Setting a win-win relationship with consultants and advisors

By: Bill Van Eron Friday January 25, 2013 0 comments Tags: Bill Van Eron

By Bill Van Eron

Chief Innovation Strategist, Headwaters Marketing

As entrepreneurs, most of you will need a variety of help at various stages. That help will vary from critical to moderate importance, but the process you apply should be the same so all projects have the chance to deliver to your real needs.

How you set and document needs and expectations, give background info, listen, question and ultimately "collaborate" with various consultants and advisors is important. The process of doing that right asks the two things most of you have in short supply - time and money. Do it wrong and both disappear faster than you would imagine.

I suspect a good example most can relate to is how much it costs when we work with a lawyer in an unfocused manner versus taking the time to get them just what they need and in as concise a manner as possible.

Just this past five months alone, I can count about six examples where a company needed help - whether a web site, messaging, market assessment, negotiating an IP position, brand, product development entry strategy - and yet the way they went about recruiting and documenting that need, defeated the purpose.

Every one of those examples failed.

There is also another factor that bears mentioning. We have become an ADD society, resulting in so much aversion to putting things on paper. In general, that is OK as it pushes the need to become more concise. But when you as an entrepreneur are investing significant dollars in a consultant's help, documents such as a creative brief, project backgrounder, work initiation memo or the less effective (longer) Request For Proposal (RFP) are still all intended to give a consultant what they need to understand and adjust their time to what you really need.

If you do choose an RFP format, PLEASE do not follow the government version. It is way too long (averaging 40 pages) and would be far better if it simply defined the problem, gave some background data and any requirements, and then let the consultant offer what they believe is best.

That might be 5-8 pages, which is a far more efficient way to engage consultants in an initial search versus asking 30-50 to fill out 40 pages without any compensation.

It did not matter whether I was in HP managing a grandiose $100M ad budget or past clients such as Steelcase, Budget Tapes & Records, Writer Homes, US Homes, Mellon Bank or Perkins Shearer or several startups to manage their critical market-entry strategy needs.

One thing was constant: The importance of setting clear expectations of work before it took place. In marketing, that translated into defining a market, objectives, problem to solve, budget, timing, some possible creative ideas and a lot more to help talent best manage their time and help you exactly where you need it.

Otherwise, you fall into this "I didn't mean that" defensive posture that wastes time and makes any project cost a lot more. In some cases, consultants are engaged to do this definition work and are paid a modest fee. I support that as a good practice if strategy and some market definition-type work investments are made out.

In marketing, we often call these preparatory documents "creative briefs" or "project briefs." The skill required to do them is both a science and an art as one needs to communicate effectively to properly help a consultant or talent get the lay of the land and understand the problem to be solved, expectations and desired outcomes. The really good clients inform talent while also assuring they are enabled to do their very best work.

Thinking back about those great teams, the best work always blurred the line of ownership as collaboration, respect and mutual prioritization of this being reasonably important work showed simply as great results. Don't cheat yourself from experiencing that.

I am convinced this is fast becoming a lost art and a major reason companies end up wasting their marketing funds and under-utilizing talent. I take a 360-degree view of this and also hold talent and consultants responsible to ask the right questions, set clear expectations, communicate and deliver great results even for the Client From Hell.

But I would be remiss not to address the client side responsibilities, as a lot goes into being a great client. The advantages are numerous and the cost of not being good at this is enormously high.

While I take great pride in fostering strong client relationships, not all start out on that footing. Many have a one-sided view of what help is all about. Over time a good consultant will earn the regard they wished they had coming in.

I have witnessed enough recent examples of poorly conceived projects and advisory help recruitment to at least validate that this is a local need.

Some of the forms it takes:

1. The initial agreement is offered with insufficient detail. This may be the most common example, as on one hand it is admirable for a client to recognize what they do not know or have time to find out and simply ask a vendor to dive in and help. All too often this happens where a client says they did not have enough time to do it right while not always accepting the impact of that on your time as a consultant.

