Full transcript of client-consultant relationship podcast

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00:00 Sarah O’Keefe: Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997 Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 10, we discuss the client consultant relationship. What does it look like when you bring in a content strategy consultancy like Scriptorium? Hi everybody, I’m Sarah O’Keefe, I’m the principal at Scriptorium, I’m in our podcasting studio in Durham, North Carolina on a sweltering July and I’m virtually at least with Bill Swallow. Bill are you there?

00:35 Bill Swallow: I am here.

00:37 SO: And you are in Albany, New York where it is slightly less sweltering?

00:41 BS: Slightly less sweltering and actually almost sweatshirt weather.

00:46 SO: Alright, well I’ll be there in about four hours. It is miserable here. I wanted to talk today about what it is like to work with a consulting company. I feel as though a lot of people don’t quite know what they’re getting themselves into when they engage with somebody like us. So we thought we’d give you some of the inside scoop on what that really looks like from the inside. And I suppose the prison metaphor is apt. Few years ago I was actually a client meeting on site and the project manager, my direct client introduced me in a huge meeting with a group of her co-workers as her content therapist. And we all laughed before she said, “No she’s actually the content strategist.” But there was really some truth in that statement to refer to us as content therapists. When you bring on a consultant what you’re doing is you’re hiring us for our expert knowledge, our experience and particularly good judgment. We have to look at the requirements that you have, the things that you want to do with your content and balance those against the reality of your company. How far can we take you, what’s a realistic delta from your current state to the new state, how far can you stretch? And then the second piece of this is experience. Bill what does that look like?

02:08 BS: When bringing in a consultant, you’re really looking for that deeper experience. So you’re looking for someone who’s been there, who’s seen a bunch of things and who’s had a lot of different experience in a lot of different situations so they can find a better solution than you might be able to find on your own. So we take a look at what other companies that we’ve worked with have done in the past and we try to find patterns of similarities and we try to find some of the outliers that are there as well. And this way we can match up not only what’s been done before, but we can also find unique solutions to those outlier elements that are unique to a particular engagement. And we also take a look at the overall operating spend, the overall budget and try to find a solution that’s going to best fit within those confines. We don’t wanna say that we’ve worked with five other clients that had a $2 million implementation let’s say and then we walk into another office that maybe has a budget of maybe $50,000 let’s say and obviously those solutions aren’t going to fit in that case. So we wanna make sure that what we’re looking at is going to be a good fit based on our experience and based on the budget constraints.

03:26 BS: And we also take a look at the corporate culture as well and try to mesh with that as best we can. So we’re not going in and imposing ourselves within an organization doing things the way we wanna do it but we work within the confines of how things generally operate within each company we engage with.

03:46 SO: So the other thing that we bring to the table, I think, is expert knowledge and you’re talking a lot about the experience side of things. We’ve seen this before, we’ve seen this pattern in a company with similar requirements we did this kind of thing; let’s take a look at whether that’s gonna work for you. But I think in addition to that, we also have this issue around we’ve implemented or worked with lots and lots of different tools and technologies and where we have gaps, where there’s something that maybe we haven’t done before we have the network to find the right people to get expertise in that tool set in. And we do a lot of research to figure out, “Is this the right answer, can this vendor actually deliver on what they promised?” So it feels to me like a lot of it is pattern recognition and also recognizing importantly where the pattern doesn’t match. How is this project different from that one that we did last year? And Bill I wanted to ask you, are there things that are impossible to solve even given unlimited budget or unlimited money, what are the kinds of things that can’t be solved?

04:52 BS: So some of the things that we really can’t help with are direct control over staffing decisions, things like your budget, there are other elements like that that are operational and really are core to each company’s own business and it’s none of our business to go in and tell you exactly what it is you absolutely have to do in order to work with us. We do like to have discussions around things like staffing, things like budget, things like operational processes and so forth to get a feel for exactly where each company sits with regard to those things so that we know where our boundaries are. We know what is possible what’s not possible, is it possible to squeeze another maybe 10% into a tools purchase that would get you a next tier solution instead of a lower tier solution? Is it possible to hire on three additional people to get more work done? These types of things. It’s not something that we can specifically say you absolutely have to do this. That would just be crazy.

06:03 BS: And, likewise, there’s a lot of fear around bringing in a consultant because you see all these movies, for example with “Office Space” and bringing in the Bob’s, it’s a classic example of you bring these people in, they’re outsiders, they have no idea how you work, what your problems are and what the people are like that you need to interact with and they’re just going to foul everything up. There is a big fear of change when you bring in a consultant because a lot of people are going to say, “Well, they don’t know us. They don’t know the way we work. And, why are they bringing in an outsider if they would just listen to our ideas in the first place?” It’s actually very common for companies to bring us in to help move forward an idea that’s already been percolating in the organization. But, they just need that outsider perspective to hit it home with whoever it needs to be approved by, or to get buy-in in other parts of the organization and so forth. So, we’re really there to just help and figure out what the best course of action is going to be based on what you have available, where you need to go, and what your limitations are.

