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Consultant Confidential: Saying No and I Don’t Know

By Lynn Bruno

When is it okay to refuse an engagement? How do you avoid getting pigeonholed? How do you deal with pressure to know everything? These were some of the audience questions for our panel of four seasoned EM Consultants at the “New Consultants Workshop” at Open Canopy in Redwood City and online December 5, 2019.

Panelists included Azadeh Rasmussen, Independent Marketing Consultant and EM Account Lead; Tara Verner, CEO and Founder, Bee Direct Marketing; Mark Harnett, Strategic Acquisition Marketing Consultant, Drak Marketing, and Dan Gehant, Founder, Copper Insights Holistic Digital Marketing. Lynn Bruno, an EM Consultant and Founder of Virtual Ink Marketing served as moderator.

Here are the panelists’ answers (and one from EM Founder Ken Chen) to audience questions. If you'd like to watch the whole session (approximately 1 hour), see the video below.

Q: Do you ever consider the possibility of refusing a client? What reasons do you find appropriate? Is it ethical to say no?


I decline during the summer when I want to travel. I do feel bad because often the people that are calling me in the summer are people I really like. So then I refer them to people, and I feel really good about it.

Also, sometimes it's the right thing to do to refuse a client. For example, if they want someone to do SEO, it would be not right for me to paint myself that way, so I would refer them to Dan.


If you don't really like the client or would prefer not to work with them I think that's okay. You wouldn't necessarily tell them that, but again refer them to someone. I don't think that's unethical whatsoever.

For myself, I take those opportunities that I feel I'm going to get the most out of not necessarily financially but that I'm going to grow in some way or that it's an interesting project and that it fits my needs, because one of the reasons I do this is the flexibility. I think it's really important to ask for what you need and what you want.


Another element of that same question is if you're in an engagement and they're asking you to do something you're not comfortable with.

I was recently in an engagement managing another agency, and the guy who hired me said, "I want to fire them because I'm running out of money. It's not as effective as my other thing." They had a 90-day out, but he didn't want to pay them next month and he wanted me to fire them. I balked and just sat on it. Then he fired me and the agency at the same time, and I was quite happy to be shot of it.

Q: How do you not get pigeonholed into one specific skill? What are your thoughts on how to broaden your skillset and get offers that are not in your main skillset?


It's very hard to find a new thing if you're in that pigeonholed category. Your best bet is internally. Once you're in somewhere doing your pigeonholed activity, move laterally and show that you can pull it off.


You can volunteer. That's a great way to get the experience you want.


When you're starting something new, you can always do it for less or do smaller projects and step your way into it. I've found on certain projects there's always something right nearby that you can step into that's related to what you're great at, and you can probably be really good at that.

You just need to build up your confidence. Oftentimes we tell ourselves, "Oh, I don't know how to do X." The reality is most other people don't either. Once you actually start, then you realize, "Oh, I know the pieces." You start to learn the language, and then it starts to fall into place.


Going back to relationships, if somebody has worked with you before and they know that you're a strong worker and you've got some of the soft skills that they rely on, they're more open to giving you those opportunities.

I took a contract about a year ago where I had no experience. I had never done interactive production, but I had worked with this person and she knew that I had the general skills to work with people and get things done. So she hired me to do something completely different. I learned it, and I did well.

Q: What do you think about your pricing, hourly rate versus project rate versus retainer?


I like to do a monthly retainer. It always comes back to what your hourly rate is and how that fits in. I typically say, "I'm going to give you about this much time. It's going to cost you this much per month." I don't like to track my hours. It just makes my life too complicated with four clients.

Most of the projects that we're involved in, we're adding a certain amount of value. We're not adding a certain amount of hours of effort, but the people who are employing us typically think like that and will back it out. It's a fine line.


As an account lead, it's project-based, but I have to say, I wish that clients were better at planning, but they're not. I find myself getting in this situation where I have clients who say they need one thing and then you get in there and you realize it’s actually very different than what they thought they needed, and it's going to require more time. So I've been working with an hourly model, and that's been working for me just fine.


I looked at other roles to establish my rate, but sometimes you want to get into a company. EM was working at Facebook. I wanted to work there. Their rate was lower. I negotiated. They thought they needed somebody five days a week. I knew I could do it in three. It doesn't have to be so hard and fast. If it's a client you really want to work for or project you really want to work on, you might adjust it a little bit. That's the advice I'd give.


