• 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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  • 19Jan

    I just finished writing a new business proposal and, as always, I ran up against what seems to be the age-old question for consultants – what do I charge? I have experimented with different pricing models over the years – hourly rate, retainer, by the project. I have even developed a rate card that I use with prospects for project work, but inevitably, to be competitive, you have to haggle. There are many times I think I should hire an Arabian rug merchant and learn the gentle art of haggling for a better price.

    What continues to amaze me is that in public relations and marketing consulting, everyone sees pricing as negotiable. Do you question the fees of your doctor? Or what you pay your plumber? Sure, you have to be prepared to accept a market rate, but in the current economy it’s gotten harder to get a fair wage. I actually challenged my accountant last week when I was quoted a rate for a routine task, and we struck a compromise. But you can’t sell your services on price alone.

    Once again, I have Peter Shankman to thank for some great advice about getting paid what you are worth. As Peter notes, when you set your price, remember you can come down but you can’t go up. Also determine what you think your time is worth and calculate accordingly. I know that many consultants don’t necessarily adjust their rate but they miscalculate time, so a project takes twice as long as they anticipate, which means they get paid half their normal rate. And, of course, you have to charge market rate, but you also have to charge what you think your services are worth. If you have a healthy ego, you should be able to name a fair rate and stick with it. If the client doesn’t think your services are worth the rate, then you probably shouldn’t take the contract because they won’t respect the quality of the work if you underprice it.

    When working with a new client, you also have to be sure to understand the intangibles that may affect your rate. For some clients, this might be translated as the “hassle factor.” I was revisiting a thread on one of my LinkedIn Groups today where a PR professional was asking how much information to share with a client; should you share contacts, pitches, and enough detail to allow the client to micromanage the process? My response was, “Of course not. The client is paying you for your expertise.” If they want to tell you how to do your job, then the rates should go up. As one of my first clients told me (and I have lived by these words ever since), “You can pay me for process, or you can pay me for results. Process is a lot more expensive.”

    And to echo one of Peter’s other points, there are times when working for less pays off. I have a couple of clients that are on a very small retainer, and I know I over service them. More importantly, they know I over service them, which means they never hesitate to offer a referral, send new business my way, or help when I need something. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship that pays off in many ways.

    So is there a hard and fast rule about setting fees? I guess the golden rule is never sell yourself short.

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  • 13Jan

    I am a baby boomer, which means I was born long before e-mail, the Internet, and the Web. I was even born before the advent of touch-tone phones and answering machines – when I was a child my parents had a party line. Remember those? For some reason, the telephone has fallen from favor as a business tool. I recently ran across a quote from President Rutherford B. Hayes, who made one of the first telephone calls on from Washington to Philadelphia on Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention. Hayes exclaimed, “An amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one?”

    In the age of electronic communications, we have adopted the same philosophy. Why pick up the telephone when you can sit at your computer and compose your thoughts in an e-mail. Or what about the new concept of unified communications? It’s now normal for me to check on Skype or IM to see if a client is available and ask a simple question as a text message rather than sending an e-mail and waiting for a response. With IM I get “presence” which means I can see if the other party is online and then I can ask a question for almost immediate response via chat or, if necessary, escalate the communication to an Internet phone call with the touch of a mouse, then follow-up with an e-mail.

    Which leads me back to the telephone. Somewhere along the line, the PR profession has lost the art of the phone call. These days editors, reporters, and PR people hide behind e-mail. We draft compelling “pitches” designed to titillate an editor’s imagination and yield a positive response – “That sounds interesting. I would like to talk to your client.” However, e-mail has also created a communications black hole where all flack spam is relegated. You can draft the most compelling pitch in the world with interesting factoids and an innovative story angle no other publication has ever considered, and if it doesn’t get read it’s all for naught. I know that I must process almost 1,000 e-mail messages daily. When I log in to my mail in the morning I see the messages pile up in different folders and I go through them, determining which are news feeds with interesting tidbits, which are solicitations, which are spam, and which are editor or client requests that need immediate attention. The process is rather fast and indiscriminate and those messages that don’t require immediate attention are often left unread until they are deleted.

