How much should you charge as a Communication Consultant and what are common misconceptions?

Today I’m continuing my series of articles looking at life as a Comms Consultant to mark five years of running All Things IC. It’s a long read, grab a cuppa.

My first post – How to be a Communication Consultant: getting started – provoked some interesting discussions. Thank you to everyone who got in touch to share their thoughts.

I’m answering questions I’ve been sent on the topics above, plus how to learn and evolve. My next article in this series will look at where to work and show you my office.

Bringing clarity to charging
Money is such a contentious issue. When I created All Things IC in 2013, I met with comms recruiter friends and consultants. We talked about the market, my offering and how to charge.

I didn’t have the confidence to charge what I was I worth, despite being advised the rate by recruiter friends.

I typically work on a day rate or a project rate. I now have five more years’ experience than I did when I launched back in 2013, and bring that knowledge and expertise into my work with clients.

My advice?
Do your homework. Talk to other practitioners and recruiters and charge what you are worth based on your skills and experience, plus the current market.

This week I was advising someone who has just started working as a freelancer. I encouraged her to think seriously about the rate she charges now. Why? If you set the bar too low due to your lack of confidence, it makes raising your rate to what it should be a lot harder in future.

In 2013 I didn’t have enough courage to talk about money. I do now. If you are starting out, don’t be afraid to state your rate upfront.

Various studies are published annually looking at how much people earn, such as VMA Group’s Inside Insight report. Their 2017 study included a new chapter on the interim IC specialist and included information such as:

VMA state: “The spectrum of salaries across the IC profession remains fairly broad, with a very even spread between £40-70k. From there the number of IC practitioners with earnings over £70k starts to steadily decrease. However, we do see a brief spike at the £100k mark, before the earnings tail off again and we see only 15% of the market earning this much or more. This suggests the number of available job opportunities above £70k are much smaller than the market overall.” It’s worth noting this includes in-house positions.

Recommended read: Calculate your day rate using VMA Group’s Day Rate Calculator.

I’m going to answer Lisa’s questions about what I miss working in-house and role models in my next article in this series. I’ve received other questions along these lines, so will address those in my next article too.

To answer Andrew’s question, what kept me awake at night was time. I spent many hours meeting people for coffee in the early days in the hope it would translate into paid work.

Anyone who knows me knows I love a decent cup of English Breakfast tea. But when you spend three hours out of your working day travelling to meet someone for an hour and back again and it doesn’t translate into paid work, you learn how to protect your time.

When I established All Things IC in 2013, I (eventually!) realised most invitations were not with the intention of hiring me, but to tap into my knowledge for free.

This came as a shock.

Having been in-house for 10 years and a Journalist for three years before that, I’d never been the person on the other side of the table.

I didn’t know what to do about it.

When I launched my business I was working part-time, as my daughter was in nursery three days a week.

To spend a sixth of my working week on one face-to-face meeting which didn’t translate into work was clearly not ideal.

It led me to put parameters in place to safeguard my time. If I did say yes, I started grouping those meetings together, so I would meet a handful of people back-to-back on one or two days a month.

I drank a lot of tea, but it wasn’t helping me grow my business.

I now I say no 90 percent of the time or arrange a call, and have those in-person conversations once a quarter. It can translate into work and yes you can’t beat face-to-face communication, but to answer Andrew’s question, it was something that used to keep me awake at night.

Money worries
Time is money. When you are self-employed, that is bought sharply into focus. Yes I get anxious about future income, it was a constant concern when I started my business.

I manage it by trusting something will come up, which it always does. As my diary now works 3-6 months in advance, I have more visibility of what’s ahead. I leave a few gaps in case clients have crises, but my months are varied.

By the end of January for example, I’ll have worked with 10 different clients and delivered two public Masterclasses and two bespoke Masterclasses this month. This is how I prefer to work as I know interim roles wouldn’t bring the variety, which is where I thrive.

Never say never about going back in-house, but this working pattern suits me. There are a very small number of companies I would seriously consider, as I’ve written about before.

A couple of weeks ago I worked with the BBC, this was a career highlight and something I’ve always wanted to do.

Hmm what do I wish I’d known?
That you need to pay your own maternity leave if you are self-employed.

As a Limited Company Director you pay yourself the statutory rate then claim it back at the end of your maternity leave.

