The first part in this series starts with how the Client ended up where they did and then focuses on what do to next, understanding the consultants’ expertise and bringing on the right consultant.
My organizational experience comprises corporate, agency and consultancy primarily in healthcare communications so most of my insights are based on those areas. However, much of working with a consultant is generic to many industries so much of this can apply across the board. Having worked with consultants while in-house either at an agency or corporation then being a consultant now close to 10 years I realize part of the success of being a consultant is based on the “how” to do it and not always the “what” you’re working on. While there are many different kinds of consultants, it is a business but without the traditional business model or guidance you have with other organizations. So I thought it would be helpful to share my insights and recommendations on working with a consultant – starting with recognizing when you need one.
But first…how did we get here?
Over the last decade, Communications functions in corporate healthcare have ballooned from such traditional areas as marketing communications, product public relations and internal communications to include patient advocacy, corporate public relations, corporate responsibility, external relations and “whatever senior leadership trusts you to do.” The problem is that your staff and budget haven’t proportionally increased.
As a Client, at this stage you have barely kept things moving…but now one new project has been added and it’s taken on the characteristics of a flood – it just takes 2-3 more inches of rain to cause the entire system to break down. Well you’re there now, what do you do?
Client Tip: A rule of thumb I used to recognize if I needed help on a project was to determine if it would take more than 2 hours to complete. Two hours is arbitrary – it was a number that helped me distinguish between a ‘quick’ project and one that would take so much time that I might not be able to complete projects on my performance objectives. And remember – the projects on your performance objectives are the ones against which you are evaluated.
1. What do I do?
Where to go for help? Your colleagues, co-workers or staff are swamped too. Right now, you’re so overwhelmed it’s kind of hard to even scope out the kind of help you need. What about your public relations agency – they’re smart, you have a good relationship with them, and more importantly you have a service agreement with them!
But think on that because they may not have the right skill or expertise to work on this project. They do a good job in public relations, but this is different. In effect, you need a clone of someone in your position and having the agency might also be overkill and potentially take a lot more of your time to manage. So, what about a consultant and how do you find one?
You contact the ‘normal’ consultant you work with but he or she is too busy. Ask them who they suggest – consultants tend to touch base periodically with each other and they may know who can help. I have many times provided the names of other consultants for work that for one reason or another was not right for me. I’ve also suggested agencies. I feel strongly that consulting is a valuable business within the healthcare industry so I want people to use consultants to build the overall consultancy market. So, I’m happy to recommend.
But…if you haven’t worked with one before, or the ones you’ve worked with haven’t been right, then obviously ask your colleagues, your co-workers, and ask your agency. Likely the agency will suggest someone who works well with them – but that’s a good thing. Chances are the consultant has to work with the agency on something and you’d rather they get along well. A good consultant – one that is independent or has a small staff – is never going to compete with an agency of scope or size so it should be a complementary relationship.
Another option? Try the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA). A number of consultants are members so it may be a good place to start.
Client Tip: Some consultants are doing this until a full-time job with an organization or agency pops up. It’s not to say you can’t use them but more to say make sure if it’s a long-term project either they can finish it or help you identify someone who can pick it up if they do find a new job. Don’t NOT work with a good person because they may be looking for another job. Just go in with your eyes open and work that situation to your benefit.
2. Understand the consultants’ expertise
Consultants have expertise – some can work well in an organization (such as corporate, agency or foundation); some have a specific skill set (media relations, patient advocacy, writing, event management or even market research), and some have a mix. Also, you may need someone to work onsite over a period of time (like covering for someone who is out with a medical issue).
For example, if you need someone to manage the process of bringing on a new agency, you might want to bring on someone who has worked at length at an agency. If you need someone to prepare some copy for some newsletters, you likely only need a writer. But if you need someone to be “you,” and that means to work on the projects you can’t because you’re too busy, then you probably need a consultant who has had experience in the same kind of organization. Clearly, ask for their resume, their bio or their CV.
Client Tip: If you can distinguish between needing someone to manage an entire project versus a component of the project that will help define the kind of expertise you need. Realize though that if you bring someone on to manage only a portion of the project, you still have that project on your plate. Importantly, try to recognize what you need not to complete that project, but to complete your performance objectives. That will help dictate the kind of consultant you need.
3. The Right Consultant
To make your life less complicated and to get the work done, focus on getting the most appropriate consultant rather than the lowest cost option. Why? You hire a consultant because you do not have time or the expertise. The more time you spend getting a consultant to understand how to do something, the less value they provide. In the short term, they may cost less money, but they have cost you the opportunity to complete your objectives and that will have a greater impact on how leadership evaluates you for advancement.
Client Tip: Remember – you are hiring a consultant because you don’t have enough time to get the work done or because they have a specific area of expertise you need. Don’t skimp on quality. The best consultants will make your life easier, not harder. Generally, hire the most appropriate consultant rather than the one with the lowest cost. Sometimes they are the same.
Once you have identified the consultant or potential consultants, you need to speak with them to find out the very basic information:
- Do they have a conflict?
- Do they have time?
Even if they are swamped, if this is the right consultant ask if there current workload or conflict will be over soon. If the consultant can start work in say 2 weeks and that works for you and it’s someone you really want to work with – give it the two weeks. It’s unlikely you’ll get someone as good in that time period and you’ll just regret not having waited. If you can’t, then you can’t.
Once you have determined there is no conflict with this consultant and they have time, you need to lay out the scope of the project to see if there is a right fit. Following are some basic areas to discuss:
- Broad scope of the work (e.g., managing an issue, writing, media relations)
- Expertise needed (e.g., product recall, experience in-house to manage the program)
- Timeframes and whether onsite support is needed
- Expectations for project management (work independently, through the Client, direct with people in the organization)
- Confidentiality Agreement! So you can have a broader discussion
Consultant Tip: If you do not think it’s in your wheelhouse, let the Client know. Provide a few topline examples of similar work and how you normally work to ensure your styles match and finally — schedule a time to meet with the client so you can walk through the project. Face to face is best so you understand the environment in which the Client works and the challenges they face.
Client Tip: If you don’t have one, get a simple, simple, simple Confidentiality Agreement to allow you to download with the Consultant. This can get the project moving quickly. If It contains too much information, the Consultant will likely have to have a lawyer review it or edit it and that takes time before the first download. The most important thing at this stage is confidentiality so just focus on that.
Consultant Tip: Might not be bad to develop one you can share with a Client that doesn’t have one – such as smaller Clients and some agencies.
Next: Downloading and de-briefing with the consultant. And…Getting that paperwork moving.
Please please please share your insights as well and maybe we can provide each other a “how to” guide on working with consultants.