Clients and consultants: Thoughts

We take a break from the nonstop dumpster fire that is the ongoing news from 2020 to return to some more mundane work topics. Today’s topic: consultants.

In thinking about today’s topic, I unearthed a blog post I had written, based on a session I led at the Communications Network conference several years ago. The session focused on bringing together consultants who worked for foundations and the foundation staff who employ them, to share perspectives. We divided the room between consultants and foundation staff and each side put together a list of suggestions on how best to interact with the other. It was a great deal of fun (we wore costumes, b/c one of my co-session leaders rightly insisted on it).

Back when I put together the session, I was a foundation staffer; today, I’m a consultant who works primarily with foundations and corporate social responsibility clients. Now that I’ve spent some time on both sides, I thought it was an opportune time to share a hodge-podge of observations gleaned during this latest freelance stint. I don’t know if my observations are universally shared. In general, that’s how this blog works: rather than rigorously research a concept before putting it out there and making a book and a TED talk out of it, I like to just throw my thoughts together and put ‘em out there in case someone, somewhere finds them useful. It’s like those little mailbox libraries: maybe you will come and find something interesting, maybe you won’t.

FOR CONSULTANTS: A bunch of my friends, when entering the consulting space, have shared their prospectuses and websites and LinkedIn profiles with me, and the number #1 piece of advice I’ve given them is: you have to be able to describe what you can do for a client and why they might find it valuable. I know: it sounds so simple, right? But in my field, “communications” can mean everything and anything, and oftentimes, the people who want to hire you to do something have much less of an idea as to what that term means than you do.

Many would-be clients, when they want to hire you, are not yet at the stage where they have a clear strategic approach for what they want to accomplish and know exactly how your contribution would advance that strategy. More often than not, they are feeling pressured to produce something, anything, for their internal and external audiences, and they are asking for your help to produce that something. Or, they are frustrated that people keep on running around their organization, saying inconsistent or incomprehensible things about the work they do, so they’d like you to somehow help people at least sound like they are working on the same set of issues, so they can connect to other people working on those issues.

When I encounter clients like this—which again, is more often than not—I try to translate my consulting work into an outcome that they might find useful. I don’t just say: “I can develop a message platform for you.” I say, “I can develop a message platform that you could then use as a base layer for your  communications. By that I mean, if you successfully get everyone to adopt and use the messages, your org’s communications might end up reflecting consistent themes and values about the work, regardless of whether you’re writing talking points for your CEO or updating your website content.”

(Has anyone else noticed that updating website content is the most universal, time-sucking, endless, ripe-for-procrastination communications task EVER?)

Or, I will say: “I can help you develop a communications plan with goals, defined audiences, strategies, and metrics—but you will have to figure out how to socialize the plan among your leaders and your colleagues, to ensure that it actually gets implemented. Unless, of course, you are hiring me to help implement it.”

FOR CLIENTS: The number one piece of advice I’ve given people on the client side, especially when I was a client, is: Hiring consultants is still work. You, the client, are responsible for managing the consultant and facilitating their work. I am always surprised at how many clients throw out consulting projects out there as a Hail Mary: they are desperate to get stuff done and they hire consultants to get something done, but it’s just like hiring a new staff person: you can’t hire someone and then ignore that person from the get-go. That newbie can’t get anything done without your orientation and guidance, and neither can the consultant.

I recently started calling myself a writer rather than a communications consultant, b/c writing is what I love to do and it also seems to be what people need the most. People need words to: tell their stories, connect with their various constituencies, and make the case for their work, internally and externally. I can produce those words! I can pretty much write anything: board memos, op-eds, position papers, message platforms, speeches, video scripts, website copy, etc., on pretty much any subject you can think of. (Well. I decided I had to understand blockchain technology the other day, and so far, I don’t understand it. It may be one of those topics that resist my understanding, like how the pick ‘n roll works in basketball.)

However: I can’t just conjure written content out of nothing. (I can, actually, but I don’t think it’s very wise or smart to do so.) I require the client’s assistance in helping me to understand who the content is for and what they hope the value of the content will be. (Do you want people to better understand your work? Do you want them to feel inspired and engaged? Do you want them to feel outraged?) To be successful at writing something, I usually want access to any and all foundational materials, like approved boilerplate on the organization’s mission and goals and values, that exist. And if you don’t have any foundational materials, then I will ask to interview key stakeholders—people who you want to say the things I’m writing and/or, people who you want to pay attention to the things I’m writing.