    And that’s the problem. E-mail is too easy to ignore, and to misread. I don’t know how many times I have received an e-mail from a colleague or client and misread between the lines, injecting mood and meaning that just wasn’t there. And text messaging is worse. If you have teenage children you know they won’t pick up a telephone call but they will (usually) respond to a text, which leads to a different level of miscommunications. For example, I recently had a text exchange with my stepson:

    • Me: “We’re taking mom out for her birthday at 7:45, will you be home?”
    • Him: “Kk”
    • Now the time is 7:30. Me: “Where r u? We will be late”
    • Him: “You said 7:45.” Me: “That’s the time of the dinner reservation. We still need to get to the restaurant.”

    You get the idea.

    Which is why I think President Hayes was totally wrong. Sometimes, you have to pick up the phone. There is nothing more satisfying to me than getting an editor on the phone, talking to him about his magazine and readers, and then presenting a case for my client. “Where does this story fit in your universe and how can we make it relevant for your needs?” You forge a different kind of connection with a telephone call. You hear a human voice on the other end of the phone and you develop an audio picture of the other party. You exchange ideas – which is really hard to do in e-mail – and you can come to an understanding quickly. When I can actually engage with an editor on the phone, we can quickly determine if the story is interesting, relevant, and what we need to change to make it suitable for his or her readers. It’s a lot more efficient than blind e-mail pitching. Of course, you have to contend with the black hole of voice mail, but then every voice mail gets followed up with an e-mail, right?

    There is an immediacy to the telephone that just can’t be denied. You have to use courtesy and common sense – “Hello, I am calling for Acme Company about a new Road Runner capture solution. Do you have a few minutes to talk about how what this might mean for your readers?” You can only forge a real relationship by telephone. Social media is great, and you can talk to your “virtual” editor friends through Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, but at the end of the day they remember the phone call, the laugh, and the offer to help them with information they can take to print. If you think about “reverse-engineering” this process, if you were an editor, who would you contact first to help you with an editorial problem? The guy who sent you an e-mail or the guy who you talked to on the phone about your story needs, the weather, and who is gonna win the World Series?

    Do yourself a favor. Pick up the phone!

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  • 30Aug

    Customer case studies  have been part of my job for longer than I have been doing media relations. When I started out as a trade journalist reporting for publications like Educational & Industrial Television and Video Trade News, end user stories were the mainstay of our editorial. Readers want to hear from peers who have “been there, done that,” which is why customer relations continues to be such an important part of any PR program.

    Of course, customers aren’t always willing to talk, especially in high-tech. Trying to get a financial services company or insurance company to open up about the inner workings of their CRM system or their security systems can be challenging. Customer companies don’t usually have much inventive to share information about how they do what they do; there usually isn’t much in it for them. That’s why you want to enlist customers as allies, not just topics for case studies. You want to find incentives to help them with their own sales and marketing so they will help your clients by serving as case study candidates.

    That’s part of the reason I was so pleased to place a profile of Stoops Freightliner in Heavy Duty Trucking this month for my client, FaceTime Communications. The story profiles how Stoops Freightliner is using FaceTime’s Unified Security Gateway to promote a secure social media marketing program to reach truck drivers across the Midwest. When I had an opportunity to place the story, I thought of Heavy Duty Trucking for a number of reasons:

    • Heavy Duty Trucking is one of the biggest titles reaching trucking executives and decision-makers.
    • A profile in Heavy Duty Trucking would help Stoops reach its customer base as well as new prospective customers for FaceTime – a win-win for everyone.
    • I have a soft spot for Heavy Duty Trucking since my dad sold advertising for them for a number of years.

    The strategy worked. Not only did Stoops get a great profile of their social media success at work, the article also brought in a new prospect for FaceTime.

    When I develop a customer relations program for a client, I like to develop an integrated program that benefits both my clients and their customers. As part of the sourcing process, I work with end users to determine what their marketing objectives are and how far we can carry their application story for mutual benefit. The result is, at minimum, a published case study with supporting sales collateral, content to feed social media outlets, anecdotal data for press briefings, and Web content. With a cooperative customer, you can extend the program to include webinars, speaking engagements, and more. The key is to make sure that all the participants come out ahead.

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  • 01Nov

    04_24_09_stop_light1Listening is an underrated skill, and one I wish that my C-level clients would take more seriously. I recently completed a series of media interviews with a new client and, as with most clients I have worked with over the last 20 years, these executives are too busy trying to cram information down a reporter’s throat to stop, listen, engage, and learn more about what they are interested in.

