Staying On Spec & Other Consulting / Subcontracting Tips

Thanks to Triberr, Twitter, StumbleUpon, and Google+ (okay, sometimes LinkedIn and Facebook too), I have gotten to know many of you in the blogosphere and B2B space. I don’t need to tell you how hard consulting is, especially if you work from home. Understanding our collective challenges and drawing from our discussions and collaborations together, I have compiled some handy-dandy tips and insights. Today, amidst all the buzz about Valve announcements and SteamOS, I’d like to take a look at a subject that I can (and will) write a book about:

Consulting & Subcontracting Tips: How to Play Nice with Cients and Their Contractors / Coordinators

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Subcontracting is probably the easiest way to bridge the gap between major projects and supplement our existing revenue streams. Consultants and agencies almost always will take help if they have overflow work and feel overwhelmed. The risks and challenges I have experienced firsthand are as follows:

  • Less opportunity to build a relationship with the client.
  • Usually more about tactics than strategy and creative control.
  • As a result of the aforementioned, you essentially have to be a hired monkey.
  • Chances are your relationship will be short-lived regardless of value added.
  • More taking orders than providing proven strategies and complete solutions.
  • Keeping the relationship going usually means stroking several egos.
  • Essentially becoming a ghost or uncredited entity.

In short, you have to do as you’re told even if you have a better, more cost-effective solution. You have to swallow your pride and realize a subcontractor relationship may only serve as a brief income source and, if you’re lucky, it will translate into referrals and full-time roles.

Fortunately, I am a firm believer in creating your own luck and minimizing how much you leave up to chance. Here is the good news: there are a few key ways to be more proactive and nurture the subcontractor relationship. Keeping it as brief as possible, I will focus on three strategic areas.

1) Getting To Know Each Other: Is This A Right Fit?

It’s easy to jump on any project where the money is good and/or your skills, experience, and passions are best employed. It’s best to ensure that a project is a right fit. To me, that means personality fit above all. If you can’t work effectively with the people involved or adapting would compromise your core values, pass on the project and maybe refer a better candidate. You will protect your sanity and your time.

The dynamics in B2B are always interesting. Subcontracting introduces additional complexities. The best way to understand a project is to understand the organization and their track record.

As a consultant, coach, or advisor, you should always ask discovery questions:

  • Who will I be working with and what is their contact information?
  • Who will I report to and what is the preferred communication method?
  • Is there a project management or tracking system in place?
  • May I review any analytics, case studies, and marketing materials you may have?
  • What sort of timelines and results are we looking for?

Asking lots of questions may annoy some as they may want to just dive in but try your darnedest to avoid a rushed job and losing complete control. Ultimately, your initial assessments, recommendations, and assurances will show that you care about your client’s success and the nature of their work. This also reinforces the belief that you are not just looking for a paycheck.

The biggest questions revolve around understanding your role, expected deliverables, and the performance indicators thereof. Boundaries are a must in any relationship. You don’t want to unknowingly step on any toes or come off as a busybody or know-it-all.

We humans are fickle, complicated creatures. We all have insecurities and emotional baggage rooted in bad experiences. These are always at work in business relationships so be aware of them and be more compassionate, accommodating, and cooperative.

We statements are very powerful here. They show a team spirit and empower others. Even when you are self-sufficient, involve others as much as possible. Just don’t forget to take ownership and be clear about what you will do yourself.

The getting to know you phase is all about understanding or at least acceptance.. Or moving on if your gut tells you this will not be worth the investment and risks.

More On Organizational Charts And Corporate Culture

Perhaps this can be an article on it’s own but I wanted to emphasize why knowing the inner workings of a client’s business is critical for any project. In an ideal world, an organizational chart would be hierarchal and everyone would work within their functional groups with the manager or coordinator of that branch providing a single point of delegation, feedback, and supervision. In the real world, org charts are more about ego and everyone trying to stomp on someone else’s turf. Interactions happen on a many-to-many, one-to-many, and many-to-one basis, causing confusions and disconnects.

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As you’ll see in my Too Many Chiefs, Not Enough Indians section, ego tends to trump progress and collaboration. Everyone focuses on covering their behinds and interactions easily become cut-throat. This is a daunting for consultants and we are often singled out. I would venture to say that sometimes businesses hire consultants to shift accountability and go into management mode. After all, it’s easier to bark orders then to actually do some work.

