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Podcast: How to work well with a comms consultancy

Do you invite comms consultancies to support your in-house internal communication?

What’s the best way to work with an agency or consultancy?

Do you know how to choose the right one for you?

What do you need to think through before getting in touch?

I’ve explored this topic in the latest episode of my Candid Comms podcast, which has just been published.

I interviewed my All Things IC colleague Caroline Cubbon-King to share our perspectives on working with a comms consultancy, and what’s useful for IC pros to be aware of.

Our discussion was informed by our in-house comms careers, and now on the other side of the fence as consultants.

You can find the Candid Comms podcast on your favourite player including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Podbean or listen via this article.

Candid Comms featuring Caroline Cubbon-King

About Candid Comms

The Candid Comms podcast launched in January 2021. It is a weekly show designed to connect internal communication professionals to the advice and guidance, to help you thrive in your role.

Do let me know what you think of this episode and don’t forget to rate, review and follow, so other Comms pros can benefit too.

Transcript of this week’s episode

Rachel Miller:

You’re listening to the Candid Comms Podcast with Rachel Miller. Tune in for practical advice and inspirational ideas to help you focus on all things internal communication related.

Hello and welcome to the show. On today’s episode, I have a special guest with me who is my colleague at All Things IC Caroline and she is with me today because we are focusing on how to work successfully with a consultancy or agency.

And as ever, you will leave with one thing to know, one thing to do, and one thing to think about. Now there’s going to be definitely more than one in this episode, do grab a notebook. Are you ready? Let’s get started.

Caroline, welcome to the Candid Comms podcast.

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Hello. I am very excited to be here Rachel, obviously I’ve got that privilege of being on the inside track of Candid Comms working with you and the team, but I’ve never been on a podcast in my life, so this is a big step for me and I’m very excited that my first podcast is Candid Comms. So thank you for having me.

Rachel Miller:

Oh pleasure. Caroline, can you introduce yourself, give us your full name, give us your title, and perhaps a potted history of your internal comms career.

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Of course. So I am Caroline Cubbon-King and I work with Rachel and the team at All Things IC. My role at All Things IC is twofold, so I’m a consultant working directly with clients and I’m also really lucky because I’m usually the first person the potential clients get to speak to. So I help people unburden their souls, talk about the problems and challenges that they face and then help them develop solutions.

So it’s a really lovely sort of two-sided role. In terms of my history, until a few years ago, I’d always worked in-house. So often I feel when people are talking to me about the issues they face, I can often put myself back in their shoes from different points in my career.

I used to lead a comms team and a large organisation, so I looked after all aspects of comms included internal comms. But it was always employee communications that I was the most passionate about and used to fight the corner saying if staff aren’t happy and informed and engaged, then what happens on the outside won’t fit in.

And how fortuitous that I work with you Rachel with our lovely saying, what happens on the inside is reflected outside. Because I really do believe the strongest brands and organisations are formed from the inside out.

Rachel Miller:

Absolutely. And you do really have people unburden their selves to you, don’t you? I know that when people get in touch it’s often because they’re stuck and they’re just getting in touch to say ‘Help, help. I’m not quite sure what I need’.

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Absolutely.

Rachel Miller:

So the intention for our discussion today is kind of lift the lid a little bit on what it’s like to work with a consultancy and it’s based on our experience both from our in-house careers and working as consultants now.

So the purpose of today is to really help our comms friends set themselves up for success when you’re working with a consultancy.

So Caroline, let’s kick off. What do you think internal communicators need to know before you contact an internal comms consultancy?

And I’m going to use the word consultancy here. You might use agency, our preference is consultancy. So however you refer to people who are on the outside who support you, we are going to stick with the consultancy.

So what do internal communicators need to know before contacting people like us?

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Okay, thank you. Okay, so I think the first thing to think about is actually why do you want the support? So before you reach out it’s probably worth thinking, is it because you are asking for some knowledge or skills that a specialist or just outside of your own level of experience?

Is it because you have an idea of what you want to do but you actually want to validate your approach? And that is perfectly fine.

Often people come to organisations like ours because they want to run an idea past someone that they think will be able to help or sometimes for a confidence boost to be frank, do you actually just need inspiration and ideas?

Comms is such a busy working environment and actually I think time for thinking and planning and notebooks and sharpies and all the things that we love. If you look at your working week, wouldn’t it be great to spend every Friday morning with a blank sheet of paper creating, but the reality is somewhat different.

