Everything to know before hiring a machine learning consulting firm

January 7, 2023

You're probably here because you want help implementing an Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Machine Learning (ML) system in your organization. Companies today are rushing to jump on the AI bandwagon to improve their products and services by using intelligent systems to streamline daily operations. After all, AI can boost business productivity by 40%.

But not all organizations may have the resources and time to build AI or ML solutions in-house. From gathering data, and creating a model, to deploying it in production, the ML pipeline is long and bumpy. Most companies will find it beneficial to get specialized services from ML consulting firms that possess the required skillset, knowledge, and expertise to help them throughout their ML journey. 

However, finding a suitable firm is yet another challenge, as there are several variables that companies must consider before tying their capital with a prospective candidate. This article gives some insightful guidelines to make the hunt for a consultancy firm easier.

What is ML consultancy, and why you may need it?

AI or ML consultancy firms have experts with industry-specific know-how who help you design, implement, and organically integrate AI solutions into your business’ tech stack.

Consultants have sound theoretical and practical knowledge of AI/ML capabilities, such as predictive analytics, data science, natural language processing (NLP), computer vision (CV), process automation, voice-enabled technology, etc.

They can provide use-case-specific advice while identifying opportunities and potential loopholes. Through a detailed evaluation of your data sources, software and hardware infrastructure, and the overall tech ecosystem, they help you implement sustainable AI systems and workflows effectively. 

It's a good idea to get a consulting firm, even if you are already working on an AI or ML project, as the firm can bring a new perspective to the table. They can provide a holistic solution and develop a strategic roadmap to set direction and goals. More importantly, they can help you streamline and improve your data processes which is an integral part of any ML or AI project.

Over the long term, they can support you in building a solid internal data science team to maintain the solution provided.

How to choose a Machine Learning Consulting Firm?

Assess the Nature and Complexity of your Project

Budding project managers may not truly understand the nuances of an AI or ML project and overlook hidden details regarding the nature and complexity of the problem. Often, such projects involve other aspects of IT operations, such as networking, cloud or edge computing, Internet of Things (IoT), etc. The implication here is for the organization to hire a consultant who, besides being an AI expert, understands such dimensions of the problem and can proactively participate in the budgeting and planning process.

Additionally, the task involves identifying all the stakeholders and meeting to discuss the problem to solve and whether it needs AI or ML. Most companies want to put AI components in their tech stack to seem modern and improve customer outreach by highlighting that they use AI even if the problem were solvable otherwise.

Ask yourself what sort of data you might need and what kind of software you would require. What would be the expected incremental benefit in terms of Return-on-investment? If it's not much, it's wise to go for a more straightforward alternative.

Develop a plan outlining the AI solution's goals, timelines, challenges, and benefits. By the end of the exercise, you should know what you want and in which areas you require external help.

Your Budget 

A natural extension of the previous step will be to see if you have the required finances to get an external consulting firm. It's usually tempting to go for the most expensive option as a high price may reflect high quality. But armed with a thorough understanding of your project's requirements, you should start thinking about the costs of hiring a firm.

At the same time, keep in mind that the popularity of AI and ML isn't helping bring down the price consulting firms currently charge. So be realistic in your estimations, as it is wiser to spend some extra dollars to get a viable solution rather than save a few bucks and settle with a sub-optimal service. 

An excellent way to start is to break down the project or problem into specific milestones or parts and estimate how much it would cost if you carried each out internally. Of course, it will be a challenging job segmentation as you may lack the required expertise to delineate all the tasks involved. Still, it would give you a reasonable ballpark estimate and help you negotiate the price with the consulting firm. You can then shortlist some consulting firms that fall within your budget.

Assessment of experience and portfolio

Most firms you shortlist will likely have extensive portfolios on their websites involving several projects and clients. Your budget may allow you to go for big brands as they will probably boast a high number of jobs done and a large customer base. But this is where you have to pry into the details to see if the firms' experiences match your criteria, as you may have a specific problem requiring a unique solution.

Always be mindful that deep knowledge of ML and AI is not all that you require. Consultancy firms often use big buzzwords to convince clients that they are the experts, but you'll have to dig deeper to see the reality. Knowledge of your industry is just as essential for the firm as there can be many industry-specific challenges that mainstream ML or AI algorithms can't solve. 

