• 29Mar

    peanut-butter

    Forrest Gump believes that life is like a box of chocolates, and I see consulting as like a jar of peanut butter. Some people like their smooth and some like it chunky (my preference) but the challenge is not to spread yourself too thin.

    Consultants face an ongoing challenge in terms of work balance. You should be spending about 20 percent of your time on new business development, and the other 80 percent of the time on keeping your current clients happy. But when that 20 percent of effort yields multiple projects simultaneously, then you need to be prepared to step up and deliver advice and services that have value; deliver the chunky stuff so you don’t have to spread the creamy peanut butter too thin.

    Granted, having more work than you can handle is a good problem to have, sort of, but it can backfire if you don’t manage the work appropriately. If you overpromise and under deliver, it will affect your professional reputation, and probably cost you a lot of current business. If you overcommit and then work yourself too hard to get the job done, which leads to second-rate service and ultimately burnout.

    So how do you spread yourself appropriately to make sure you are optimizing both time and money? Here are a few strategies I have used in the past:

    Set up a monthly work calendar. I recommend to all my clients to establish a “scope of work” for each month, outlining objectives and tasks to be completed. As part of this exercise, you should establish your own time estimates to assess how much time you need to allocate. Granted, priorities will change during the course of the month, which means as you add new tasks you take other tasks off the agenda. This exercise is not only about creating a roadmap for yourself as to what you can reasonably achieve during the month, but it’s also about setting expectations for the client.

    Touch every client every day. It’s so easy to focus on projects that are interesting or that have seemingly more urgent deadlines. Therein lies a common consulting trap – oiling the squeaky wheel. If you only pay attention to the clients and projects that are demanding your attention, those other tasks that support the less demanding clients will fall by the wayside. If you touch every client every day with some communication, task, or even checking in on work in process, you can stay on top of your client work.

    Keep track of your efforts. I like to bill on a retainer since this makes budgeting simpler for the clients and eliminates billing surprises. That doesn’t mean you don’t keep track of your work. I keep timesheets for all my clients, retained or not, to determine whether my time budgeting is on target and to determine if one client is demanding too much of my time. If you keep track of where your time goes, it is easier to identify where the problems are emerging in time management so you can either reset expectations or realign your hours.

    Get help when you need it. When the floodgates open and new business comes pouring in, I know many consultants turn away business based on their availability. A better strategy is to take on the projects and enlist partners to help. I have operated a “virtual” agency model for years and for larger projects can bring in one of my peers to help with the day-to-day tasks. You can scale if you have help and assume a project management role, assuming you can continue to maintain the quality of the work.

    Know when to say no. There are times when a giant project might land in your lap that is tempting and lucrative. You need to ask yourself a few leading questions before you accept the contract. Will it jeopardize your other work? Will you be able to continue to build your business while you handle this mongo project? What about when the project is completed; will you still have enough work? I find that putting all your eggs in a single client basket can be fraught with risk.

    Get rid of the dead wood. If you have new work coming in the front door, consider kicking the dead wood out the back door. There are always some clients that you will never satisfy or that aren’t a good fit. Either your work styles don’t align, expectations aren’t set properly, or you just don’t have the right tools to deliver what they need. If, like a bad job, the client isn’t a good fit or they are too demanding, taking on new business gives you an opportunity to clean house.

    Follow the money. As part of your housekeeping, take a look at some of your less lucrative clients and determine if new business opportunities give you a chance to renegotiate or change the terms of your contract. Even fun contracts can prove to be a loss leader in terms of time and energy. New, more lucrative contracts will give you a chance to change or end a less profitable client relationship without risk.

    Successful consulting is a a continuous balancing act. Knowing when to streamline your operation and how to balance dueling priorities is the key to consulting success. So keep it crunchy and don’t spread yourself too thin.