When I first started out, I did my own personal calculation of what makes sense for me, and then I started sticking with that number. When the numbers were too low, I'd say no. When something fit in that range, I said yes, and I went with that.

As time has passed, I push towards project pricing because, one, you get value for your expertise. When I do an audit, that represents years of work that I put in so that I can do it quickly. But, the client's not paying me for that time. They're paying me for my expertise. They see the benefit in spades, but I don't need to be fully transparent on my time. Thinking in terms of value also helps out. It makes you feel better about yourself.

Q: I'm very much a generalist, and I notice that a lot of the positions are for specialist roles. How do you narrow that down, and how do you pitch what clients want?


I have done everything and can do the general stuff, but most of the consulting roles are very specific. You're coming in with a very strong skillset, and you're much better than everybody else, so they're paying you to be the specialist. The generalist stuff can work, but that's probably going to be in smaller companies. I think you need to specialize.

I go in and mainly focus on online acquisition, Facebook, and Google marketing, but because I've got the general experience, I can tell you, "You need to have your Salesforce set up differently, and this is the program you need. This is the landing page optimization." Then I refer them to a specialist. I've got enough breadth that I that add value along a lot of different dimensions, but typically sell myself on the acquisition piece.


I'm a generalist myself. I do have an expertise in direct response. When I'm going into a big company, I do that. When I help them with launches, I do other things. I do actually think working for smaller companies or startups, being a generalist is usually valuable because they need you to wear many hats. So you might want to focus on those types of companies.


If you can highlight a specialty within your generalist skillset that allows you to say, "I do these five things," but this one you give a little polish to for that particular client, and that helps get you in the door.

Q: Do you feel the pressure as a consultant to know everything? When asked to do something outside your expertise, do you figure it out on your own, ask colleagues within the org for help, or phone a friend?


Initially, I had that fear for sure. I wanted to come off as knowing everything. If they asked me a question, I would try and come up with an answer. Now I'll say, "I don't know that," or, "That's an interesting question. Let's figure it out."

The beauty of having the community is you've got lots of friends you can phone. We've got a really great, robust Slack community where you can literally, while you're on a call with a client, ping somebody and ask a question. Sometimes you get a response.

If you're curious and want to learn, do the research. I love going to Google and and trying to figure it out. Then other times I will just ask an expert and learn that way too.


I think it's better to be authentic, and I think I really respect people when they say, "Yeah, that's a great idea. That's not my area of expertise."


It gets back to building those relationships of trust. You don't want to bullshit. If you don't know, say, "I don't know. I could either find out for you, or I could connect you to somebody that would know." You'll win more points that way.


In my experience, it's best to say you don't know, but it's actually an opportunity to show how fast you can learn something. What I have found is if I do that with a client and say, "That's a great question. I don't know the answer. Give me a day," and I come back with something, then they'll ask me all of those questions that they don't ask because they don't know either. You demonstrate your ability to be a good consultant.

Q: Given the recommendation that we start with a specialty, what specialties are in the highest demand and pay the highest rate?


In the online marketing realm, because they're spending such large amounts on the media, it doesn't take that much for me to make a big difference and justify how much they're spending on me, so it's quite easy to do the sale. If I'll save you 5 percent of your big monthly media spend, I've more than paid for what you're paying me. They sometimes compare me to what they would pay for an agency, and some of the agency fees take a percent of media, which is outrageous sometimes. I'm typically much better than that.


I found this question a little hard to answer because I think you've got to ask yourself what you enjoy doing. But I think what you can do is look within the realm of what you do and think of which things are being commoditized and which require more expertise.


I would also ask, "How valuable do you think your work is to the client?" I think that sometimes they don't have a number in mind. Start with, "What is your budget?" I've had clients that I've charged way more than I would normally because they're like, "Well, I have this much, and I just really need this done." Going back to the project-based model, "Well, okay. I can do that within that number." It's not being deceitful or lying or anything. How much is the client going to value what you have to offer? There are times where being open about that is good, and there are times where you're working within a tight parameter and you have to wiggle around.

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About Lynn Bruno

Lynn Bruno is a blog editor and independent digital marketing consultant.

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