So sometimes working with a consultancy can give you that space in a legitimate way to say that’s what we’re looking at. Is it because you actually need a safe space to offload and share?

I think lots of practitioners, they have their team or their manager, but often in comms the manager particularly, they might not be comms people. And that’s something that we definitely hear a lot. I’ve got a great boss, but they don’t actually understand comms, so there’s only so much I can share with them. So sometimes it’s almost that ear and that sounding board that you might want. Is it because you want to learn and obviously I mentioned confidence before.

So I think even if you’re not quite sure what you’re asking for, thinking about that as a starting point I think can be really useful.

Rachel Miller:

Marvellous. Thank you. And it could be any or all of those reasons, couldn’t it?

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Absolutely.

Rachel Miller:

…That people get in touch and there’s never a one size fits all approach to internal comms. And particularly for consultancy, people come to us when they’re stressed, when they’re overwhelmed, when they’re curious, when they need that confidence boost.

I think that’s such an amazing privilege that from our perspective that we can support people and guide them and set them up for success. I think it’s important that it’s okay if you’re not sure.

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Yeah.

Rachel Miller:

What you need. I think so many times you and I have conversations where people have got in touch and they say, ‘I know I want to work with you and I’m not quite sure what I need. What do you recommend?’

So thinking about that, what do internal communicators need to bear in mind, do you think, when they get in touch with consultancies?

Caroline Cubbon-King:

I think you’re dead right. It is absolutely fine to say, ‘I actually want to spend this half an hour consultancy call sharing some ideas, telling you what’s going on and you can help me work out what I need’. And you know what, I love those type of conversations.

So if you don’t know what you want, that is absolutely okay too. But in terms of how to get the best out of those initial sort of conversations and set a relationship of success, there are probably some tips that I’d like to share. And they’ve certainly been developed in my mind quite clearly from working with lots of clients as a consultant over the past few years.

I think it’s really important to remember actually that an agency or consultancy, they aren’t just colleagues like the person down the corridor or someone in your team that’s at the other end of a team’s call.

So I think I would say respecting the time of an agency or consultancy is really, really important. Actually, if they offer free time for consultations, brilliant.

 Absolutely take it and they will be so happy to spend time with you. I know I always look forward to initial conversations. But actually I think when we get to the nuts and bolts of how we might support someone, I always try navigate clients around how to use time effectively.

So if they choose to invest time and money, actually they’re getting good value for it. I think keeping suppliers and agencies and consultants informed is really important. You don’t know the ins and outs of that business and you might say, Well actually I think I want to do a 10 day project with you about X. And you think brilliant on both sides are thinking great, I can’t wait to get started. But then actually something changes and doesn’t it always change in the world of communication.

Rachel Miller:

Always.

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Always. We work in such a dynamic environment and actually you know what, we certainly understand that. I know All Things IC, we’ve all worked in house for a long, long time. So we absolutely get that the plan that you had on a Thursday morning when you were talking to people like us, half an hour later, something significant can happen and your complete thought process is diverted and that’s okay.

So I think it’s important to just keep people like us in the loop and say, ‘You know what? Something’s happened, but I’ll be back in touch in about a week’s time and we can chat about the idea’. And we love being kept informed, you don’t have to tell us what’s happened because that’s frankly not our business. But I think it’s really important to respect the time of organisations because actually if you don’t, you could be stopping them working with somebody else.

Or if you’ve invested time, you could be wasting some of the time that you’ve paid for by cancelling appointments or meetings at the very last minute. So I would say just thinking actually this isn’t just a normal colleague who also you shouldn’t be letting down at the last minute.

This is actually a paid for resource and actually I want to work in an ethical open way with them and build a really strong relationship. So I think in terms of need to know, just think they’re not quite the same as an employed contact who gets paid whether you turn up at the call or not. And actually is probably thrilled to get an hour back in their diary, but it’s a different type of relationship. So I’d urge you to sort of think that through in advance.

Rachel Miller:

Brilliant. Thank you so much. What a long list there, it’s really, really helpful. Hopefully that’s given you some ideas and sparks and thoughts in terms of what you need to know before getting in touch with a consultancy.

So let’s move on to think about what you need to do. So the way to phrase it in my mind is what can internal communicators do to make working with a consultancy really easy?