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  • 22Mar

    imageI recently stumbled across the blog started by my last agency employer, Allison & Partners. I may as well get the platitudes out of the way up front. I have worked for a number of agencies and Allison & Partners is far and away the best place I have ever worked, and they are committed to delivering superior results. Thank God I love consulting because Allison & Partners has spoiled me for any other agency job. And I was gratified to see the title of the blog is “It’s About the Work.” I recall the first Allison corporate retreat where employees from offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego gathered in Pismo Beach to map out the company’s future. I was one of the members of the committee that captured the core values of the firm, and I guess it has stood the test of time. 

    And this past week I have been sharply reminded why the work matters. I have been doing some pro bono work for Lifehouse, a local organization that helps people with developmental disabilities lead independent lives. Mostly I have been helping them promote fund raisers, which is rewarding and interesting in itself, but this month they approached me with a real problem. As you know, the state of California is in a fiscal crisis, and they are threatening to cut vital funding for Medi-Cal Intermediate Care Facilities (ICF). What this means is that non-profit organizations like Lifehouse will be forced to close some of their care facilities, in essence making their clients homeless.

    What is really heart breaking about this is many of these clients have lived for years, even decades in these care homes. The residents and caretakers have become family and this budget cut will force these family groups to disband. And these people can’t advocate for themselves, which is why they depend on organizations like Lifehouse to advocate for them.

    What’s even more ridiculous is that by cutting Medi-Cal funding to ICF homes, the state is increasing its overall costs. Those with developmental disabilities will need care because they can’t care for themselves, so if the state cuts funding to support ICF homes and those homes are forced to close, the state will have to pick up the cost of care at three times the expense, or more. The California Association of Health Facilities estimates that a small community-based ICF home serving six residents costs $70,000 per person per year. The same care in a State Developmental Center would cost $300,000 per year. How much sense does that make?

    So this is one occasion where the work is its own reward, and I am happy to do what I can to help. I am applying what I know to get the word out about this issue which could impact more than 7,000 people across the state. I don’t see this as a local or government spending issue, but one of humanity where we need to care for a group that need our care and concern. And I am glad that I am in a position to bring my expertise to help spread the word.

    If you read this, I hope you will spread the word as well.

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  • 15Mar

    wolf-in-sheeps-clothing-2There is an evil walking among us. An unseen danger that can creep up on the unwary and seduce them with promises of fame and glory. They are unscrupulous media outlets that sell editorial space but refuse to call it advertising. These are the con men who have perfected the three-card monty of advertorial, the bait and switch that can cost your client a lot of money if you are not wary.

    I seem to be running into more of these kinds of “media” outlets of late. They have caused me professional embarrassment, since they often don’t get to the sales pitch until after after they have the interview in the can and are ready to go, assuming you are willing to pay for the privilege. I recall recently being approach by a Midwest business publication (no names, please), offering to do a profile of my contractor client as part of a “special edition” on construction trends. I checked them out to the best of my ability and they were listed in my editorial database, and their web site looked legit. Once we completed the interview and they were ready to write the article, they sunk the hook: “Oh, to get this story into print we will need some advertising backing. Can you share the contacts at six of your vendors whom we can then contact to advertise with this story?” The story never ran, the client now asks me in advance if we have to pay for the next interview I just scheduled, and I have added that publication to my editorial black list.

    This morning I received a call from another organization that I have heard from many times before. They are based in Florida and use the wire services for business prospecting. So the pitch usually goes like this:

    “Hi, my name is Shyster Fagan and I represent Bait and Switch Broadcasting. We have a national radio/television/Web show hosted by [insert celebrity name here] and we think your client would be a perfect candidate. We reach 200,000 business professionals and…”

    It’s a great pitch designed to get you really excited. And when you get to the end of the spiel you are ready to schedule an interview for your client, thinking you will look like a hero. Then, when you dig deeper, you realize that it’s a small syndicated Web program or, worse, a feed on one of the airlines’ audio channels, and the price tag is only $10,000 or more.