Traditionally, the hierarchy of an organizational chart keeps strategy concentrated up top and tactics at the bottom. Consultants come in at an advantage as they work inside and outside of the org cha at the same time. While it’s easy to be relegated to tactics and operational work, making us far more expendable, it’s important to at least offer strategies to provide complete solutions, not mere “work for hire”, which anyone can do.

2) Managing Expectations & Defining Contractual Obligations

If proper discovery questions have taken place in the getting to know you phase, managing expectations is much easier. By now you should understand who does what and how you fit into the grand scheme of things. More importantly, you understand the track record to date and the urgency it has created.

You may find a formal contract may not be common practice. Offering one may scare some clients away, too. The thing is, even without a formal contract, there is always a binding agreement that is insinuated or casually stated. That agreement stipulates, “You give me X and you get Y.”

The simplest approach to establishing contractual obligations is to define a Minimal Viable Product (MVP). This will outline what needs to be delivered before a project is considered complete and the [remainder of] payment can be rendered. For bigger projects spanning over a month, set milestones and incentives accordingly.

The MVP establishes your release candidate and launch parameters. Getting your clients to sign off on an MVP early on prevents the never-ending revision cycles that some clients will surely abuse to milk you for what they paid. Guess what? They will try regardless of the deals you cut them and value you overdeliver.

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This chart is a common workflow model we see for any project or consulting gig. The key take-away for me are that you determine, together, whether your role will be more tactical or strategic before implementing. Then there are the assessment and measurement phases surrounding implementation/execution, which are sadly undervalued or skipped all together.

Fancy terminology and visuals aside, this simply reinforces how vital managing expectations and following a structured approach are. In business, shipping is how you make money but rushing to that phase can be disastrous. Consultants are charged with the uber important task of balancing planning and action.

Think too much and you may never act. Act without thinking and your results will be poor. This may be beating a dead horse, but it’s worth revisiting. You can almost always safely assume that a client comes to you out of desperation or urgency. That means they may consider planning or strategy to be “stuff” when all they want are “results” (the tangible, visible, and tactical deliverables). I find this often forced us to rush through or skip steps so be careful!

A few closing thoughts on managing expectations. I recommend focusing on the desired results and goals. Revisit the MVP with your team and collaborators to determine what is non-negotiable and what can be improvised as long as it fits acceptable guidelines. You’ll find that the core product or deliverable is much simpler than initially thought, leaving you ample opportunity to improve upon other areas.

3) Stick To The Specs – That’s The Contract!

We live in an entitled society where everyone expects freebies and great deals. This puts us consultants and subcontractors in a position where we feel we have to pack in tons of value to make ourselves un-fireable. Interestingly enough, this is the complete opposite of what big businesses do: their approach is to offer the MVP and strip away value so they can offer the extra stuff as upsells at premium prices.

Just as you should value your client’s time and make it clear that everything you do saves/earns them time and money, we consultants should always protect our most vital resources. Be clear when a contract is coming up and billable hours/items are on the horizon. Do not let one demanding client keep you from other work, commitments, and responsibilities.

In short, stick to the original specs but be flexible enough so that if minor changes are needed, they are included in the original quote or invoice. There are a few things to keep in mind here:

  • There are conversations going on between other team and organization members that you have not been included in.
  • Chances are the client has a vision or expectations he/she has shared with others but has not been communicated to you.
  • Your initial release candidate is rarely accepted as-is if there are multiple inputs and feedback sources in play.
  • You should bill according to what you anticipate will happen, because tweaks, maintenance, and revisions will be expected.

These notions particularly apply to web design, content development, creative writing, ad campaigns, graphic design, and related services but the truths here are universal.

Here is where you decide how much you want to budge before you draw a line. If you have been proactive in the aforementioned strategic areas, this is a less painful or awkward phase; otherwise, expect demands that will go beyond the original scope of work. The more tactical your role, the more you are subject to whims and last-minute requests. Since I started consulting and volunteering for IT, programming, writing, and marketing projects back in 1992, this has always been the case. If you have not experienced this, consider yourself lucky.. For now.

Sometimes, simply reminding your client or your point of contact of the agreed upon specs is enough but usually people will come to you at different angles with out-of-spec requests. It gets tricky here because you may have agreement on one end and confusion on another. This happens because everyone feels their job is most important and, by extension, they feel their feedback is the most crucial to success.

Regardless, stick to the spec and kindly remind everyone of the original plan and goals. If they provided very vague specs in spite of your efforts, that is their issue. Be helpful but don’t devalue yourself by becoming an indentured servant.

