For years I made fun of people who consulted with credit unions and banks. And then I became one (as part of what we do at On The Mark Strategies). As Robert Townsend, author of Up the Organization says, “consultants are people who borrow your watch and tell you what time it is, and then walk off with the watch.”

The reality is financial institutions do need help and outside perspective. But how do you know what makes a good consultant? Here are a few key traits:

(1)   Partner—A true consultant is not a vendor. If you feel they are a vendor, then run away (far away). You should do business with someone you can trust. It may sound cliché, but good business is about relationships.

(2)   Expert—You should hire experts, not service providers. If you need help in a particular area (lending, technology, marketing, planning, etc.) make sure the people you are working with don’t just have surface level or buzzword knowledge. Consultants who use all the latest buzzwords and blow smoke are the ones to avoid.

(3)   Real—When working at a financial institution, I had a terrible sales experience from a vendor that wanted our business (see the post “Smarmy Sales Guys are Dead.” If all they talk about are themselves then that is what they care about: themselves.

(4)   Experience—The better they know your business the better they can help you. If a financial institution consultant has never worked a real job in a financial institution then they probably don’t understand your business as thoroughly as possible. And if they need experience, give them an opportunity to work on your teller line for a day.

(5)   Honest—The best consultants will get in your face and not always agree with you. In fact, they will be your frienemy: someone who will love you and challenge you at the same time.

Obviously, I’m biased on the above points (that’s me trying to live point number five!). A really good consultant can improve your credit union’s or bank’s growth. A really bad one can waste your precious resources.