I had my twin sons in 2014, so despite having two newborns and a two-and-a-half year old, I still had to earn money so I could pay myself the statutory rate and then claim it back once I returned to work.

I plugged the gap by introducing job adverts on my website, this provided the income to pay myself.

How to work
Having spent a decade in-house and never quite being sure where my budget was going, I’ve designed the way I work to be transparent and bring clarity to the process.

Last year I decided to publish prices on my website. It led to an increase in the number of people wanting to work together.

I was nervous about doing it, as everyone has a view when it comes to money, but practitioners tell me it’s helpful to allow them to make choices about working with me and for us to create a package that’s right for them. When we speak about their investment, they already know what to expect and where their budget is going.

Valuing your time
Sometimes practitioners want to work together, but only have budget for a 60-minute call. That may turn out to be enough to suit their needs.

I love hearing how an hour-long call with me has changed how they work or set them on the right path. We usually cover such a lot in 60 minutes!

I offer 90 minutetwo-hour and six lots of 60-minute phone call options, plus 1-2-1 consultancy VIP days. New for 2018 is my VIP mentoring package, this offers practitioners the opportunity to work together for six months. I love this type of work and helping comms professionals succeed.

It’s good to talk
People who are starting out as freelance consultants have also booked calls with me as they’re seeking advice about working independently. I’m happy to offer advice and help them think things through.

I’ve spoken to in-house comms pros in their lunch breaks who are frustrated and want to leave, but would like to run their thoughts past someone else first. I take the trust placed in me seriously, so will not break confidentiality, and offer impartial advice and a listening ear.

You can do this if you are an independent practitioner.

I often have a few days a month where I speak non-stop with comms pros via phone from my office. I absolutely love days like that and it gets my brain buzzing hearing their challenges and brainstorming together.

In terms of how to get paid, I introduced a payment system on my website which has made the process easier all round.

How to get set up as a supplier
Being set up as a supplier is rarely pain-free! From having to order a cheque book to post a crossed out blank cheque to a client’s Finance department to prove I had the account, to signing up to third-party processing systems clients use, getting paid is an art in itself.

You need to budget effectively and not assume people will pay on time. Having a payment system on my website is proving helpful as it provides another way to receive money.

If you are starting to talk to a potential client about working together, be sure to understand the way their company works when you sign them. This will speed up the payment process.

Think through what you could offer. Are you a specialist in a particular field? To answer Joanne’s question, could you offer change comms consultancy or employee engagement advice?

My answer to her question is to go where your energies and interests are. I have chosen to specialise in internal communication, but often advise on employee engagement, employee experience, social media, crisis communication, change communication, employer branding, leadership coaching, team building and much more. The beauty of internal communication is the fact it includes all of those areas – I’ll never get bored!

I wrote a few years ago about Edelman’s cloverleaf research and often refer to that in my conversations with practitioners and in my Masterclasses

“We need to have the deepest knowledge in the shallowest of niches.”

How I work – and get paid
When someone gets in touch about working together, we have a phone call so I can understand what they need and how I can solve their problems.

When I worked in-house I used to create a brief and send it to an agency for them to respond to and pitch. I rarely work like that now.

A typical scenario will be:

  1. Potential client contacts me via my website’s contact form, books a free 15-minute call with me or sends a private message on Twitter or LinkedIn. It’s a fairly even split, with 50 percent of enquiries coming via my website/email and 50 percent via private messages on social media.
  2. Practitioners share the problem they have and what they would like me to consider doing.
  3. We have an email exchange and if I’m able to proceed (depending on availability and location), we book a call.
  4. During the call I ask for more details about the information they’ve shared with me and indicate costs. I love these calls as it’s a chance to delve into the issue and start thinking about what they need.
  5. I write that conversation up and send it to them as a Statement of Work.
  6. We both sign it or make edits until we’re both happy we’ve created a package that suits their timings and budget.
  7. Once signed, we enable the work to happen by getting me set up as a supplier and/or raising purchase orders.

The Statement of Work outlines my understanding of what they need based on our conversation. It’s what I’ll deliver, dates, terms and conditions and the cost. I got the idea from my husband as that’s how he works in the IT world. It brings consistency to my work and has demystified the process as there are no hidden costs or surprises.

My clients know what I’m delivering and how much it costs. If the scope of the work changes, we revise the Statement of Work.

