Businesses seeking proposals from communications consultants should bear in mind that the consultancy is likely to be better at making a presentation than the organisation is at evaluating it. Or at least it should be.
An organisation probably only seeks new pitches every few years, whereas most consultancies do several a year – and some many more than this.
Indeed larger consultancies may well have a “pitch team” which spends much of its working week preparing and delivering presentations to prospects.
Organisations therefore shouldn’t just accept what is said to them in a pitch, or be overly impressed by the quality of the presentation. Indeed, consultancies can be much better at the pitch than they are at actually delivering the proposed services consistently and professionally.
So how does an organisation interpret consultancies’ proposals and work out who is most likely to deliver results?
In addition to the specific questions that an organisation should raise about a consultancy’s response to the brief, there are six general questions that need to be asked at every credentials presentation.
1. Who will actually be working on my account day-to-day?
Keep in mind that the people doing the pitch aren’t always the ones who will be working on the account.
The head of the consultancy, or some other senior executive, is usually involved in the presentation, but regardless of what is said at the time, in mid to large consultancies the group heads are unlikely to be involved in the day-to-day running of the account, unless it is financially important to the consultancy.
Always find out who is going to manage the account and who will be your daily contact – and insist you meet them before a decision is made. It’s not unknown for a consultancy to employ someone to work on an account after the work is won.
Shameless plug alert – using an owner/operator consultant means this question is unnecessary as the owner you meet will be the consultant. It also means that clients do not have to be concerned about the consultant leaving at any time during the relationship.
2. Who are your current clients, not “who have you worked with over the years”?
Consultancy websites and credentials documents often show “organisations we have worked with”. Just remember this could represent clients from 10 years ago, and organisations for whom the consultancy handled a small one-off project, perhaps unsuccessfully.
It may also be that the consultants who worked on a past account left the consultancy years ago, and indeed the contacts the consultancy had at the client may have also moved on.
Be specific. Ask for a list of current clients and contacts and what the consultancy does for them.
3. Who can I contact for a reference, both from clients and independents?
It is critical to talk to others when assessing a consultancy – especially existing clients similar to your organisation – preferably in the same industry. If you already have contacts in organisations on their current client list, check with them. Can they do what they say? Do they have the industry knowledge?
Checking references should not stop with clients. If you know some key journalists such as trade publication writers, ask them. A consultancy may imply knowledge of a particular industry, or claim media relationships that aren’t always as strong as suggested.
Ask yourself, do you want to be training consultants about your industry or profession on your time and money?
4. Will you give us informed advice and useful ideas and feedback?
If there are particular areas of support you are looking for from a consultancy, ask at the presentation how this works and the way they operate. Then, where possible, check their responses with other clients and references.
It may be that you are looking for people who will bring both new opportunities and discipline to your communication program. Will the consultancy push back if you are suggesting inappropriate approaches? Will the consultancy protect your brand? Are they creative?
A complaint often made about consultancies is that “They’re OK as far as it goes, but it’s always us who have to come up with ideas”.
5. How do you deal with conflicts of interest such as clients operating in similar areas?
Always ask about present and potential conflicts of interest. It is an indicator of ethics and trustworthiness. Would your account be in conflict with an existing client? How would the consultancy deal with a future conflict of interest? Would they refer it to you for your approval before they take on a new client?
If a consultancy can’t articulate a simple policy, it’s likely that it won’t recognise conflict if it arises. Or if it does, they won’t inform clients affected.
6. How do you measure your contribution?
Evaluation should be covered in the brief prepared by an organisation. There are many ways to evaluate results, but agree measurement criteria at the outset and work out an approach that you’re happy with before making a decision on a consultancy. Don’t leave it until later as you might find the money’s going out, without any proof of results being provided.