    I have been in publishing all my life. My mother was a magazine editor, my dad used to sell advertising, and I was a journalist before going into PR and marketing. One of the lessons drummed into me at an early age was the cardinal rule of separation of advertising and editorial. If you can buy editorial space, then the publication’s editorial credibility was nil. I have seen (and even worked for) a few trade publications who have found creative ways to blur the rules; to give advertisers preferential editorial treatment. Those in the know would get the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” and know that they could get a little extra press exposure if you sign that next insertion contract. However, the reputable magazines were never (okay, seldom) influenced by the ad buy.

    Today, however, with the explosion of the web and new editorial formats and content delivery models, the rules have changed, or have they? I have clients quizzing me about blog coverage, and our challenge becomes finding bloggers who use good journalistic approaches and follow the rules. The same is true for magazines and e-zines. If you can buy influence, it’s not worth the price of admission. What irks me is that these con artists hide the fees and drop the boom once they set the hook. Just be honest and admit up front that it’s pay to play. Don’t try to pretend you have editorial credentials that you don’t.

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  • 06Mar

    spam-big

    Not long ago, I wrote a blog post about the lost art of telephone pitching, which received a lot of comment from a number of my peers on LinkedIn. Every PR professional has something to say about this topic, and the conventional wisdom is that you need to use a number of different channels to reach editors, beyond e-mail. Or as one of my commenters noted, “E-mail is for novices.” But I think the issue of editor outreach goes far beyond the means of communication and need to focus more on content. Editors should look on PR professionals as allies, and it is clear that, with the explosion of e-mail, social media, and other electronic communications, we now have more ways to spam editors rather than engaging with them.

    Which is why I was particularly intrigued with a guest blog posted by Alison Kenney on Lindsay Olsen’s PR blog calling for “A Restraining Order for the PR Profession.” Apparently, in the eyes of the press, PR professionals have become cyber-stalkers, and they are calling us out on our behavior. Kenney cites a number of pissed-off analysts and editors who are maintaining an online hit list of PR offenders, including Josh Bernoff of Forrester, who complains there is no way to “unsubscribe” from press e-mail lists; Chris Anderson of Wired who maintains a list of PR firms of PR firms he has blocked; the Bad Pitch Blog, and a host of others.

    I think it’s not about the medium, but the quality of the message. With the advent of new technology, PR professionals have become lazy and are using electronic channels to substitute for one-to-one communications. Even the best pitch will be offensive if it’s off-topic, which is what happens when you get a junior account executive spamming different editors with the same storyline without customizing it first. Just because you have the technology to send information to reporters all over the planet doesn’t mean you need to wield it. If you have a strong news story, then you can use one of the wire services to tell the world, but you still need to approach reporters with caution.

    I have become a big fan of HARO (Help A Reporter Out) because they make their rules about spamming, but they enforce them. HARO has become a safe haven for reporters seeking resources because they know that off-topic responses to requests for information will get the offender banned from the system. This is the ultimate opt-out – being sent to that unique circle of PR hell where you are prohibited from pitching. HARO works because reporters get responses to specific informational needs, not abstract queries about not even remotely related topics.

    I blame the growth of technology as much as the laziness of PR professionals. We have created so many means of communication that it has become harder than ever to choose the path of least resistance. Will a reporter respond to an e-mail request?  A LinkedIn request? A Facebook post? A phone call? Chances are it will be “none of the above.” The noise level for communications has become so loud that it’s no wonder that even the most targeted and insightful queries fall between the cracks.

    So what are we to do as a profession? I tend to agree with Bernoff that it’s time we cleaned up our act. We need to be judicious about the use of e-mail and electronic communications; keep it real; and keep it relevant. Take the trouble to read before you pitch to find out what the editor is really interested in. Try to make a personal connection so you aren’t just an anonymous spammer but a person behind a message. If you can make a human connection with a reporter through Facebook, a phone conversation, or some other means, then they will be more forgiving of a faux pas, if you don’t make a habit of it.

    And most important of all, remember who is responsible for your success. Your job is to connect your clients with editorial contacts who need to hear their story. If the reporters won’t listen, you are out of a job. As I always tell my clients when they ask me to do something stupid that I know will piss off an editor, “After I am no longer working for you I will have to call that editor again, so alienating him always does me more harm than good.”

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