Reboot: Ten tips for working with IT consultants

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The situation: you want a new website; or you think an app would be useful; or perhaps you want to beef up your organization's e-commerce. It might be time to hire an Information Technology (IT) consultant.

Here's the bad news: working well with an IT consultant will mean some extra homework for you and your team, but not doing your homework can lead to delays and expense.

"Frankly, a lot of organizations get screwed because they get bad advice," says Darren Barefoot, co-principal of Capulet Communications in Vancouver and the co-author of Friends With Benefits: A Social Media Marketing Handbook.

"There's often a huge gap in the experience that nonprofits have, and often they don't have any expertise in house: if the IT consultant points them in the wrong direction, there's no place for sober second thought."

But here's the good news: the homework you do now can save you time and money, make you a better client, strengthen the relationships between your nonprofit and its stakeholders, and develop your team's own IT skills.

Here are ten tips for working with IT consultants to get those benefits — without going crazy.

1) Make sure you know what you want, what your staff wants, what your audience wants, and what your donors want before you call a consultant or write the request for proposals.

And yes, you're right: that's a daunting list.

However, each user is directly and indirectly affected by your choices and has valuable insight: the intern who answers irate donor emails or spends an entire day trying to post one update on the website knows how well your Donate Now button and content management system work, for example.

No one wants to think about IT projects then answer questions, but their input is crucial.

SUGGESTIONS: Make the process part of a staff or board meeting: Have people take five minutes to write down everything they think stinks and works about your website. The longest list wins a $10 coffee card.

Send out a survey to targeted users and a broader audience to ask for their input. CanadaHelp's has helpful information on how to use Survey Monkey to create free, short surveys.

2) Ask a technology smarty-pants to join your board.

"If you don't have the expertise in house, having a technologist on your board can be your sober second thought," says Barefoot. Also, ask your board for helpful resources from their own files, like IT consultant contacts, a well-written RFP or consultant notes from another IT project.

3) Plan to make your website accessible and include input from people with disabilities.

Whether you are updating your current site or starting from scratch, make accessibility a focal point. One immediately available benchmark for a current site is validation, which establishes whether your website's code meets web standards and does not have invalid code, which can create errors.

"For a site to be accessible, it needs to validate; if it doesn't validate, it runs the risk of crashing assistive technology," says Toronto-based accessibility consultant Sandy Feldman. You can validate your current site using the free markup validation service and see where it stands.

Some accessibility requirements have broad-ranging benefits. For example, someone using assistive technology to navigate your site needs links and headers that are specific rather than general, (think about replacing links that read "Click here" to something like "Buy tickets" or "Donate now") and using descriptive text for images (like "Photo of board members with the Prime Minister" rather than "PM pic"). Making these changes benefits not only people using assistive technologies but also your organization's ranking by search engines.

"Google is a blind user: it doesn't see what's on the site," says Feldman. "But Google loves links and puts a lot of weight on them, as well as on the text in headers, more so than on body copy."

Accessibility requirements vary from province to province and from country to country, but addressing them now could also spare you expensive costs to ensure compliance in the future.

SUGGESTIONS: In the US, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act outlines web accessibility requirements. Here is a helpful checklist that can inform your website design.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WGAC 2.0) at a glance.

How to involve people with disabilities in your website's usability testing.

4) Read up on IT before you talk to someone in IT.

You can't become an expert with a reading list but you can be a better client by familiarizing yourself with the basic principles that govern most IT projects. The Absolute Beginners and Complete Idiots series about project management are good starting points.

Owen Charters, CEO of, recommends Steve Krug's usability primer, Don't Make Me Think! to teach you the language of IT consultants and some of the specifications you'll need when discussing your project.

Also recommended by Charters and Barefoot is author and marketing guru Seth Godin's blog. Here's Godin's thought-provoking post on creating a "good enough" website.

5) Sketch out your internal approvals process and cash flow now.

Who will be the key contact for the IT consultant? Who will have final sign-off at your organization, and will it be the same person for each stage? How long will it take to get approvals? Does the board need to be directly involved? How will you communicate progress to the rest of the team and how often? Do you want to hire a project manager?

And on the money side: Are you waiting for full funding before starting or can you pay the consultant in increments as funding arrives? What happens if only partial funding is received?

6) Budget time and money for training.

"The training piece is significant but often neglected. You're looking to spend at least 20% of the budget on training, but closer to 50% is realistic," says Charters. "There are also ongoing training needs: if a staff person trained on the program leaves, what happens? What is the plan to get new staff up to speed? If you skimp on that side, you're not going to enjoy the product you've paid for."

7) Question their quote.

"Smaller charities might get a quote and say, "Oh, we don't know; they must know." Don't do that. Question the quote," says Charters. "If you don't like it or don't understand it, ask a lot of questions. Some consultancies are very sophisticated and bill different levels of consultants at different rates, for example. Ask if a junior consultant could handle the work for a lower cost."

Also make sure that the solution for which they're providing the quote works for your nonprofit.

"A good, basic question is: "How common is this technology?" If the answer is "It's very new," then ask why they're going with it," says Barefoot. "Ask them to show you three other projects they've successfully completed with this technology or this approach."

8) Ask about their process.

A good IT consultant should be able to outline their process, even before you brief them on your specifics. Some questions to ask: how long it takes to refine the specs into a work plan; when they will show you wireframes (the mock-up of what the website will look like); what else they're working on and whether you'll be "sharing" a consultant with other projects; and how frequently they update their clients over the course of a project and how (e.g. status reports, meeting summaries, action items etc.).

9) Check the consultant's references — and their reference's references.

"Get their list of references but don't talk to the only person on their contact list," Charters suggests. "The CEO might think it went well, but the person responsible for implementing it might have been pulling their hair out. Ask to ask around."

If you're considering a maintenance contract, ask for client references for that, too. You may find that paying an hourly rate as needed is a better option for your organization's needs.

10) Don't be bamboozled by trends or personal preferences.

Some trends are self-evident: for example, more people are accessing the web through mobile devices, so it makes sense to check how well your current website works on a smart phone or tablet, then use web analytics to see how many people currently access the website from a phone or tablet.

But what about the app trend, for example? The idea of offering one-click access for users to donate or get involved with your nonprofit seems great, but is it for everyone?

"If you're building an app, you have to invest in multiple platforms. Apps are expensive, they're hard to make right and they mostly fail to meet expectations, so unless you have comfort with failure, don't do it. There are a lot of other things to get right first — like your website — before you build an app," warns Barefoot.

Also watch for personal preferences. Some consultants are evangelical about using open source software such as Drupal, or cloud computing solutions, but that could be problematic if you don't have staff with related expertise or if you don't want confidential information in the cloud.

"The piece that people avoid is answering "What do you want?" But the more specific you are, the more you will get from an IT consultant," says Charters.

"If you don't do that, it's garbage in, garbage out."

Benita Aalto is a writer and communications consultant with extensive experience in corporate communications as well as in print and broadcast journalism. She has been a featured guest on TVO, CTV, CBC Newsworld, and CBC Radio, among others.

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