What would your advice be Caroline, based on all of your experience in house and now on the front line of our consultancy really? Being that very first person that people interact with, how do we make it easy?


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Caroline Cubbon-King:

Okay. Well you know what, I’ve got a list, but I would sum it up in one sentence and then I’ll elaborate. You need to be the stakeholder that you wished you had.

I always find it funny when people say, no one tells me anything, I’m not involved at the right time. Everyone plans in a really last minute way and those things that are oh so familiar to communicators. But then they do exactly the same and you think, and you know what that’s okay.

But it’s having that self-awareness and thinking, ‘okay, if I could say to a stakeholder, this is how I want you to do business with me and work with me, what would it be?’ So this is my list and you guys can compare whether you think it’s similar to what your list would be. So I think initially planning, certainly working with a third party, it’s fine to say we’ve suddenly had this idea or we suddenly need support, but actually the right organisation might not be available.

Most successful organisations are planning their resources several months in advance and particularly for really long projects. Actually they’re likely to be free in two weeks time.

So actually if you can plan in advance and even it’s on your radar, you know it’s happening in the summer and you make that contact and start forming that relationship really early, that’s better than contacting someone two weeks before you’re ready to go. So I think planning is important.

And I think the second one is thinking time. So certainly I love these initial calls with clients and I do research in advance. I sort of really read between the lines of what people say and anything they share afterwards, I read documents and links and try and sort of form a bigger picture so you understand exactly what you’re trying to achieve, what’s the purpose, what’s the benefit, what can you do for yourself, what you absolutely need that organisation to do for you.

So don’t ever feel like it’s an indulgence popping half an hour or an hour in your diary for thinking and planning time. It’s for me, a fundamental bedrock of a successful project is investing that time upfront.

Rachel Miller:

I feel that we hear that so much, don’t we? When we’re encouraging people to work on, not in their work as internal communicators. Which is the conversation you and I have constantly with clients and for ourselves as well.

You’re right, it’s putting that time in your diary to think how can I prioritise that time and not see it as a luxury or a nice to have but actually give myself the space and time I need to plan well and think well. I think that’s really, really good advice. Okay, so we’ve got planning, thinking, what else do we need to do?

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Next one is budget, now I realise this can be tricky. Sometimes you might be the person asking for help, but you might not be the decision maker, you might not be the budget holder. So we know it’s absolutely not realistic to say don’t bother getting in touch until you’ve got an idea of budget. However, I think in my experience I always end consultation calls saying, ‘do you have an idea or are there limits within your organisation?’

Some organisations have procurement limits and it’s definitely worth getting tuned into those before you get in touch because in some it might be if you spend more than £5,000 or £10,000, it triggers a whole load of other internal rules. And if you know that in advance, things can be structured in a way where you can sort of work effectively and quickly through those guidelines.

But I know sometimes clients say, ‘I have no idea of a budget, I’ve literally never thought about it’. And then you send them a proposal and suddenly a budget appears and you think, actually well that’s okay because maybe you just wanted to see what options were available.

But actually almost in all cases we are able to think, ‘well okay, you want X, your budget is Y’. There’s always a way that we will be able to support you even if it’s not exactly in the way that was in your head when you made contact. So I just think it makes for a more fruitful conversation and makes it easier to form solutions if you have an idea of budget.

So the fourth step is decision making. I think it’s always really useful for a consultancy to know who is going to be making the decision and what is the decision making process. So you might get in touch and be fact finding. Again, no problem with that. And you might say, ‘I’m speaking to my boss next week, thank you for your proposal to support me through one-to-one mentoring. I’m speaking to them next week. But it’d be really useful if you could include x y points in your proposal because that’ll help them make a decision’. Say that if that’s the case.

I love it when clients say, ‘My boss is going to be looking out for this. So can you really make it easy for them to have the information to help them make a decision whether it’s a yes or a no?’ So I think being clear on those decision making processes and who’s involved is useful because that actually manages your own expectations. If you’re keen to get going, but a decision has to go through a management team or even a board or other governance structures, the decision is unlikely to be quick and you’re unlikely to get started in the next few weeks. So it’s useful for you to know and also for the supplier to know.

The fifth step, and this is the one that I feel so, so passionate about. I’m passionate about them all, but this one is probably the easiest to do, but often is the one that people forget to do and it’s so, so frustrating. Give feedback, don’t feel bad if your answer is no. It might be no never, not for now, not sure when I’m going to be able to give you an answer. But actually we really appreciate being told we’d love to work with you, we’re unable to work with you or this isn’t the right time or whatever it might be.