Assessment of reputation

A list of completed ML projects may not suffice when judging the quality of the consulting firm. It's not only the final ML solution that matters but the journey the firm takes its clients through. Especially in today's highly regulated marketplace, the consulting firm should be wary of ethical standards while delivering its service and provide a high level of transparency, so the client understands all the risks. 

Checking customer reviews on the firm's website is one way to get started. But it would be surprising if a firm puts a negative review on its website. So another option is to check independent review websites such as Clutch, G2, Glassdoor, etc., which give detailed ratings on aspects such as customer support, technical expertise, cost, etc., along with genuine customer reviews.

Social media profiles can be another source of information as they can tell you how involved the firm is with the community and get an idea of how well the firm responds to clients' queries or handles complaints. LinkedIn is also a reliable place to gain insights regarding a firm's culture, values, mission, vision, etc., and also see clients' profiles.

Firm's management alignment with your ideas

It's usual to have clashes between the firm’s management and your management, especially when implementing solutions that fall in the high-risk, high-return domain. Convincing the firm's management to help you with such ideas takes time and effort. You should ensure that the administration is flexible enough to accommodate changes and willing to take calculated risks.

Of course, ensuring this is easier said than done, as only time will tell how versatile the firm's management is. But some obvious ways to go about the problem is to have detailed sessions with the management, talk to them about the risks involved, and see how far they are willing to help you. Ironically, larger firms may be reluctant to go the extra mile as their management can be pretty conservative about untested solutions and care more about their reputation. 

The real test here is how committed you are to your project's goals, as consultancy firms can have the knack for swaying you from your original idea and molding it in a way that suits their requirements. Common red flags are when a firm gives more suggestions rather than asking the right questions to help you achieve your goals.

Consultancy's work culture

We all see words like "innovative," "inclusive," "transparent," etc., written on a firm's website to convince prospective clients how positive a firm's work environment is, where all ideas are welcome, and no one is afraid to say no.

But is it the truth, or are these mere words lacking actual commitment? What sort of working values does the firm foster? Are employees well taken care of?

Asking the tough questions directly will go a long way in establishing a trustworthy and mutually beneficial relationship. Customer reviews, social media profiles, and employee satisfaction ratings are some ways to determine work culture. But asking questions regarding policies and standard operating procedures in case things get challenging can also reveal how committed the firm is to its values.

Documentation and communication process

Working with a consultancy firm is not a one-way road where you provide the project details, the firm delivers the solution, and you pay the firm for its services. It rarely happens that the process is linear. Instead, there can be excessive back and forth between you and the firm where you revise and re-draft the project brief, change your expectations, ask the firm to reconsider its priorities, etc.

Several documents will circulate between you and the firm outlining the progress, problems, staffing details, costs, technical requirements, feasibility reports, and more. If the firm lacks proper documentation etiquette, it will only be a matter of time before things get out of control. So always enquire about the firm's documentation procedures and communication channels to ensure smooth workflows.

Sustainability of the solutions provided

With the current rate of technological progress, solutions developed today will soon become obsolete. Expecting a solution that works with the existing infrastructure will also be applicable tomorrow is idealistic. And this brings us to the final thing you must check before engaging with a consultancy firm - assessing the solutions' sustainability. 

Making a solution future-proof is challenging but necessary to ensure your business remains competitive. A consultant with a track record for providing good technical customer support even after the job is done is one way to ensure your solution will remain up-to-date. Through constant communication in the form of newsletters or personalized emails, the consultant can inform you of the relevant updates and help install the latest software if needed.

Also, you can enquire about the algorithms, the software, the data, training and testing procedures, etc. You can also ask how often the firm trains its workforce with the latest tools. The firm's blogs and social media posts can also provide valuable insights regarding its awareness of the newest ML or AI trends.

Unleashing AI

There's certainly a lot that goes into consideration before getting an ML consultant. But you should now have a pretty good idea of what you must know before hiring one. And if you're considering starting your journey with Unleashing AI, you are more than welcome to contact us for initial conversations to get started on the right track.

Located in the heart of Dubai, Unleashing AI consists of a small team of engineers and scientists with diverse AI and ML experience working for companies like Google, Amazon, Ycombinator startups and other top-world companies. Our specializations include GPT-3 development, Natural Language Processing (NLP), and ML software development. So if you're searching for a reliable consultant to stay with you till the bitter end, book your slot now!

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