If I’m hiring venues for us to work in, the price reflects that, and if I’m creating a bespoke Masterclass and training a whole team, the cost varies depending on the work involved and location.

My Statement of Work structure provides the detail I would have liked when I was in-house.

How much admin work is there?
A lot, particularly if you work in the way I do, with multiple clients. From being set up as a supplier and answering queries from Finance departments, to proving insurance and suitability, there’s always something to respond to.

But once you’ve been set up once, it’s quicker when you work together again.

I’ve just taken on an Executive Assistant, Louise, who is marvellous. She’s a fellow working mum and works part-time for All Things IC, fitting my needs around her children’s school schedules. Four weeks in, I’m already wondering how on earth I did it solo for five years. I may even get to bed before 1am in future!

So if you book a Masterclass, meeting or call with me, it’s likely Louise will be in touch as she now manages my diary and ensures everything goes smoothly and I’m where I need to be.

I recommend getting organised early into your business, documenting your processes and keeping excellent records.

How to learn

Thank you Jo, I’m going to answer your question alongside Richard’s:

You have to be self-motivated and make the time to learn. There’s always a reason why something or someone else could take priority, but I’ve chosen to invest in my own professional development because I’m serious about continuously learning and evolving my thinking.

If I don’t push myself and set my own standards, no one else will do it for me.

From paying for membership association fees e.g. CIPR, IoIC, PRCA and the Institute of Directors, to being a Chartered Practitioner, I recommend striving to learn as much as you can.

To remain relevant, you need to keep up-to-date. It’s why I usually say yes when I’m invited to judge industry awards because they expose me to the latest thinking and reality of how professional communicators are working.

Why learn?

The more I learn, the greater depth I can bring to conversations with clients. Drawing on theories plus my own ideas and experience brings more to our working relationship.

In my previous article I described how I didn’t want to restrict my offering. As a result it has led me to advise on topics such as PLC communication, coaching CEOs and Comms Directors and recruiting and restructuring comms teams.

I take time to research, which enables me to constantly learn.

I recommend reading my article How to become a CEO to discover how Comms pros have risen up the ranks to become CEOs. There’s much to learn from what they’ve done and it’s a topic I discuss at my Strategic IC Masterclasses.

Misconceptions
I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what Consultants do and how they work. I have a clear policy of how I work with clients, which I outline in my Statement of Work. I have terms and conditions, abide by the CIPR code of conduct and regularly sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

I’ve never blogged about work I’ve done with a client.

I said that to someone the other day and he looked shocked. But you’ll not find case studies on my website or lots of anecdotes in the way you may expect a Consultant to communicate.

That’s because I take the work I do seriously and the trust and confidential nature of the majority of my work e.g.audits, leadership coaching and advising on restructures, is not appropriate to share.

The only real detail of any work I’ve shared was through my talk at IntranetNow in 2016 with my client, CIO Ed Garcez, discussing the Tri-borough project we did together rolling out Office 365 across three London councils.

Misconception re: cost
Since publishing my prices, I’ve had conversations with potential clients who say they’ve wanted to work together, but weren’t sure if they could afford to. However, now they feel able to get in touch and have a discussion.

I found that really interesting. I’m glad I’ve helped demystify the process as it’s encouraging practitioners to approach me.

Only this week for example, I had a conversation with a charity to explore how I can support their internal communication audit. The typical rate I quote for an IC audit is £9000 excluding VAT, which includes a comprehensive channels review, tailored face-to-face focus groups and a report containing full findings and an action plan. The cost varies depending on the number of channels/focus groups etc.

I’ve created a Statement of Work outlining ideas for them to choose from to suit their budget, (which is less than £9000). I’ve provided options, menu style, so they can decide where in the process to involve me.

This usually means helping comms teams do the thinking and planning at the beginning, middle and end. For example I can coach them to conduct their own focus groups to gather qualitative feedback, then help analyse the results.

As I look back at five years of running my own business, it’s the constant iteration that I’m enjoying. I work out loud, experiment and try things out. How All Things IC looks in five years time may be totally different, and I’m excited to continue evolving my business and ways to help practitioners.

Thank you to everyone who asked me questions to include in this article.  Has something you’ve read helped you make a decision? Did something surprise you?

As ever, you’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.

Further reading on the All Things IC blogHow to be a Communication Consultant: getting started.

Thank you for stopping by,

Rachel.

Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 27 January 2018.

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