Out of all of the would-be clients who reached out to me in the past year and a half, 100% of them told me at the end of our first conversation that they were absolutely dying to hire me to write X, Y, and Z. And out of those conversations, approximately 50% followed up and hired me to write X, Y, and Z. While I don’t know the exact reasons why so many people did not follow up (maybe they heard something bad about me, which is entirely possible), my guess is that they got overwhelmed and didn’t have the time and energy to hire a consultant to do the work they didn’t have the time or energy to do in the first place.

FOR CONSULTANTS: Many of my FTE friends have expressed interest in leaving their jobs and becoming a consultant, but they say that certain things about being a consultant make them anxious. Like: missing being part of a team. Feeling lonely and isolated. Having to pay one’s own taxes and track one’s expenses. The “feast or famine” fear. Missing the feeling of job security, i.e., a stable, well-paying job that could go on indefinitely, circumstances permitting.

My general response to the above is: well, yeah, transitions are hard, and they get harder as you get older. And yes, all of your anxieties have considerable potential of coming true. You DO get lonely. You DO have to struggle with administrative bullcrap that you didn’t’ have to deal with before. You do have to figure out how to pay your own taxes, in most cases, and how to submit invoices so you can, you know, get paid.

What I can say now, though: What feels really hard in the beginning feels much less so, as time goes on. You get used to the administrative bullcrap. You find camaraderie through other channels. You start to love the upsides—like not having a hundred million meetings, all day, every day.

(I should note that most of the above advice applies to solo-practice consultants. When you are part of a big consulting shop, the rules are completely different.)

FOR CLIENTS: I’ve seen a wide spectrum of how clients handle relationships with consultants, just like I’ve seen a wide range in employer/employee relationships. Like: if you are a manager and you become close friends with your direct report, that’s probably okay, but you also have to remember that you are responsible for guiding this person’s development and evaluating their performance and compensation. Those are delicate dynamics to balance.

Similarly, clients can sometimes go too far in treating consultants as members of their teams, even though in many cases, the consultants are asked to contribute as de facto members of the teams.

As with romantic entanglements at work, there are laws that attempt to establish some bright-line rules between full-time and contractor employees. When clients ask to involve me in things that are outside the scope of work that we negotiated, I generally say yes, but I ask for something in writing to reflect the agreement. In other words, it may be okay to be besties with your consultants, but it’s important to remember that there’s a work agreement in place, just in case things go south.

FOR BOTH: We come now to the question of, IT COSTS WHAT, COME AGAIN? Clients often don’t know how much a project should cost, especially if the hiring person is inexperienced in communications. So they ask the consultant what their hourly rate is. And then consultants get the feeling that their hourly rates are horrifying for some potential clients, and ridiculously low for others.

This was a terribly difficult area for me to figure out, first and foremost because I hate talking about money. I hate hate hate it. My consultant friends tell me I should charge very high hourly rates b/c of my years of experience and the range of communication things I can do, but I often shrink from doing that and I struggle with knowing what some things should cost and not others, based on observations of the market and what others with similar levels of experience will do.

I really like it when the client, once we agree that I am to come on board, offers me a project fee plus expenses. Because that gives me the clearest sense of how the client views the worth of different projects. If a small nonprofit wants me to do six hundred things for six hundred dollars, that gives me a signal about what their budgetary considerations are, but it also means that they are desperate for communications assistance–and in that case, I think they should build communications into their org structure. Or, hire me to do many fewer things.

I don’t think clients—or consultants—should nickel-and-dime each other. I think that clients and consultants should have a clear sense of what an unreasonable ask is, and know how to decline those asks. I don’t think you have to be a jerk about it: a polite, no, I’m not doing that, suffices.

(Those who know me know that when I get exceedingly polite, that’s not a good sign.)

What’s the definition of an unreasonable ask, you may want to know? Oh, I have many stories from both the client and consultant side. I’m sure you do too. But it would not be politic for me to share them here, other than to say that as a writer, I’m not a big fan of when I’m hired for good writing, and then directed to do bad writing.  Even though I’m not writing these things under MY byline, it just feels like an utter waste of my time and yours.

That’s it for now. Feel free to share additional insights (from client or consultant perspectives) in the comments.