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

The Importance of Attending Events

Working for myself, by myself most days, it is often a welcome change to visit clients, meet with colleagues, and attend industry events.

Whether I am attending an event as a speaker or an attendee, I appreciate the change in venue and routine. Events can be a great way to broaden my knowledge of some aspect of the direct marketing/database management industry, expose me to a new subject or technology, introduce me to vendors and industry leaders, and keep in touch with contacts.

I consider a meeting worthwhile if I end up with 3 takeaways. These can be innovative ideas, learning something new, or starting a business relationship with one new person.

Networking is a needed but sometimes dreaded part of these meetings. It is not easy for me to introduce myself to others, but I think other people have similar feelings.  However, events are an excellent time to meet potential clients or have open dialogue with colleagues.  I have made some lasting acquaintances over a glass of wine, who I can now bounce ideas off of.

So step out from behind your desk, swallow those nerves, and go learn and interact a little. It can truly help your career.  And hopefully you might have a bit of fun.

The journey continues.

C

What is YOUR Database STRATEGY?

In a publishing or information services company, every department has data. A lot of it. In different formats. With a range of collected demographics. And wants to store and use it in a variety of ways.

Typical departments can include:

  • Audience development (for the magazines and e-newsletter lists)
  • Events
  • Membership
  • Events
  • Research
  • List Services

Each of these departments has a different view of the database, but those individual views may not be what is best for the entire company database.  If there is no central communication, I envision the blindfolded people around the elephant: each with a completely different view of the animal but no one grasping how complex the animal is.

When reviewing options for how to best house your customer information, it is critical to have someone looking at the STRATEGY of how you want to capture customer data, maintain it, use it in the future. You need that over-arching view as you consider technology options for what is best for the entire organization.

This is not an easy task today. Online customers drive how much information they will offer about themselves to interact with your sites, your offers, your products. And as I have said in previous posts, this can be at odds with the information that advertisers are demanding. Without a strategy, it can be cumbersome and frustrating for internal staff AND customers, who are continually asked for unnecessary data about themselves and sent offers they have no interest in.

There are some database management systems that have incredible front ends for data capture, but the back end of the system is not as nuanced as many business-2-business firms require today. There are some systems that can store and massage your data, but the front end for data capture is severely old-fashioned.

I have been involved in several recent database reviews. I am not sure there is ONE firm that best provides the superior front AND back end services for today’s multi-faceted information services companies. The online interactions and interests of both advertisers and customers are changing so rapidly, it is hard to keep up technology-wise. But, you can combine the services of more than one firm to reach your goals.

Be sure to involve an experienced database manager at the front end of your development process. She can help decipher the needs of the various departments, ask targeted questions to potential database firms, and help determine which systems might work best for your company today to market smarter and maximize revenue. And tomorrow.

The journey continues.

C

Yes, I am a Consultant. And a Business Owner.

I have been a consultant for 18 years. Long enough to know some people roll their eyes, think I only work 2 hours a day, or can make my own schedule around my favorite TV shows. Wrong!

I am a business owner whose clients depend on me to achieve our set-upon goals.   If I didn’t work diligently, honestly, and flexibly, I would not have some clients for 10+ years. Yes, still take the time to search out new and exciting projects.

As an audience development/marketing/database management consultant (the role changes with the project) on a daily basis I have to:

  1. Get work done on schedule.
  2. Listen to my clients’ needs, sometimes helping them to articulate their goals.
  3. Regularly communicate project status and ideas to current clients. Also attend in-person and phone meetings.
  4. Be vigilant to make sure that my customers respond to emails and phone calls, so projects don’t stall.
  5. Know a variety of vendors my clients can work with—email providers, telemarketing, database management, email, auditing firms, copy writers, others I can partner with on certain projects.
  6. Stay involved in the marketing industry by reading, attending events, and doing.
  7. Have experience working with different social media platforms.
  8. Keep abreast of changing rules impacting outbound and inbound marketing emails ie. CAN-SPAM laws , telemarketing, BPA, USPS with regards to mailing periodicals.

Plus, there is ongoing work to do to keep my business running:

  1. Have trusted professionals who help me with design work, accounting, legal, and financial issues.
  2. Seek out new prospects, put together proposals as requested. Revise pricing for current clients as projects change.
  3. Keep my blog updated, to communicate my business knowledge and perspective to clients and prospects.
  4. Keep up with billing, processing payments.
  5. Handle marketing, create a new logo and website.

Every year I think I learn to run my business more effectively. This year, for the first time, I have followed the lead of successful business owners and set aside weekly time on my calendar to focus on growing and honing my business. It’s too easy to spend all day on project work, not focusing on the business. This set-aside time has made me more efficient, given me some new ideas to try this year.

The balance of client-related work vs. running the business is delicate, yet important to manage. So yes, I am a consultant. And a successful business owner.  And proud of both.

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

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