Always feed back a decision. And I guess that goes back to the point I made earlier about respecting the time, if someone’s putting quite a lot of time doing some groundwork, spent time to listen to you, understand, start creating potential approaches and solutions, work out prices and package it up in a nice way. The least someone can do is say, ‘Thank you for doing that. I appreciate the time you’ve taken. Unfortunately this time we’re unable to move forward’. And that’s always going to be fine. But it is frustrating when people don’t keep you updated.

How to be a Comms Consultant Exploration

Rachel Miller:

And I think because we’ve all been on the other side. We’ve all been in house and we all have for whatever reason, budgets suddenly it can’t or priorities shift or leaders changes their mind. And you have to tell that external third party, ‘I’m really sorry, but we’re not going to go ahead’. And you’re right, it’s better to communicate.

We are all communicators, that’s what we do. So it is, you’re right, it is about respecting time, isn’t it? And it is okay to say, ‘no, I’m really sorry’ or you don’t need to apologise. Just communicate to say it’s not happening and then everyone can move forward.

And you don’t get that chase, I mean we’re not the chasing type. We do follow up with people because we need to know, as you said, we need to plan our time and our resourcing as a team. So yeah, feedback, I’m with you 100% on that one.

Caroline Cubbon-King:

And then the next one, the final one, and I could probably come up with 20 more, but I think these are the most important ones.

The final one is do what you say you will. So if you agree to move ahead, often the first step is you providing information or turning up to a call to sort of start a project off. Please turn up to that call. Please provide the information that you say you will.

I think sometimes when people agree to go ahead, they’re so relieved that this project is going to happen or they’re so triumphant that they’ve secured the budget or got someone to make a positive decision, that’s definitely reason to celebrate.

But actually if you said you’re going to provide something by a particular date or in a particular format, please do your best to do that because actually a consultancy will have blocked out specific chunks of time to work on your project. So actually if you don’t do what you say you will, that might affect your project and delay it, which is we know it affects you, but actually it can impact on other clients too, which isn’t fair.

So I think that’s the final one. There’s definitely a two way, a consultancy will do a lot for you, but there certain things you need to do to be that brilliant person to work with, that stakeholder that, and like I said before, that you wish you had.

Rachel Miller:

That’s excellent advice, thank you. It’s helping. I think you get out what you put in don’t you, as in most things in life. But I think particularly for that relationship, couldn’t agree more. Brilliant. Caroline, thank you. We are going to take a short break and when we come back, we’re going to leave you with some things to think about. See you in a moment.

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Welcome back. In the final part of today’s episode, Caroline and I are going to be thinking about what a good experience should feel like with a consultancy.

So Caroline, I’m going to hand over to you and span that question to you, but in terms of something we need to think about. So what should a great experience feel like, do you think? What do we need to think about?

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Okay, thank you. Okay, so I will answer this question with my All Things IC hat on to some extent because I think the way we do things is unique to All Things IC. So no one’s experience will be exactly the same, but there are some sort of key points in this section that I will pull out that should be common regardless of the organisation that you work with and the type of organisation they are.

So at All Things IC nurturing and looking after people and making people feel listened to from the first conversation is so important to us. And they sound like words and phrases that most organisations would use and many do, but we absolutely think about the client experience and what the aftertaste is. So I always think if someone has got in touch with us and spent some time with me and we’ve created a proposal, even if we don’t end up working together for whatever reason. I would love them to think, ‘that was a really positive experience I had speaking to All Things IC, they took time, they took care, et cetera’.

So we certainly think about what do people, how do people feel afterwards? But actually here’s some sort of thoughts for you to think about with any supplier relationship actually. So were you treated as an individual? For me, another one that I’m really passionate about, I know we’ve all worked with different organisations and had sales pitches in the past. And Rachel said before, we’re not a salesy organisation and we pride ourselves on not being, and it’s okay if you are, but don’t come to All Things IC if you want that real hard sell because you won’t get it from us. But actually it’s really important. Were you treated like an individual or were you given the standard sales spiel that anyone that gets in touch gets? And I think it’s quite easy to spot those really generic sentences or documents that you get.

