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Consultant knows best

Most of my career has been as a professional outsider. I worked at PR and advertising agencies for more than 10 years, and I truly enjoyed about 85% of it. (The other 15% falls under the umbrella of billable hours, which is one of The Worst Things on Earth.)

My favorite aspects of agency work:

And here’s a dirty little secret and one of the best things about being a consultant: Clients often believe what you say to them purely because you’re a consultant and they’re paying a hefty hourly fee for your time.

It’s true. I’d often guiltily share a knowing glance with some poor internal comms staffer after a presentation, understanding they’d probably already made similar suggestions only to have their ideas shot down purely because they didn’t charge $100-plus per hour. Sorry about that, all of you.

But after a recent trip to meet with a new client on what will be a big initiative, I had a revelation about what you miss when you’re always being called in from the outside. This client is a large organization with employees in offices nationwide, and I had the privilege to be part of its annual communications planning process. Colleagues who work together frequently via email came together to talk big-picture goals and strategies, to brainstorm, to share successes and celebrate one another.

I realized that it’s rare as a consultant to be brought in on the ground level like that, to hear the impetus for the ideas and have a chance to soak in the organizational culture in such a meaningful way. I wasn’t there to present ideas or teach techniques, I was there to listen (mostly) and absorb the team’s priorities and concerns. It’s difficult as an outsider to read a group of people and make recommendations that are perfectly on point not only for what they hope to achieve but that are suited to their internal capabilities, organizational subtleties, political concerns and unique dynamics.

I was grateful for the opportunity to approach the project from this perspective. Hopefully what we create together will be even more relevant and more closely aligned with their goals as a result.

And as we discussed branding and taglines for a big milestone celebration, it also underscored what’s great about the relationship between clients and consultants – while a consultant can never know an organization as well as its internal team members do, internal team members are sometimes too close to the subject matter to view things as a neutral third party would. And neutral third parties are often the audience for communications campaigns.

What has been your experience as a consultant, or working with one? Have you worked from the inside and the outside? What did you like best? I’m curious to hear what others think about the best ways to work together in this dynamic. Drop a comment and let’s discuss!

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