Technically, What is a Consultant?

I recently bought a new (used) car.   After 3 long days of testing vehicles—and many hours doing online research– success! But, the buying process is horrid. It should be joyful to buy something expensive that you want and need, but it can be dreadful. And most people I have talked to echoed these sentiments.

At the dealer where we finally bought from my Jeep, the sales associate we were assigned to gave us his business card, which listed his title as “Sales Consultant.”

Dictionary.com lists the definition of consultant as:

1.a person who gives professional or expert advice:

a consultant on business methods.

2.a person who consults someone or something.

I don’t use the title Consultant lightly. It’s what I do every single day at work, and I am proud of the knowledge I have to do my job. My role is to help organizations solve a problem.

All consultants have an area of expertise. If someone comes to me with a project that veers far outside my knowledge base, I will try to refer her to another firm or person who can help them.

The dealer’s “consultant” Vern (not his real name) was unable to help us fix ANYTHING. He couldn’t tell us anything about the Jeep that was not written down, help us negotiate price, give us the interest loan %, or even clean up the car.

Every question had to be referred to someone else, who was of course not standing in his glass-enclosed cubicle. I didn’t want or need to hear his unrelated stories—I just wanted to buy the car and get back to my life. Thankfully, we don’t have to deal with Vern again.

His use of the title “Consultant” was insulting to me and perpetuates the assumption that all consultants don’t offer value. Not true.

If you are looking for a consultant to work with to help you with your database and/or audience development needs , be sure that she can communicate well, stay relevant, and most importantly—collaborate and offer solutions. Hopefully the process will be smoother than what I recently experienced buying a car.

If you are looking to hire a consultant, here is a post I wrote who-what-how to start your process.

The journey continues.  C

Technology Changes: A Group Effort

Firm A: Technology specialist got a new email provider. Prior to this, there were no discussions with database management team of how to integrate this new service with their data platform. How would new or updated records be transferred, opt outs be managed, demographic changes be reflected?

Firm B: In an information services company, the marketing dept. signed a contact with a large marketing automation software company. They then turned it over to IT with the directive to implement this with their current database software. Since IT was unaware of this purchase until after the fact, no consideration had been given to if or how complicated this integration would be, whether this was a good fit, or the costs for building the data communications.

As our technology platforms multiply and get more complicated to integrate, it is imperative that teams work together to find the most appropriate, flexible, cost-effective, and user-friendly option BEFORE a contract is signed.

Multiple user groups should be involved in the final testing testing of a new system—users from events, e-media, subscriptions, membership, research. Listening to the pros and cons of this system from a variety of intelligent voices can help give a new perspective. Also, when others are consulted, I have found the buy-in to change improves. Why invest in a system that no one ends up using?

There should also be an objective project manager who keeps the process moving forward and looks out for the organization’s best interests. Often the different user groups will look at these explorations from how it impacts just their department. They are not aware how this change will impact the entire organization’s processes to hopefully streamline workloads, learn more about customers, and improve the bottom line.

The project manager can be an internal or external person. I have done this from a consultative role for several firms.  If you do hire an outside consultant, find out their relationship with the companies under consideration. While we are all familiar with different firms, I do not think that as consultants we should be financially or otherwise tied to firms we recommend, unless full disclosures are made.

And if you have yet to lay out your STRATEGY for a new database or technology platform, be sure to read my recent post on this topic.

The journey continues.   C

Narrowing the Consultant Search

Consultants, consultants, it seems like it’s raining (snowing, here in Chicago) consultants!

When you need to hire a consultant, how do you choose one from all the internet listings, online profiles, phone calls, voices in your ears?

A previous post discussed WHY you hire a consultant, which you can read here. Once you have a plan for why you want to bring in a consultant—even a rough idea, since the consultant should be able to help you to get to the details your plan—the search begins.

There are several ways you can find a reputable consultant to partner with you.

  1. Recommendations from colleagues.
  2. Search your LinkedIn network. Are there any who are recommended by people you know or respect?
  3. Someone you are familiar with from industry events.
  4. Someone who has written in industry magazines ,blogs regularly, speaks at events.

Get a few ideas. Talk to several consultants, then ask them for proposals. Questions before answers.