Remember: if your deliverables meet the goals and the performance indicators or analytics back you up, you did your job. On that note, be sure to cite dependencies and pre-requisites early on. You can build something amazing but, if it is not supported or used properly, you have little or no control over the results. At this point, move on or offer more help but temper expectations. Unrealistic expectations left unchecked are bound to lead to trouble.

Self-accountability is a beautiful thing but be wary not to let yourself be set up for failure. Again, be proactive and keep a paper trail so, if your advice and optimal parameters are ignored, it does not get pinned on you. We consultants are often treated as expendable outsiders and scapegoats. Stay positive and focused but be prepared!

Too Many Chiefs, Not Enough Indians

I recall a TED Talk (or maybe it was an Entrepreneur or Fast Company article) where they talked about how a computer manufacturer overcame severe customer service issues. Their product was great but the support and overall user experience was terrible. A savvy consultant came in and saw that there was a huge war of the egos going on.

The project manager felt her input and role was more important. The customer service manager felt his was. The marketing director felt her was. The legal and compliance advisor felt his was… And you get the idea: there was no compromise.

When they shipped their newest computer, the concession was that everyone’s documentation was marked “Read Me First”, making for an abysmal user experience. Surely, not everything could be read first and understood equally. That’s ridiculous!

The consultant saw this circus and established order. He knew they all valued their customers but lost sight of how their ego-driven decisions impacted them. His recommendation was that they survey customers and use the feedback to simplify documentation and follow a logical path. A customer with a new computer wants to set it up first so that was clearly the most important thing. After that, critical warnings and citation of related materials were included so that the process flowed better.

A few simple copy edits, repackings, and flow charts made the user experience immensely better. It was now clear to the consumer how to get started, where to go for support, what to put away in a safe place, and where to find more answers and self-help solutions. Best of all, every department saw less of a strain on their resources because they anticipated customer needs and freed up support personnel to focus on critical issues and quality control.

Every day I see organizational and collaborative ecosystems where there are so many disconnections and, well, a lack of synergy. People easily lose sight of what matters most. What we see is that there is an inherent desire to reduce our expendability rather than creating win-win-win scenarios (or sharing a bigger pie, as Guy Kawasaki would say). This leads to the downhill turd rolling and finger pointing that is common yet avoidable.

I’d like to share a more intimate example of what happens when to try to overdeliver, specs are not agreed upon across the board, and you outside actors straining an otherwise effective business relationship…

I came into a huge project for a friend as a sub-contractor. In the past, I had offered her free services, a friendly shoulder to lean on, and referrals. We had a rock solid foundation for partnership and she had an opening for several roles I could fill. Subcontracting was an easy and logical transition for us, or so I thought.

I was tasked with the duties of redesigning a web site that looked like it was created and hosted on a Tripod or Geocities platform back in the nineties. The client had training materials, workshops, and speaking engagements of high quality and great need. I reviewed his materials and fell in love. This was a project I believed in and I was passionate about our collective success.

Going into the project, I was well aware that we all had our reputations on the line. I had many hats to wear but we also had some star players covering area like PR, media relations, graphic design, and video production. It was my job to do the rest.

The core offering was the web site and all that entailed (i.e. landing pages, security hardening, download management, contact/subscription forms, CSS, and data migration). The specs were simply “make it look like this magazine-style site”. The functionality was to mirror the old site with a cleaner interface and easy-to-use navigation menu and CMS (Content Management System). It had to be slick, professional, and accessible for media contacts. I verified all expectations and requirements with the client.

Together, we decided lead capture was important and that we needed to migrate leads and build up a contact database. I completed all minimum requirements and then some. The expectations were clearly set that I had reign over the “final cuts” in all things I built. It was also understood that this would turn into a monthly role where I would maintain the site, generate content, help promote the client’s work, and do any tweaks as needed.

Almost two months later, we launch the site after several revisions and last-minute requests not initially specified. As a result, I had to double my hours and rebuild some things from scratch. I did not want to disappoint my friend or the client whom I admired, but I was now well beyond the original scope of work and now there were talks of “holding off on the other stuff”. I saw where this was heading…

What had started off as a complete solution and online marketing plan to ramp up sales and grow our client’s audience became a mere operational, tactical thing. The client suddenly went from eager to work more with me to saying, “I don’t want to invest any more until I make more sales.” It was a complete 180!

This was an unfortunate turn of events and I know I had some missed opportunities but it all started with my friend disappearing for two weeks and being out of the loop. When she returned, she made several foolish and preemptive assumptions resulting in her advising our client to not pay anything else because it was “crazy” to do so; thus, this is what our client’s mindset became. He wanted to make more money but essentially pulled the plug on things I already took the initiative on. He did not know it then but it also meant he was missing out on several paths to revenue under the foolish belief that a single path or tactical plan was all he needed.

