Insight from the experts, part 4

Choosing a catering consultant is not something to be undertaken lightly, says Sue Parfett, managing partner of The Brookwood Partnership

These days we are all dealing with more bureaucracy; costs are increasing whilst margins and prices are under pressure. When we need occasional professional help it is natural to turn to specialist consultants. The catering service in a school can be one of the largest budget areas and, like technology; there is an investment in changing arrangements. So it is only reasonable that if you are to look to someone to help you assist with this, you should also take this appointment seriously.

Of course, I don’t want to commit commercial suicide, so I’m not naming names. I did a period of catering consultancy myself, and sitting on another side of the fence now, it is possible to judge how various consultants perform and identify indicators as to which ones work best for their client. 

Select your long list
We all spend a lot less on a washing machine, often with more research. Of course you can get independent advice on washing machines from organisations like Which? You can ask around, ask your professional association, respond to telemarketing, it is even possible to refer to industry organisations such as the Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI). Organisations such as this have a code of conduct and a list of several members, all of whom have the ability to assist with catering services. 

Choose a short list
You now need to assess some key factors. Your approach to suppliers should be reflected in your consultant working on your behalf. Keep your information general and brief. Ask for details of similar projects and follow these up. Also question if is important that they are truly impartial. Some consultants have services within their organisation (or are paid by others) that they may want to offer as part of the solution. Is that what you want? All this can be covered by email. You may get calls to clarify your search, but deselect any that want to bypass the process. If I see a potential candidate that has misled me on a direct question, I am unlikely to end up hiring them, so you need to have clarity in the answers. 

Final selection
What you want to avoid is a consultant who “borrows your watch to tell you the time”. A good consultant should provide you with the expertise to make a decision, so when meeting your shortlist candidates have a written summary of your catering services and the issues you have – for example, changes coming up and how you best see them assisting, the time scale etc. Who will do the work and what indicators will they look at? Keep it general and brief: think about how you want them to respond and any details of insurances and references. Take them on a tour of the facilities or involve other key people, but keep it neutral. Use an interviewer’s 80:20 principle: let them do 80 per cent of the talking. Keep it short until you have selected the one you think will work best for you. And by that I mean – will they take on your priorities as their priorities?

Having followed up references and finalised costs, payments and details of their methodology with your chosen consultant, you can then appoint them and confidently get on with the task. 

So as the saying goes “what good is running when you are on the wrong road?” Great things can come from taking the time to choose the right person as your consultant, so choose carefully and wisely and they will help put you in control and get you on the right road to the destination you want.

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