When you are talking to individuals, what questions do they ask? Do they have a clear direction? Do they offer ideas? Do you sense a good fit? OR–Do they try and dominate the call/meeting? Do they seem like they are talking down to you? Are they able to communicate with you? Do they have follow through?

Trust your initial intuition, but take it a step further.   Ask for references and follow through on checking them. Is their LinkedIn profile current? Does it match with what they told you? And if they don’t have a social media footprint, but that is part of the work you want them to do, what is their experience?

If they have a website, is the flow easy to follow? If they blog, is it recent? Do you agree with their direction, their tone?

If you know this person, what is their reputation?

As consultants, we all have varied life and job experiences to bring to a new project. It should be our goal to help you solve your problem. Do your upfront research well, and we can help you reach YOUR goals.

The journey continues.

C

Business Resolutions

Do you make annual business resolutions? Or an annual business plan that includes non-financial goals you want to achieve each year? This is a fantastic way for small business owners to look up from details, to envision changes they want to see within their businesses or themselves in the next year. For those who work for an organization, this will help you think about where YOU want to be in another year. Are there new skills you can learn this year to propel or change your career? People you can network with? Local organizations you can get involved with?

I have been a consultant for 15+ years. I was so focused on “getting the work done” that until 2013 I didn’t actually write down any business goals. Physically writing them down and then sharing them with others helped me to actually accomplish my 2014 goals.   I spaced them out throughout the year, so I would have time to achieve them.

The goals followed in a logical progression:

  1. Design a new logo to better reflect where I want to go, which you can see on this website. I worked with an independent designer, after laying out new business goals.  She then designed letterhead and new business cards, already in circulation.
  2. Create this company website and blog. Done.
  3. Increase social media presence.  While I have accomplished this here and on Twitter, I hope to do more to see a jump in followers in 2015.
  4. Do more outside speaking and training. I spoke at industry events, including the AAMP and MCA this fall. I was also hired to layout and present a 2-day training session for a vendor, which I did last spring.
  5. The most challenging: changing my business focus, from doing mainly hands on direct marketing work to helping with business strategies, improving clients customer relations and marketing results, building marketing databases (with outside fulfillment/IT management), and training.

The final bullet point above is still a work-in-progress. I underestimated the time it would take to change small business direction, since I feel like I am explaining to prospects WHY they need to look at their marketing in a new way. But, all my speaking and training was focused on this, and I passionately believe that we need to market smarter to improve the bottom line. I sometimes literally envision my business changing like a large ocean liner trying to change directions.  It takes time to do it without tipping.

I am now noodling around several goals for 2015, which I hope to share in the next couple weeks. Again, writing them will keep me focused and honest about them.

Have you already laid out business goals for 2015, or accomplished any in 2014 that you want to brag about ? Don’t be shy, feel free to list them below! It’s okay to be proud of the work we do, when we work hard!

The journey continues.

C

Holiday Sharing

It is a gifting time of year.  We share sentiments, cards, gifts, money, time.  As a business owner, I think it’s important to show my customers special appreciation each holiday season.  Frankly, I am surprised each year that fewer of my suppliers say “thank you” at all, even via a card.  It is a simple way to strengthen relationships, market our companies, and stay front of mind for our current customers and prospects.

A small gift, for my readers, is a copy of my recent presentation given at both AAMP in LA and MCA in Chicago.  This presentation was on Better Using Customer Touch Points to Build Audience Relationships.  Several people have asked for a copy of the slides, so here they are.

MCA presentation 12-14

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to all my readers.

Tune in next time for some of my predictions of what I think the Hot Topics will be for audience development in 2015.

The journey continues.

C

Audience Development Roles in Media Companies Today

Having worked in audience development in the publishing/media/information services world for most of my career, people still don’t know what I do every day. Frankly, it’s hard to me to categorize what I do it changes so often! Rotating projects, technology, and departments that I interact with keep this job challenging and interesting.

For a media-related brand, here are a few of the major responsibilities that audience development professionals have today:

  • Achieve BPA/AAM goals for audited brands.
  • Maintain USPS goals for any magazines that mail at periodicals rates.
  • Ferret out and consolidate customer data into a central location, where possible.
  • Help other departments with marketing efforts to achieve attendance or participation goals. Can include helping to make list selects, research outside lists, marketing vendors, or execute marketing efforts.
  • Assist the publishers in flushing out a comprehensive sales strategy.
  • Identify “hot” areas on database that can help identify new products.
  • Keep database current and with demos where possible. Helps to market smarter and for lead gen.
  • Review customer touch points to 1—make sure our online web page flow is logical and correct. 2-ensure we have consistent, current brand messages.
  • Manage the issue close process, including getting files to the printer and/or digital file sender.