07:14 SO: One of the depressing realities of consulting I think is that, and you’ve probably heard this expression before, but the people who commute on a plane have more credibility. So, because we’re outsiders, because we’re being brought in from the outside, in a lot of cases we can go in and talk to the executives and say exactly what everybody else has been saying and actually get somewhere with it. Now, there are two reasons for that. One is the general “Oh, they’re from the outside. They must know.” Which is we just get bonus credibility for being outsiders. But, the other piece of this is that we spend an awful lot of time talking with executives, which means that we’ve learned to talk in their language. Most executives care about things like market share, and time to market, and revenue. You can make a cost-reduction argument, but after a while, efficiency is just something they expect. Going and saying “I can be more efficient if you give me… ” Whatever it is that you’re looking for, that’s not really a net positive. It’s just sort of an “Oh, so I’m gonna get the same thing, but it’ll cost me a little bit less.” Most executives are concerned about “I had four languages, and now I have eight, and I’m about to have 27, and next week it’ll probably be 52. So, how am I going to scale my organization? And, how am I going to manage these things?”

08:42 SO: If I’m talking to a writer, an individual content contributor about issues around 52 languages, it’s going to be along the lines of “Look, if you do these kinds of things, localization will go better.” If I’m talking to their manager, I’ll say things like “We really need to craft a style guide, so that everybody knows how to write for localization.” And, if I’m talking to the executive, then my conversation is much more along the lines of “Your current localization delay, the time from when you ship the English and you get back the target languages, is six months. If you can bring that in just by one month, the time value of that money is about $1 million. So, we think we can bring it down to three months or better, which means $3 million.” And, that’s the kind of thing that gets an executive’s attention. They’re not interested in style guides. They’re interested in results. So, Bill, from our point of view, if we asked the question “Who needs a consultant?”, the obvious answer is, of course, everybody, and you should all run out and hire us immediately. But, [chuckle] realistically, who really needs a consultant?

09:52 BS: It’s companies who really need more bandwidth, or they have too much going on and not enough time to produce what they need to produce. So, they need a more efficient way of doing it. So, in that way creating more band-width. It’s companies who have an idea of where they need to go, but they’re stuck on a few elements so they need that extra bit of knowledge, or extra bit of outside knowledge to say “Here are things that have been tried, and things that have succeeded, and things that have been failed, given these particular situational components.” And, it’s companies who just need to have, they need that extra push, whether they have an idea, or they have an excellent plan. For example, we actually have had several companies bring us in where they’ve already had a plan laid out, but they really needed someone there to essentially validate what it is that they’ve come up with and be able to essentially keep themselves on task, and make sure that they’re not being distracted from the critical yet obviously distracting day-to-day operations. The things that need to get done.

11:09 BS: In that case, either they will ask us to do some of the strategy work while they fight some fires, or we’ve actually seen the flip side where they’d ask us to take on some of the grunt work while they go look into or do some specific research or sit in on some specific Webinars or tools demonstrations or something so that way we can keep both initiatives moving. So, it’s been a wide, for me, it’s been a wide breadth of experiences coming in as a consultant. The majority of companies do like to bring us in to get that validation, and to get that help with where to go next. But, in some cases, they do just need that extra hand to make sure that things continue to run smooth while they do implement a new strategy.

12:02 SO: Yeah. For me I usually define it or I usually say to the customer, “Look, you have product knowledge and you have company culture knowledge, you understand your organization and how it works, and your products.” We never have that, we’ve done work across every industry that you could imagine with every kind of content that you imagine. So we know a little bit about semiconductors, and a little bit about cancer research, and a little bit about biotech, and a little bit about networking and it just goes on and on and on. But we don’t have that deep expertise that people have that work in a specific organization. But the flipside of that is what we do have is deep expertise across lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of different publishing projects with lots of different problems. And so we take those two sets of expertise, the customer’s product and domain knowledge and our publishing content strategy knowledge and we basically integrate those to work on the project with them. So it’s really a partnership and we both bring deep expertise to the table and then we can put that all together.

13:13 SO: Last year when we re-did our website it was really interesting because we brought in some consultants whose job was to redo the website for us. So there we were on the other side of the table and they were sitting there asking us questions like, “What are your goals for the website? And what kinds of things would you like to see happen? And what things are you happy with and what things are you not happy with?” And it was really a little disconcerting to hear the questions that I typically ask actually parroted back at me in a different context where we had to squirm and be the client and try and answer these questions that… What we really wanted was for them to just go away and build the website and solve the problem and instead they said, “We need to understand your business and we need to understand your domain so that we can deliver a really good solution for you.” And that is of course exactly what we do with our clients. So it was a sobering look at being on the wrong side of the table.

[laughter]

14:17 BS: But it does hit home the point that none of this can happen in a vacuum. You can’t hire in a consultant and expect them to just have all the answers and provide you with a nice complete and thick bound report based on zero interaction. It really is a lot of give and take and we try to work as closely with our clients as possible without getting in the way.

