Focus and coherence within a communications consultancy are easily hampered by choosing the wrong work, too eagerly becoming an order taker, systems that don’t flex to meet client needs and myriad other challenges. After six years in business and a few more grey hairs, here are six approaches we have learned to stay sane at the business level and day-to-day when serving clients.
Take the work you want, leave the rest to others
This is one of the reasons I started the company. I wanted work that I found challenging and meaningful. Leaving money on the table isn’t always easy, especially when a company grows and more people are reliant on the business. Yet, if the feeling isn’t there for the work or if bad feelings surface about a potential client, it’s best to move on. Going through the motions on a job usually doesn’t end well.
We had a client once who told me during our first meeting that he didn’t want to know what stakeholders expected from communications. He implied we were stupid for mentioning it. We should have walked right there.
Fill the vacuum
Often communications consultants enter situations where objectives are ambiguous and direction is difficult to ascertain. Believe it or not, we have had clients realize they need a business plan after reviewing a draft communications plan. That’s not how it works in the text books, but sometimes that is real life.
If the client has good intentions and they have come to us for help, we will help them, even if we sometimes have to be surrogate business management consultants. In these instances, clients are typically grateful when a communications planning process exposes gaps in business planning. This also shows that communications is a critical component of business and in no way is ‘a nice to have’ or a ‘soft’ consideration only to be done when budgets are ample.
Don’t stop asking questions
Even after an exhaustive research and discovery program, it is amazing what a consultant can continue to learn about a client and stakeholders crucial to that client by continuing to ask tough questions. It may be tedious, but sometimes a crucial nugget of context or a key fact can make the difference between a successful initiative and a credibility-damaging error.
Projects are good – long-lasting relationships are better
This seems obvious, but to help clients achieve long-term success, staying connected to the people and the plan are paramount. We have had clients who, after working with us – and usually because of our recommendations and guidance – have hired communications staff or expanded their corporate communications department.
When they have kept us as part of the team as advisers, mentors and sometimes extra horsepower, we have seen great results. We continue to meaningfully contribute to planning and fire up the communications SWAT team when issues arise, keeping the client’s objectives and reputation intact.
Flex to different communication styles
This sounds easy for anyone calling themselves a communications consultant. Still, it is sometimes trickier than imagined. We have had clients who peppered us with questions at every turn. We have had clients who have unflinchingly followed every word of our advice.
When starting a new client relationship, it’s imperative to figure out where on the spectrum a lead client contact(s) falls and set out a reporting framework that will satisfy his or her needs. Disaster looms if that contact feels out of the communication loop.
Focus on outcomes
When situations are tough, clients unhappy and the trolls exploding the Twitter feed, adapt the plan if needed and stay focused on the ultimate outcome. Don’t let momentary anger or ego protection hinder delivering on what was agreed to at the start. Achieving the desired results is what communications consultants are paid for and what keeps customers over the long term.
As a bonus bit of advice, remember to have fun. I have had a great time, enjoy the excellent people who work with me and am excited about what the next six years will bring – grey hair and all.
By Jim Rudolph