After that, my friend ignored all email messages, calls, and friendly check-ins. In her mind, I was trying to take advantage of our client or made her look incompetent. In my mind, I put in more than two months worth of work for a measly $20/hour at best. My going rate ranges between $40-80/hour so this project became lost time and money for me.

I took every effort to clarify things but by then we were both frustrated and guarded. I still love my friend and think she is one of the best PR people out there but she made several common mistakes seen in consulting:

  • Acting on assumptions without verifying facts first.
  • Failing to empower her team and vouch for them.
  • Flip-flopping on issues of ownership, management, and roles.
  • Devaluing the experience and specializations of others.
  • Focusing on initial costs versus value, profit, and ROI.
  • Discrediting collaborators and reducing their effectivenes.
  • Refusing to take measured risks and have some faith.

The customer is always right but don’t screw over your team members. Word will get around quickly and soon only those desperate for money or fooled by shallow (perhaps inauthentic) pleasantries will work for you.

In this case, my friend was sold on the fact that the only way to sell content is to be featured in major media channels and mass market. She had my client believing national coverage was the only thing that mattered and “online stuff” (global coverage) was purely “dress-up for the media”. Mind you, this same person wonders why her television show and web site are not producing leads and referrals for her. She even asked me to fix her online marketing for free because she got me a few referrals.. Ironic.

What was even more ironic is that she opened up by saying, “Budget is an ugly word. We don’t use that word. The value is there, I trust you, so let’s get it done. Money is not an issue.” I trusted her fully but it soon became clear that she had her insecurities as we approached launch. We each sung heralds of each other often but her doubts got the worst out of her and ruined what would have been a mutual win for all of us – as a team! Heck, even after she blatantly put me down on multiple occasions, I still spoke and speak highly of her.

Since that awkward turn of events, I have gone direct with my client and communication has vastly improved. We are getting things done in less time and the silly “he said, she said” stuff came to an end. My friend still manages his media and PR campaigns but we work independently and sanity has been restored.

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There are many insights and missed opportunities here but I would say it all came down to professional courtesy and respecting the contract, whether formally written by a legal authority or verbally agreed upon. A contract is a contract. The MVP, original scope of work, and specifications thereof are a binding agreement.

Contracts are not meant to make things awkward. It’s quite the opposite: contracts prevent awkwardness, ensure smooth operation, and should protect all parties from anything that could hurt them and their brands/businesses in any way. Sadly, my friend did not see my perspective though I understood fully her position.

She was so passionate, possibly obsessed, with wowing the client that everyone else became an obstacle or mere tool to her. What strained things further is that she bills out at flat rates on a “work for hire” basis so she wanted to get things done and move on. That urgency also meant she wanted to bring in more billable work and get referrals ASAP.

To her, this project was about building more testimonials and case studies. Since the client did not want to spend more money and she got him set on saving money until he made more, we were all placed between a rock and a hard place. Everything essentially came to a grinding halt and loose ends were a-plenty.

On Pricing: This is why I think flat rates are a bad deal for everyone. For recurring roles and ongoing work, bill out monthly or bi-weekly if you want to be more agile.

I hold no hard feelings against my friend. She had been burned by other consultants and subcontractors before so It’s only natural she was jaded and bound to jump the gun. Still, had she read something like this article here, I think disaster would have been averted and we would have all handled things better.. We’d also all be making more money together.

Just sayin.

The Final Verdict On Subcontracting

To be clear, I am not by any means trying to sway anyone away from subcontracting but these types of gigs are some of the most demanding and ridiculous at times, if you are not careful and prepared; furthermore, they are often the least profitable due to all the middle men. I see subcontractor gigs as experience builders and, if you are allowed rights or credits, portfolio and showcase items.

Subcontracts are honestly the most abundant types of consulting gigs, simply because we consultants and agencies tend to bite off more than we can chew. Outsourcing and subcontracting projects out makes it easier to focus on strategic deliverables and project management. It also makes us more efficient with our time.

Being on the subcontractor end is tough but hopefully now you are better prepared!

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3 thoughts on “Staying On Spec & Other Consulting / Subcontracting Tips

  1. Pingback: Work For Hire: Proper Attribution Vs. Blatant Content Theft | Yogizilla's Blankity Blank-Blank (Y3B)

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