not, why? You pay for their advice and expertise not to "fail" the audit!

PS: If you get an answer like “Eat my hat” then engage them. Because you've found a consultant who not only has the right experience and the confidence that goes with it, but also has a sense of humour. And that's a wonderful thing to have at any time, not least in quality management.

More guidance 

There is a guidance standard available if you want to see what the 'official line' says.  See ISO 10019  Guidelines for the selection of quality management system consultants and use of their services.  It doesn't make for riveting reading though.

Author: Jane Bennett

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