Knowing the audience development responsibilities vary at different organizations, feel free to add other roles you handle in the comment section. All the items listed above are topics I will continue to explore on this blog, as well as the critical importance of the audience development specialist on your team.

The journey continues.

C

How I am Running my Business more Effectively in 2014

It’s hard to run a successful business. Whether you have 1-5-50-700-25,000 employees, there is always something to be done including the work itself, the innovation, the marketing, the social media, the accounting, the legal work, the networking, the social media.

My friend Naomi, who runs a thriving corporate premium business, and I recently discussed how difficult it is to run a business while trying to get all the actual work done. We work nights, we work weekends, we work vacations trying to stay on top of things.

I told her that I made a decision this year that running my business was actually PART of my business. I would do some of the operational work during the typical 9-5 hours, not always in the evenings. Surprisingly,I have found that I more focused and there are fewer distractions, as long as I turn off email and the phone.

“Don’t you feel guilty?” she asked.

Yes, I did at first, but I find I am using my time wiser. I have accomplished several work goals I established this year, including developing a new logo, this website and blog, and seeking out more speaking engagements, while keeping my clients happy. I still work at least 1-2 evening a week, but it isn’t overwhelming. And I can plan on less-brain-taxing work to do during the nights.

It seems like an oxymoron, but focusing on the business and not just the daily work has improved my work quality and efficiency. Writing this blog has definitely helped me to look at direct marketing, audience development, and business from an outside-in perspective.  And I have had more free evening/weekend time with my family and friends.

The journey continues.

C

Hiring a Consultant

When should you hire a consultant? Simple–when you need to solve a problem that your staff cannot fix. A consultant can help you train current staff, give you a temporary extra body during busy times, give an outsiders’ view of current work, give you an expert to help you when you need someone to oversee a project or departmental area, help you review an area of business if you are expecting change, help you get a new area of business off the ground for a couple years while training internal staff how to handle the work long-term after phasing out (or staying on in an overseeing capacity).

It can be helpful to see a consultant as outsourced personnel, bringing you expertise and helping you fill a role in which no one in your organization has knowledge. Consultants can work on a project basis, hourly or on a monthly retainer. The billing will  depend on the type of work you embark on. From a consultant with 15 years experience, I think that when starting work together, the consultant should:

  1. Be honest about her experience in a new project. Take on challenging work, but know that is okay to say “no” to a project completely outside her area of knowledge.
  2. Clearly outline the project, the expectations, the deliverables and the costs in the proposal.
  3. At the start of a project, it is important to agree how best to communicate progress with the client. A weekly email, monthly report, in-person or phone meetings–various clients may have different needs, but they should be reasonable.
  4. Be timely and thorough in communications throughout the project.
  5. Be fair and impartial in assessments of reviewing current work, if that is the assignment. I know from experience that it can be intimidating to have a consultant review current work and business practices. An less-than-ethical consultant could shade the results with a clear intent to phase someone out and insert themselves into the role, but this is wrong.
  6. If hours or time will exceed the original proposal, let the client know so there are no surprises. Be prepared to give your client a breakout of the time and work spent on any project.
  7. Be honest with yourself about the bandwith of work you can take on. A harried, overworked consultant who cannot focus enough time on each client is a sure way to make mistakes, lose clients.

I think that the client has responsibilities throughout the project as well.

  1. Be clear in stating the goals at the front-end of a project, which will allow the consultant to be as thorough as possible in her proposal.
  2. Reply to requests for information in a timely basis.
  3. Know that the scope of a project can change. Once a consultant starts delving into a project, there may be underlying issues that need to also be addressed. The consultant and client should discuss if the work might need additional time, expense, or breadth.

Both the consultant and clients should work together as a team to complete your project. Forming a partnership and building trust will ensure that goals are met on schedule. And know that occasionally a relationship doesn’t work. End those smoothly and professionally when needed. Your paths may cross again.

C