Most small- to mid-sized builders hire two kinds of information technology (IT) specialists. Many have a person who manages routine IT matters such as getting employees up on Windows XP, e-mail, and remote access connections. But builders also hire product-specific consultants who can guide them through a BuildSoft, NewStar, or Timberline deployment, critical back-office business systems that can make or break a company.

By far, the technology person who can have the most impact on your company is the product-specific consultant who manages a back-office deployment. These systems are expensive—often in excess of $50,000—so an unsuccessful deployment can set a builder back years.

“The problem is too many builders view a product-specific consultant as an [unnecessary] expense as opposed to an insurance policy,” says Craig Schweikart, a consultant with Shinn Consulting, who guides builders through technology projects. He points out that a product-specific consultant typically costs around $10,000 for a first visit and roughly $1,000 to $5,000 for an annual retainer fee. But it's money well spent, particularly if you consider the months—or even years—that can be lost on a bad software implementation. You can bet your sharpest competitors are willing to spend the money.

Here's a list of tips that will help you make the right choice for your company:

Hire someone with residential experience. Ask them if they've ever worked on a residential job before. Commercial construction tends to attract more technically oriented people; someone who has never worked on the residential side may not be prepared for how low the level of computer knowledge is among residential supers. Also, stay away from pure technology people, they have no clue what your business is about and aren't equipped to deal with your supers. One good question to ask them is if they've had any experience with builders who buy the square or by the sheet as opposed to lump sum. Experienced consultants know that residential purchasing is very detailed.

Treat the interview as if you were hiring a full-time employee. The consultant you bring in will become as important to your company as the controller or a project superintendent. Except for situations in which you are moving data from one software package over to another, you want to hire someone who's a specialist on the software you've selected. Find out how busy the consultant is. If you need him frequently, are you satisfied that he's going to be available? And, if he's not available, are there people above him or below him who can fill in? Another good question is to ask the prospective consultant what his role is in the deployment. If he can't get specific, for example, telling you how he will handle product codes, you probably want to stay away.

Find someone who understands the building process. A good question to ask a consultant is how he would handle the processing of change orders and purchase orders. If he talks about how the goal is for the company's supers to manage exceptions and move the company to automated payments, then you've found your consultant. A big red flag is if the person starts talking in terms of results, such as improved profits or reduced cycle time, and doesn't take the time to ask you how your company handles change orders, purchase orders, or scheduling.

Hire a consultant with vision. If you sit with a consultant and all he does is explain your vision back to you, then it's time to end the interview. The perfect consultant is the person who can offer a bridge from the strategic plan your management team drew up to the deployment that will be executed by the software company. If he or she can't articulate the relationship between the back-office and the field super and his vision for how those jobs will change after a technology deployment, then you need to find someone else.