By Don Buehler

I’ve talked with a lot of people over the years who are interested in hiring a consultant to help improve their company’s export compliance. Many of the questions asked during these discussions are the same – tactical questions about project scope, deliverables, timing, invoicing and more. Although it’s certainly important to discuss these issues, I believe the decision to work with a consultant goes far beyond these questions. A good export compliance consultant is going to be responsible for a wide range of decisions and activities that impact every area of your organization. Therefore, the decision to hire one should not be taken lightly.

One of the most important factors at play in determining which export consultant you’ll work with is the relationship that’s being developed. And make no mistake – this relationship starts from the moment you pick up the phone and begin to talk. So, below are five uncommon questions that will give you a better picture of what it will actually be like to work with your consultant. In my opinion, these questions give you far more insight than any contract or proposal ever will.

1. How do you work with non-local clients?

(You are talking to consultants who work outside of your local area, right? It’s usually a good idea to expand your reach.) Ask specifics for how collaboration will work remotely. How often will we talk to each other? What online meeting tools do you use? Do we need to meet face-to-face, and if so, when? (If you’re meeting face-to-face, you should expect the consultant to take the lead on developing the agenda for the visit.) Ask to see their non-local client list to confirm they’ve actually worked out the kinks of remote consulting. Beware of responses like, “We’ll figure these details out.” Instead, look for “Here’s the plan for addressing your issues. This is how we make sure we meet your needs.” Remember: Comfort breeds confidence.

It’s true that much of the consulting work we perform can be conducted remotely. (Much, but not all). There are times when face-to-face meetings are critical. And even if they aren’t, I always try to make a point to stop in and see our clients whenever I’m visiting a region where they’re located.

2. Have you ever fired a client? Have they ever fired you?

Ooh, this is one of my favorites. The point of the question is not to hear, “We’ve worked with a hundred clients and only one whacko in 10 years!” Although this may be an important metric, the gist of this discussion should center on how the consultant responds. I’ll be honest, if they’ve never fired a client, or been on the receiving end, then you should move to the next firm on your list. You’re trying to respectfully ascertain the firm’s transparency, conflict resolution skills and – most importantly – their character and honesty.

I’ve never been asked this question by a company evaluating Export Solutions. However, I’d be very willing to speak plainly about one or two situations over the years – what happened and how we handled it. I’m very proud of our firm’s integrity regarding these tough scenarios. (Also, be wary if the consultant is a name dropper – especially about difficult clients. Tomorrow they may be talking about you!)

3. What kind of legal agreements do we need to sign?

Most export consulting firms will operate off a standard service agreement or proposal. I wish I could look every new client in the eye, shake their hand and move forward on the premise of “My word is my bond.” But I also recognize that we don’t live in La-La-Land. It’s important to set a good contract in place which discusses topics like confidentiality, scope, payments, intellectual property, work delivery and more. You want to ensure that the consultant you’re about to hire is ready to do business and they’ve “been here before.”

At the same time, beware of an export consultant who’s ready to send you an agreement after spending 10 minutes on the phone. There are many times when someone will ask for our proposal or contract, and I’ll suggest they talk to references and internal stakeholders first, then regroup for another meeting in a few days or a week. If the client’s needs are outside our scope of expertise, we inform them of this and then make recommendations for where they can get help. It is more important to find a relationship that works best for both parties, than it is to immediately begin talking about price and payment terms. If all you’re looking for is a proposal, then I’ll happily refer you to someone else.

4. How will my project be managed? How will it be prioritized among your other clients?

If the consultant says, “You’ll be our top priority,” then run for the door. It either means (1) they only have one client – that’s you; or (2) they’re lying. (And in either case, move on.) The reality is that most export compliance consulting firms will have multiple projects going at once. This is expected, and it’s not the end of the world. What you want to ascertain here is how organized the consultant is and how they’ll manage the work. How will they ensure that your deadlines and deliverables don’t fall through the cracks? Who’s going to oversee the effort? What team members will be involved? What tools will be used to manage your work? What if one team member is sick or on vacation?

Consider this: If you’re talking to three different consulting firms, and all three promise to follow-up with you in a few days, but only one actually does, then what does that say about the reliability and organization of the other two? Do you think you’ll be treated any differently when you become their client? For us, this is about having adequate resources to back-up each team member, and creating a detailed project plan for every client – one that includes scope, deliverables, responsibilities, etc., and which is communicated with all parties involved. We also use online project management software which is reviewed every week during our team staff meetings – client by client – to ensure that all deliverables are on track and nothing is missed.

5. What are the last three conferences you attended on export compliance?

Let’s give them at least one easy question, OK? The previous four questions can be quite daunting, so asking about their professional development should provide some balance.

As with most professions, a commitment to continual improvement is key. For export compliance, this is not just a good idea – it’s 100% critical to success. Despite what many people think, import/export regulations are constantly changing, as are the government agencies responsible for them. If your prospective consultant can’t quickly name one or two meetings they’ve attended, it could be a sign of status quo (or worse) a belief that they have it all figured out. However, if you can’t get the export consultant to shut up about where they’ve been and what they’ve learned, then you’ll quickly get a sense of their commitment for continual growth.

Ultimately, isn’t that why you’re looking for a consultant in the first place? If you had time and resources to figure these regulations out on your own, then you would! You want a consultant that is continually refining their skills and developing new ones, because – trust me – this is a burden your organization doesn’t want to carry alone.

Take the time, because you’re worth it.

Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I’ll spend the first four hours sharpening the ax.” Choosing your company’s export consultant can be viewed in the same way. The time you spend focusing on relationships and finding the best fit for your organization will pay huge dividends when it comes time to actually "chop down the tree.”

If you want an export consultant that will positively change your organization and its bottom line, then take the time to develop a solid relationship during the interview process. Your business deserves nothing less.

Don Buehler is founder and president of Export Solutions, Inc., a consultancy firm which specializes in helping companies comply with ITAR and EAR.