14:43 SO: Yeah. If you want somebody to walk in the door and tell you with 100% certainty on day one exactly what your solution should be, then what you need to do is go find yourself a vendor who sells a specific product and invite them in for a meeting, and they will tell you with great certainty that they can solve your problem. We are not that vendor, our job is to weigh all the different options and pick the one that is best for what you are trying to do and sometimes that involves software and tools, sometimes it involves process, sometimes it’s a new strategy. There are lots of things that could happen there. But you’re not going to get out of the box certainty without spending some time on actually letting us understand what it is that you need, what you’re trying to do and what you need to accomplish.

15:33 BS: I guess at this point it’s a good idea to dive into what a particular consulting project looks like, at least ones that we work on.

15:43 SO: Yeah. So lots of different kinds of things but I’ll talk a little bit about what a typical project looks like. In a typical project we get a phone call or an e-mail and it starts off with something along the general lines of a variety of things but the end of the email is always, “Our content is broken, what can we do?” Broken might be, like I said 52 languages coming down the pipe and we don’t have a scalable localization process. It might be we have never had to deliver this content in anything other than print and now we’re being asked for electronic deliverables and we just don’t know how to get there from what we have. It might be it takes too long to produce our content, we need a way of producing this content more efficiently. We have product variants and lots of conditionals. These typical kinds of problems that are basically content scalability problems.

16:42 SO: What we will typically do is a sort of analysis discovery phase and in that first phase we’ll go in, talk to everybody that we can. Everybody we can get in front of, from your content creators to your managers to your IT people, your QA, your tech support, anyone that is interested in customer facing content and everybody up the chain that’s going to interact with this content or have to pay for whatever it is that we’re proposing. So localization manager is usually the, whoever it is that owns the technical communication function or the marketing communication function depending on what kind of content we’re dealing with.

17:27 SO: So we talk to everybody, based on that we build out some pretty standard stuff, gap analysis, needs analysis, requirements, recommendation, budget, return on investment all that good stuff. We put all of that together and present a recommendation and say, “Okay you told us that you have this problem and our proposed solution is this thing it’s gonna cost this much. It’s going to buy you this much. This is what your return on investment, your ROI, looks like. Here’s a high level roadmap. And now we need to talk about making this actually happen.” So phase one is analysis discovery assessment and then phase two is implementation. So once we get agreement on the strategy then we go forward to actually implement the strategy which means figuring out are we changing tools and technologies, if so, how? Are we changing strategy? Are we changing style guides? What about your content process is going to change and how are we gonna put that in place? How are we gonna make that happen? That’s the implementation side of this.

18:36 SO: And I think the key to this we’ve talked about expertise and judgment and knowledge and all these things but at the end of the day this comes down to trust and relationships. We have to build a really, really good working relationship with the people inside the client company that are going to be engaged in this work and that are going to have to carry it forward once we’re done. We have to build trust and Bill, you touched on this. People are worried about consultants coming in and doing bad things and certainly I can think of some examples of that, where that fear is founded.

19:16 SO: You mentioned Office Space, I always think of the movie Up In the Air, which was a terrifying documentary from my point of view. [laughter] So in which I hasten to add that I played neither one of the principles. [chuckle] So trust is important. People have to trust that we’re going to give them good advice that will work and that we’ll address what they’re trying to do and work with them to make this happen and to improve their content processes or to improve their content strategy. As a practical matter, we do work on site, we’ll send people on site to meet and greet and do what we need to do but most of the time, we’re remote, we’re based in our own offices, you don’t want us moving into your office, you just don’t. So we come out, we do a kick off, we spend a couple of days, we get to know everybody and then we go off and do what we need to do with a lot of web meetings and phone calls and all that kind of stuff.

20:20 BS: And I think it’s important to also point out that a lot of the meetings and so forth we’ll come out during any phase of the project but the primary, I guess the times that are a must to go out and meet face-to-face are certainly when we’re about to work on the analysis portion or the discovery portion of the project. When it comes to implementation it’s more important that the company really have a direct hold on what’s going on during that phase. So there will be a lot less hands on direction from us at that point; it’ll really be the client driving the ship at that point and we’re there to support the implementation going forward.

21:07 SO: Yeah. Our goal typically is to build the expertise in house so that over time we get less and less involved and the people in house develop the skills that they need and they can go from there.

21:23 SO: So I’ve talked about a lot of relationships and I hope that this podcast gives you a little bit of an idea of what we are like and what it might be like to work with us. I would also suggest that you check out our brand new content strategy network. In the context of the content strategy network we have office hours that are available for people to just sign up for half an hour to throw ideas at us, do a brief intro, get to know us, understand what it might be like and say, “Hey I’ve got this issue and is this something that you could maybe help us with?” Keep in mind that in evaluating consultants that your relationship is going to be the key. We’re gonna have to work together for a long time and we need to make sure, all of us, that we can actually get along and work together productively. So with that cheerful closing thought, I will close out this podcast. Bill, thanks for being here.

22:14 BS: Thank you.

22:15 SO: I’m jealous of your weather but just wait until January.

[laughter]

22:23 SO: Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe

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Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

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