Insider dealings

Consultancies may know all about internal marketing, but before companies call one in they need to ensure both parties understand the rules of engagement.

We’ve all seen marketing climb up the executive agenda and gain a strong foothold among the top business disciplines. But other factors, such as viewing brand values as intangible assets, are also grabbing the attention of chief executives and finance directors.

It means there’s more pressure on marketing directors to deliver brand values and ensure they match the catchline in the ads.

That’s why marketers – as well as traditional human resources functionaries – are turning to consultants to help them sort out their organisation’s internal marketing.

Consultants are often viewed with suspicion, but there are ways to work with them effectively. Marketers and consultants need to find a focus to benefit from the experience.

Different types of company provide internal marketing services. Agencies – from public relations to promotions – use internal marketing to communicate to employees.

However, the agency approach is traditionally more tactical than that offered by consultancies, which tend to take more of an advisory role, providing strategic advice from the onset but sometimes not getting involved in the implementation.

Clients want both the added value consultancies can provide and tactical support. They want to ensure there is a creative impact on the organisation, and that it results in long-term change. What they don’t want is to pay consultancy rates for agency work.

Whichever type of support a company goes for, it should consider the following “rules of engagement”.

First, companies must decide what they need and which types of consultancy are best placed to deliver it. One of the best ways to build a high-quality list is through third-party recommendations.

The business’s contact network can act as a starting point. Which companies have you used in the past, how effective were they, what did they achieve and do you still use them? Personal recommendations also provide an insight into how the consultants worked.

There is also a range of organisations and trade bodies to point companies in the right direction, such as the Management Consultancy Association, the Confederation of British Industry and the Marketing Society.

Companies should aim to meet their “long list” candidates at least three times before making a choice. The first meeting will be a “credentials and capability” session. Does it have the right background and expertise? What has the consultancy done, and with whom? Companies probably start short-listing at this point.

And here’s a tip: take up references. You may be investing significant sums of money for advice, skills and resources.

Think of it as borrowing a slice of another company for a few weeks or months – you wouldn’t do it without first asking some searching questions and examining their track-record.

The second meeting should focus on “chemistry and change”. Do you like the consultants and do they like you? Could you work with them? Are they able to respond to changes in the brief both quickly and comfortably? Test them.

Thinking on their feet

Your business won’t stand still while consultants are doing their work, so they need to impress you with their ability to think on their feet and tackle issues in innovative ways. If they hold fast to their models and way of thinking – however popular and effective that may be – it could indicate an unwillingness to adapt to suit your needs or, worse still, a lack of ability.

Here’s another tip: meet the team that will be working on your assignment as soon as possible, or at least meet the project leader and decide if you can work with him or her.

Costs and contracts

Meet them in a range of different contexts and settings (include a social element in your selection process). Talk to the people who’ll be doing the work directly and find out what expertise they will bring to the project.

Your third meeting should be all about “costs and contracts”. Aim for a fair deal for both sides – your goal being a win-win contract where the consultants get a client which values their work and will pay a fair price for it.

Beware of over-negotiating fees. Like any supplier, a consultancy that has been squeezed on price may try to take short cuts. You could lose money, while consultants risk losing you as a client – and their reputation.

Performance-related pay

For consultancies, the worst relationships are when the client assumes it is going to be taken for a ride. Adversarial relationships result in an inefficient use of time. The best relationships are where both sides are partners and they remain respectful of each other.

Some deals can contain a performance element where a bonus is paid when the consultants achieve a previously agreed measure of success. This can be a great incentive, but deciding which elements are entirely attributable to the consultants’ intervention can be difficult.

Clarifying what you need the consultants to do may sound obvious but it’s surprising how often clients don’t prepare a brief. And they sometimes need to be prepared to fight for it. A good consultant may challenge the brief to ensure they are clear about its boundaries and the client’s expectations. And clients need to be confident about their answers.

The most important parts of the brief are the desired outcomes and the approach to be used. What worked well for one company may not work well for another, so don’t be afraid to disagree with the methods being considered. You are the consultants’ best guide to your company – and they’ll be relying on your judgment.

Information disclosure

Avoid using your first meeting with a potential consultancy as an opportunity to refine the brief with its help. You’ll come across as unprofessional and it will feel you’re trying to “borrow” ideas. Word gets around fast.

Don’t withhold information from your consultants – leaving them in the dark implies a lack of trust and it will significantly hamper their effectiveness.

How you measure a consultancy’s success is usually talked about at the outset of an assignment and then forgotten as the project moves on. By the time it’s over, few people can remember what was agreed. So agree this upfront.

Progressive changes

It’s unlikely the consultants will have all the knowledge and skills a client requires. In any event, the client’s needs may change as the project progresses. Find out where a consultancy’s skills lie and, if necessary, pull in the managing director or a senior specialist for certain parts of the project.

Clients should check how well the consultants challenge their thinking when putting recommendations together. If they’re presenting to your board, make sure you give them a profile of the key players and work with them to prepare the session.

Review sessions are helpful for looking back at both sides’ performance. It needs to be a positive learning session rather than a blame and regrets session (whatever the outcome of the work). Good consultants thrive on honest feedback, so clients shouldn’t be afraid to raise issues of concern.

Consultants are not one-night stands. Value has to be added to one-off efforts, and the best value comes from a strategic and long-standing relationship.

Anne Gilbert is managing director of Synergy Internal Marketing

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