That puts the vendor in a position to intuit needs or to take on proper definition of the project as now debatable or non-billable hours, just as additional after-the-fact rationale to setting proper expectations up front. If a client has budget or timing concerns, it behooves them to state that up front so any consultant can give it proper consideration.

2. The agreement is offered in enormous detail yet misses the pertinent info. Just look at the average government RFP and about 75 percent is wasted energy. Initially, my suggestion is to invest time to ask a vendor how they work best. Ask them how they would like to understand a business and suggest ways to solve problems. Then, just focus on what you need to see, such as how that vendor will charge for their time, just a bit on approach (billable time in most scenarios) and how long it should take.

If you like their work and have checked a few references, you can award the work and start defining what is really needed now that you have some faith in their capabilities.

3. The work as defined understates the need and compromises a consultant's performance.  Understating a need is usually normal, so a consultant should have room to challenge that and show the advantages of raising the importance and scope.  But when I see companies compromise how talent can perform, that runs up a big red flag to me. Last year I witnessed the same client briefing my team on two occasions and both teams declined, stating it was the Client From Hell".

Tracking back and talking to other vendors that helped this client, the same theme of being compromised and micro-managed was evident.

4.  The agreement or expectations are very one-sided. I just reviewed a classic example where the client really needed help and -- as familiar to startups - needed it rushed and had little funding. Lowering cost and increasing speed are usually at opposite ends, but many think they can get it cheap and fast and while that may work once in a while, that is more often associated with unduly pressuring a consultant than strict client requirements.

So continuing with this example, instead of being forthright and letting the vendor respond with an offer, they proceeded to offer penalties if (rush) dates were missed or estimates exceeded. Honestly, that discourages real help. Putting myself in the vendor's shoes, one is inclined to charge more for rush work or pad the end date if a vendor is to be penalized for missed dates. Likewise, how can anyone agree to flat pricing without firm agreements on workflow process? What we normally do, as an example of showing cost and time savings, is create one outline and it defines the arguments and content flow.

Upon approval, we do the first draft and then one full edit review. That streamlines work to narrow budgets without any quality compromise when done right. I can tell you that any client who talks vendors down and then misuses their time requesting multiple versions and changing their mind on decisions made earlier is a major red flag to avoid.

The same process works for many areas outside of marketing that simply define a need, give it some scope, share what you do know as well as what you don't, and allow the consultant room to propose how they would like to solve this.

I have spent six years volunteering as a SAGE advisor and over 15 years helping small startups become successful. I have the highest respect for the people in that group. I value helping people, and I see most peer advisors also share that value. There is no finger to point, other than simply understanding this dynamic and the impact it will eventually have on a system that should be vital both ways.

I will close on that premise of achieving a strong two-way value, as that always has been the glue that keeps most relationships strong. In a recession, we see growth in volunteerism. As we leave the recession, the free consultant help will likely lessen and clients will have lost a major opportunity to lower their cost to market, get viable, credible and funded because senior level advisors cared enough about that client to give them a lot more than they asked for or could afford -- but was exactly what was needed.

I hope you can apply some of this logic to assure every assignment you hand off comes back as the value you needed to benefit as a company.

Bill Van Eron

About the Author: Bill Van Eron

Bill Van Eron has led a life of continuous learning as fueled by originality, authenticity, trust, and attention to others across any org’s stakeholder ecosystem progressively, since 1976 & optimally from 1990-now, previewing work that matters as a key future-now workforce advantage. His proven ability to synthesize undercurrents of change & shape or revitalize values that rise up as what helps all to matter more, is now the path we all need to explore. Each of the topics above are all career attributes to help any of us add value. Bill evolved Headwaters Marketing & Innovation (, to now help us to rebound from this pandemic with honest reflection to what really matters as a forward-thinking plan to shape a better future. Bill’s rare experience and agile methods to integrate proven earned advantages will shape the next round of leaders in any market, industry & even government. We are all abuzz about technology & science innovation, yet attention to our humanity, humility, purpose, vision, trust & more moves all of us to rise above all obstacles (caveats) that stopped us before. All win when we feel listened to and inclusive. Connect with Bill at