Consultants, gee how many are out there? Hundreds, thousands. It probably seems more like millions to most dealers these days. Just what is a consultant anyway?

Webster defines a consultant as “one who gives professional or technical advice.” I have heard it defined as “someone who stirs things up, but has an airplane ticket home.”

It seems change always stirs things up. There are some ways to minimize the pain of a consultant-induced change. But first, just what kinds of consultants are out there?

They may be independent business people, a part of a huge general consulting company, a part of a national or state dealer association, or a smaller organization specializing in automobile dealerships.

Some different types of consultants quickly come to mind. These include:

Cash management advisors, certified public accountants, succession planners, finance and insurance advisors, life insurance agents, property insurance agents, property tax consultants, executive recruiters, psychologists, architects, sales market analysts, 20 group facilitators, parts department consultants, service department consultants, body shop consultants, used car sales consultants, new car sales consultants, corporate attorneys, labor attorneys, dealership brokers, statisticians, telephone system consultants, dealership computer consultants.

And on and on. Whew, what a list.

Here's some advice on how to choose the right consultant. Some of the things to look for may be more important than others and the importance may vary on the area of need.

Look for consultants with experience working with car dealers. If the consultant has no such experience, perhaps he or she has similar experience in another industry. Ask prospects how they stay abreast of changes within the industry. Determine how long they've been in business.

Consider the size of the consultant's organization. It should be large enough that it's not dependent on one or two people, but small enough to give you personalized attention.

Audition the consultant on the telephone or in person. Many consultants are also frequent speakers at twenty group meetings, seminars and conventions. Ask for a tape of one of the consultant's presentations. If others in your 20 group are interested in the same area, perhaps an invitation to speak at your next meeting should be extended.

Always ask for and verify references. These should include other dealers and consultants in other areas of expertise. Ask these reference sources if they would recommend this consultant to their son or daughter.

When comparing consultants do not just look at the cost, but consider the cost vs. the benefit desired.

Always make sure you are comparing apples and apples. It is helpful to prepare a written “Request for Proposal” which specifically defines your needs and desires.

Ask if the consultant offers a “money-back” guarantee. If so, have him document the conditions. Many consultants offer unconditional money-back guarantees in certain situations. Get input from the applicable members of your dealership.

After considering all the information you have gathered, make the decision. Your personal support is crucial in the successful strategy changes developed with the consultant.

Now that you have chosen a consultant, let's discuss how to use one. It is very important that the consultant not only understand his area of expertise, but also this expertise as it applies to the dealer.

Many consultants are quick to give advice and reluctant to listen. Insist that the consultant listen to and repeat your concerns and desires. Review and perhaps modify the Request for Proposal.

Also, you should always make sure the consultant is free to tell you his honest thoughts. That freedom of expression allows the dealer access to unrestrained knowledge.

It is also important that the consultant build a working relationship with the dealer and his or her personnel.

Often dealership personnel are able to help in developing a plan or solution with guidance from the consultant. Ask the consultant to provide you with a detailed written report of the change strategy.

The use of consultants can offer great value to you and your dealership. They can bring fresh new ideas to your organization that often those within the organization are too close to see. Ideally, consultants are idea brokers. The very nature of their job sends them into many dealerships where they may see many similar problems and similar solutions.

Finally, as word of caution, always give the consultant's advice the smell test. Does it make sense for your organization? Does it fit your vision of your dealership? Consultants can be a tremendous asset to your dealership — choose and use them wisely.

Don Ray is a Senior Member of the George B. Jones Dealer Services division of Dixon Odom PLLC, a national accounting and consulting group for automobile dealers. He's at 901-684-5643 and