The key to being successful as an independent consultant is building relationships and reliably getting work done. As an outside resource, you have more control over your time than an employee. Your goal should be to become a trusted resource managers can always count on to deliver — without them having to put much effort into managing you.
On a recent EM Consultant Forum Call, President and Founder Ken Chen led a panel discussion with seasoned consultants weighing in on three of the core skills required to succeed in that effort. Here are some of their thoughts and best practices around those skills:
1. Developing rhythm with the client
You successfully developed rapport with the client and you won the contract. Now you need to develop a rhythm for working together. Establishing a good communication flow is one of the keys to a successful engagement.
Find out what their preferred communication channel is. Is it email? Slack? Some other internal tool? Do they use Zoom, or Teams or something else? Communicate them in their preferred channel.
Set up at least one weekly or bi-weekly call — 30 to 60 minutes — to touch base. Loop in any team members that may be needed for different discussions. Come in with a clear agenda for the meeting and the desired outcome. Have all your documents ready to view, update and share. Especially in bigger companies, there are always people who need to be copied in on what’s going on, so it’s good to be able to share that out quickly. After the meeting ends, do a little wrap up confirming what has been agreed to, and communicating your next steps in writing.
Consider providing a weekly project update highlighting what happened during the week, and what's on tap for next week. Include a section for communicating any issues, risks, or help needed. That way everyone is aware of timelines and deliverables. This goes a long way toward providing visibility into the value you’re providing, and avoids panic situations.
Finally, if you’re not working directly for the person who hired you, ask the hiring manager what their escalation preferences are if any issues arise in the course of working with their team members.
2. Project management fundamentals
It doesn't matter what kind of marketer you are, you need to be good at project management.
One of the biggest project management challenges is making sure you have a clear understanding of who inside the client company will be involved in your project besides your main point of contact. Specifically, who will be reviewing deliverables? What is the expected turnaround time? How will feedback be delivered? Who are the ultimate decision makers?
Be sure to ask if there are additional people who will need to sign off. Especially on high visibility projects that touch a lot of stakeholders, such as a website redesign or a product launch, hidden approvers tend to come out of the woodwork. Do your best to get all the stakeholders involved as early as possible.
Build out a detailed project calendar at the start, including not only the timetable for the deliverables, but also the timeline for feedback from the client. The idea is to set expectations and call roles and responsibilities, but you should also be flexible enough to accommodate delays — up to a point.
If you’ve scoped your project clearly from the get go, figured out all the players and processes and laid out a timeline, then you’ve put guard rails in place to defend yourself and your team from delays and scope creep. Steel your spine and be firm but fair. Ultimately, that's going to help you maintain the quality of your deliverable, and most clients — the ones you want to keep anyhow — will understand that.
3. Overcoming obstacles and roadblocks
Despite our best efforts at communication and project management, you will have to persevere through obstacles and roadblocks that prevent your project from moving forward so you will need good problem solving skills.
One of the hallmarks of a good consultant is the ability to take work off the manager’s plate, so your first pass should be to problem solve using your own resources. Think back to any earlier, similar situations and how you resolved them.
- Ask for advice from fellow consultants, or from the EM community on Slack. If you're working with other consultants at that company, or have developed relationships of trust with internal people, see if they have any insights that can help you chart a course to get around the obstacle.
- Turn in imperfect work. If you can’t get the answers or resources you need, take your best shot at completing your deliverable anyhow. Label it “draft” and note any outstanding questions or gaps. If you can get to 80 percent completion, you’ve made it much easier for your internal counterparts to help you get the rest of the way.
- Call a meeting. Sometimes in bigger companies, projects seem to grow arms and legs. Getting all the stakeholders together in the same place, and re-grounding everyone in the original goals and priorities can help put things back on track. Be sure that you frame the issues, and have a clear agenda.
- Leverage data. When there are a lot of opinions and indecision, put your outside consultant hat on and bring in research, data and best practices you’ve seen at other companies. Objective information can often arm people with what they need to break through a logjam.
- Don't be afraid to escalate, especially when a deadline is in jeopardy. If you’ve set up that communication channel and guidelines with your client, you won’t have to spend so much time beating your head against the wall trying to make things work.
Ultimately, working through obstacles effectively is an opportunity to show your problem solving skills and become a trusted resource.
Working as an outside consultant allows you to be more productive because you’re somewhat insulated from internal politics and distractions. The flip side is that you never know exactly what kind of pressure your internal counterparts are under, or what undercurrents are running through the company that make it hard to get work done.
Do your best to remain above the fray and be one part of the project that they don’t have to worry about. When your client receives clear and consistent communication from you, has visibility into progress against the project timeline, and knows that you’ll do everything in your power to solve problems before escalating, then they can focus on other things that need their attention.
Ken Chen, Patrick Lundbom, Justin Liszanckie, Nancy Keith Kelly and Dan Gehant contributed to this article.