    Of course, you are trying to get the point across for a new services or product and make sure the reporter knows why it’s valuable. You want to deliver your three key message points. But the objective is not to deliver death by PowerPoint. It’s to create a connection with the reporter so you make an ally, not just deliver message points. Which is why I want to share a recent blog post from my client, NETSHARE, on listening strategies. The NETSHARE blog is talking about harnessing listening skills for a job interview, but the same skills apply for press interviews as well. If you listen closely, you are in control of the interview. Here are the highlights:

    1. Commit to improving your listening skills. You need to learn to listen, so it takes practice.
    2. Stop pitching and start listening. Every executive in an interview is selling a story about his company and its products. Try listening instead of pitching. Let reporters ask questions and dig for insights and address the questions, not your key messages.
    3. Give the reporter your undivided attention. Whether you are in an interview or talking to a friend, they deserve your undivided attention. So take them off the speaker phone, put away the computer, and shut off outside distractions.
    4. Be objective. Don’t be quick to challenge or share your own ideas. Listen to the reporter and offer a well-reasoned response.
    5. Apply empathy. Try to see the other party’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes and try to find common ground.
    6. Be respectful. Wait for the other party to stop talking before offering a counterpoint. Also remember that if you are formulating your response while the other party is speaking, you are not listening.
    7. Paraphrase what has just been said to make sure you have heard correctly.
    8. Notes are valuable. They can help you reinforce and remember salient points.
    9. When you are being interviewed, look at how the other party poses the questions. Are they loud? Do they talk fast? What words do they use? If you can tun3e in to tone and body language you can determine mood and feeling, which can help you take control of the interview.
    10. Look at body language. Are there non-verbal signs that tell you what the interviewer is thinking? See if they make eye contact. Do they turn away from you? Are they avoiding direct interaction? If so, then you have a hostile interviewer.  But if they are direct and look you in the eye, they are ready to engage and more amenable.

    To take charge of an interview you need to take the time to listen and engage with the reporter. Don’t be so quick to promote your own story. Listen to what the reporter needs and help him build his story. You will get more from the interview that way, and so will the reporter.

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  • 31Aug

    1limbo1After working in Silicon Valley for more than two decades, I have watched the booms and busts. In the good times, it seems as though the high-priced PR firms won’t touch an account for less than $10,000 or $15,000 per month, and freelance work usually commands top dollar. In tough times, the agencies cut their retainers in half and start looking for account work to just keep the lights on, and freelancers are willing to cut their rates just to keep the work flowing.

    In this most recent recession, I have seen more panic than usual. All the marketing budgets were slashed in December and are just now they starting to rebound. With the increase in marketing layoffs there are more “consultants” out there than ever before, and agencies have been signing contracts for a fraction of what they used to charge. So as companies are now realizing they can’t dismantle their marketing machines and continue to generate sales, they are are starting to shop for PR and marketing talent at bargain prices.

    All the rates have been slashed so services are generally available dirt cheap. In tough times, marketeers tend to abandon their rates just so they can stay competitive, and in the end, it’s all about price…

    “Attention marcomm shoppers, we now have a blue light special in Aisle 5 – discounts on press releases and media tours.”

    If you have tried to use any of the online freelance referral services, like E-lance, you know that most of them put contracts out to bid, and the result is that it’s all about price. With online referral services, you find yourself competing with international rates as well as domestic. It’s hard to compete with writing and PR services in less expensive markets that have little or no overhead. They may not be able to deliver results , but they certainly can deliver the process for less. (One of the many reasons I steer away from RFPs.)

    I have been guilty of discounting along with many other PR professionals, but it’s a cannibalistic practice. If you bill $60, $70, or $80 per hour today, or offer to do a press release for $200 or $300, why should that same work be worth two or three times more when the economy improves? Better to stick to your guns. I, for one, have developed a rate card for common PR services so clients and prospects can estimate cost for my services, just as though they were estimating a press wire drop. I don’t think you have to drop your rates if you can adopt a “no surprises” policy when it comes to pricing. Clients understand they get what they pay for, as long as you tell them the price in advance.

    So stick to your pricing and resist the temptation to offer discounted contracts, no matter what the economic climate. It just makes it that much harder to charge a fair rate when market conditions improve.

    To dramatize the point, I want to direct you to a YouTube video that has been making the rounds among the consulting set. Everything else in our lives has a predefined rate. You don’t negotiate the price of groceries, or gasoline, or a haircut, so why are PR services negotiable? Set your rate and stick by your guns. In the long run, it will pay off.

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