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7 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a BI Consultant

How can you tell if the consultant you’re considering will meet your needs? This set of questions can help.

By John Remby, Consultant, Dimensional Insight

For companies implementing business intelligence (BI) solutions, just as important as what technology they buy is who will implement that technology. Choosing the wrong BI consultant for your project can lead to disastrous results.

When you are evaluating consultants, ask the following seven questions to make sure your consultant meets your needs.

#1: How long have you been working with the software?

Experience counts. Software in general is often easy to learn but hard to master. The more familiar and proficient your consultant is with the BI tool, the better the economies of scale. An experienced consultant will be more productive, offer faster turnaround on issues, and provide more value. A master of the software will have dealt with any complex problem you have and will likely be able to come up with creative solutions.

#2: How long have you been working in my industry?

Knowing the software is essential, but just as invaluable is knowing your industry. Data is data, and the mechanisms and methodologies for analysis don't really change from industry to industry, but the nature of your business does. What you do with the data and how you analyze it likely varies greatly. A consultant who has spent a great deal of time in your industry is going to be more familiar with what you likely want to measure and can offer suggestions based on what he or she has seen or done for others.

#3: Are you familiar with my source system(s)?

If you already have dedicated resources to generate feeds from your source system(s), then this question may be unnecessary. However, if you expect your consultant to also pull the data from your source system(s), expertise here will be instrumental. Understanding the schema well enough to know where to go for the necessary data elements is extremely valuable.

Just knowing the way around different data structures will save time. A relational database varies greatly from a hierarchical database. The more internal knowledge of your own systems you have, the more this becomes nice to have rather than a must have. At minimum, your consultant should be able to navigate through your system. That said, it’s always helpful to provide a reference person to answer your consultant’s questions.

#4: At the end of the consulting engagement, what's the plan for transition?

If you intend to take over your BI project after the consulting project is complete, ask this question upfront because you will need to budget for both time and training. The consultant’s answer may also determine the scope of implementation. Consulting deliverables might be adjusted to include additional comments about any coding and include additional documentation to make the transition easier.

You also want to consider your transition options. Will there be a massive knowledge transfer at the project's end or will you work in tandem with the consultant as an observer and learn as the project develops? If the consultant is amenable to the latter methodology, this may be your best chance for a successful transition. It will likely take longer and drive up costs in the short term; however, these upfront costs will be worth it if it increases your chance of success.

#5: What do I do if/when you're unavailable?

If you have a software-related question, you should be able to contact your software vendor’s support line. However, for a more complex issue (such as troubleshooting a failure or a detailed question related to the specifics of your implementation), you’ll want to talk to your consultant. Here, consistency counts. Your consultant is familiar with your implementation and you feel comfortable with that person, so what happens when he or she is unavailable?

You need to know your service won't be interrupted, so make sure you have a backup plan. Redundancy on your project will ensure there is more than one consultant familiar with your implementation, thus ensuring consistent support.

#6: How successful are your past customers?

When it comes down to it, results speak louder than words. Ask for references. A consultant's job is not just to perform a series of implementation tasks -- it's to help improve your situation and, most important, to deliver business results. If a consultant is successful, he or she should have a multitude of satisfied customers and should be willing to share them with you.

#7: What do you need from me?

BI implementations succeed when both the customer and the vendor work together to achieve results. On the consultant’s end, it is a huge help to know the main point of contact for each data source. In bigger organizations with multiple data sources, there may be a point person for each data source system who will be the best person to talk to when there are questions about where to find the data and any special rules to be aware of within your organization.

In addition, it’s especially helpful to know who the business owners of the metrics are. Who in your organization has their success or failure measured on the basis of these metrics? These will be the primary users of the analytics and data visualizations we create, and as such, they should participate in the business rule definitions. They should be available for questions as well. On the whole, identifying your desired metrics, metric definitions, data sources, and the main contacts mentioned above is a huge help when starting the project.

Ask More Questions

These seven questions are by no means the only questions to ask when you embark on a BI project. However, they serve as a good foundation as you begin your selection process.

John Remby is a consultant at Dimensional Insight. You can reach him at [email protected]. You can connect with Dimensional Insight on Twitter (@DI_tweet).

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