Monday, February 08, 2010

For Business Owners: 6 Tips for Communicating with Consultants Effectively

There are hundreds of blogs posts, links, e-books, ads, and web sites focused on connecting consultants with clients. Yet relatively little is written about how we can best communicate in the prospecting stage of the relationship to make sure that the deliverables are clear, the goals defined, the timelines established, and that the relationship will be a good fit.

From my experience on the service provider side being a communications specialist, I have worked with a wide variety of entrepreneurs and business owners and they have all had a range of communication styles when explaining what they need. Some of them talk around the specific problem they are having because they may not be certain what it is yet. Some are so focused on the deliverable that they may not be seeing the big picture. In other words, what they say they want may not quite be it. Others may be so rushed that all they have time for is a quick e-mail that barely describes the project, and then want us to take it from there. Yipes!

On the consultant side, we can do a lot to help guide clients in how to work together most effectively and offer effective solutions and possibilities. Does the client really want a new brochure, or is the real problem that their web site content needs improvement? Do they need to be doing a new video, blog post, and newsletter every week, or is the real challenge the integration of these tools into a cohesive message?

There is quite a bit of mutual education that goes on between client and consultant, particularly in the face of a complex or involved project. Clients might need education on how specific tools and programs work, and what realistic results they might expect. Consultants need to educate clients on their budget, work style, and any specifics relative to their institution or work. In the case of writing, a style sheet should be provided to serve as a guideline to the consultant. If other relevant people are involved in the project, the consultant should be introduced to them.

Clients as well, can follow these 5 guidelines when communicating with prospective consultants before hiring them and signing contracts:

  1. The What before the How
    Define your goals clearly and don't get too caught up in the process at the initial stages. A good consultant will point you to the best way to achieve your goals, and will let you know if they specialize in the area you are looking for. For example, instead of saying, "I need a new blogging program using Blogger," state what you are really wanting. "I want to expand my online brand and presence with a blog, and I'm looking for the best platform that suits my needs," for example.

  2. Be Honest, Clear, and Realistic About Your Deadlines
    Don't tell your consultant that you're in a rush with your project, and then take off to the Caribbean for 3 weeks. Conversely, don't say that you're flexible with deadlines and have several months to work with, when in reality you only have a few weeks.

  3. Communicate the Relevant Information about Your Business
    You do not need to relate every detail about your business to the consultant, nor do either of you have time for this. Focus on the relevant details, such as: what goals you are and are not achieving, your audience and desired audience, major accomplishments, and major challenges. If it is relevant, you can also communicate about recent projects that did or did not work well, and provide your view on why those outcomes happened. This can provide valuable background information to marketing consultants looking to get a feel for your business and future strategies.

  4. Expect detailed contracts or agreements from consultants, expect to
    have to sign them, and expect to pay an initial deposit.
    Business owners who may not have worked with consultants before, or who perhaps are working with a friend of a friend or someone who has referred them, may think an informal e-mail or a friendly "smoke signal" means all is good to go. Not so! A written contract or agreement protects both parties, and is an absolute must before moving forward. A good contract defines the terms of service, the fees and payments agreement, the deliverables, and any other conditions or preferences deemed necessary to finalize the relationship. It also provides a useful reminder of the details or stages of the project, which can come in handy for a longer or more complex project. A contract can also help illustrate the detailed phases of a project that the client might not know exist until that point. If writing services are involved, for example, the contract will specify how many revisions are included with the fee, which is very important for clients to know. I have heard many unpleasant stories of consultants having to turn in multiple revisions or even variations of the original project, costing them valuable time they had not anticipated. Regarding budget, whenever money and fees are involved, a contract is also a must, and it is considered standard practice to pay a deposit amount (usually half the full amount) at the time of signing.

  5. Spend the time at the outset to discuss the details - it will pay off later on.
    A little extra time spent at the outset of a project will pay off greatly later on. Rushing your needs will only confuse the consultant. Most consultants like me offer a free hour to listen to you. During these times, I make it a point to get my notebook out, keep quiet, and save my comments and questions for the end. If your prospective consultant offers this option, make good use of it.

  6. Don't change your deliverables midstream.
    Think through your goals well enough beforehand so that by the time you have a proposal in front of you, it reflects what you truly want. Be aware that if you make changes, your consultant will require written amendments to the contract that you both sign off on. This is to benefit both of you, and is standard protocol. If you have an entirely new project that stems off your current one, or variations that you did not expect, it's best to establish separate timelines and agreements on these.

    I'd like to hear from anyone else, either on the client or consultant side, who has tips to share on creating effective working relationships, as well as any pitfalls you managed to avoid?

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