And sometimes there’s a time and a place for those things, but we like someone to contact us and feel appreciated for being that practitioner in that organisation with that particular problem.

So I think it’s how were you made to feel and what was that sort of personalised approach?

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The second one, and again it builds on this, was time factored in for you to be listened to and your issues understood. Most organisations have a sort of consultation process built in or most organisations of our type, and that’s great. And there’s always normally a finite amount of time for a free call. So 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour or whatever. And I’m not going to judge people based on the length of time they give for that. But regardless of the time, did they listen? Did they try and understand? Did they help you join the dots?

Because often, like Rachel said before, when you reach out, it’s not always crystal clear in your mind and you are actually reaching out for someone who’s used to helping people to pull those disparate threads together and say, ‘You’ve said this, but what I’m hearing is that’. And often they say, ‘Yeah, that’s the sentence that I just couldn’t come up with. But you’ve nailed it’. And actually that’s part of the process, so that’s important. And then the next one is, were you involved in creating solutions or were you told either pick from a pre-selected list of services and products, or actually this is what you can have and that’s what it looks like, that’s what it costs, take it or leave it.

Again, we pride ourselves on that more bespoke approach, which means we actually invest quite a lot of time upfront for free for clients. But that’s because we want to make sure that we really understand A, are we the right organisation to help? Sometimes we’re not and we can only find that out when we get beneath that sort of surface.

So are we the right organisation and actually what are the different options available to you? And often we present different options and we do that with the client and we really try and collaborate and say, ‘we suggest doing it in this way, but will that work in your organisation?’ And sometimes they say that bit will, but this bit it sounds like a great idea, but it won’t work in because of our structure, our culture or whatever. So were you given of scope to explain your own circumstances and be part of the solution? Because I think that’s important because you know should be owning the solution.

And then finally, were you clear how much the support will cost and exactly what you’re going to get for any money that you invest. So I’ll be saying, look for a really clear set of deliverables, how many calls, if you’re getting a report, how long’s it going to be? What sort of things are going to be in it? Are you going to get copies of slides?

Whatever your wish list is, note that down if you’ve got non-negotiables. But I think it needs to be really clear, what are you paying for? What can you expect? When can you expect it? And there’s that real transparency. So for me, I would think about all those points and you might have an organisation that makes you feel really special and does give you that bespoke approach, but then their pricing is so woolly and hard to understand that you think, ‘I like the sound of you, I think you’d be good to work with, but I have no idea how much this is actually going to cost’.

So different parts of those points are going to be more or less important to you, but I would urge you to think about all of them.

Rachel Miller:

Marvellous. Thank you so much. I imagine people have got notebooks full of notes from this conversation. I think that clarity on pricing is so important at All Things IC we have statements of work, which is a methodology that I’ve borrowed from my husband who works in IT because that’s how IT projects are scoped out.

 What’s the project, what’s the price, what’s the investment, what are the assumptions, what’s the conclusions? Little of that language set.

That’s how we work because we try to map it all out. So it’s really easy, as you say, to think, right, this is the investment, this is what I’m going to get for my investment and this is what is going to happen next. That really clear process. Marvellous. Thank you. Caroline, anything else that you think is important for people to be aware of before we wrap our conversation up together today?

Caroline Cubbon-King:

Yeah. The final point I would leave you with, and this might not cut it with your decision makers, but there’s definitely such an important dollop of rapport and fit that’s involved in a good consultancy client relationship. It’s like any relationship, friendship or any sort of work relationship, you hit it off with some people and you don’t with others. And I think sometimes you can get a really strong instinctive feeling that this organisation, they are going to get what I want.

All the other things still have to line up. So the price, the investment, the deliverables, and all those, I suppose more formal things that I’ve spoken about. But if you have two or three organisations that are broadly on paper offering something that you want to invest in and you’re clear about and you can get it through your decision making processes and it’s going to hit your objectives. I would urge you to think about how does it feel?

How do they make me feel? Are they going to be easy to work with? And I think following your instincts with those things can be really, really important. So it’s not scientific, but I do really believe in fit and rapport. I think that’s that extra magic ingredients of a really successful client consultancy relationship.

Rachel Miller:

Brilliant. I couldn’t agree more with that. Absolutely. I’m nodding away as you’re talking there. Caroline, thank you so much for joining me on Candid Comms today. It’s been a pleasure to have this conversation together and hopefully, I’m sure, that it’s been useful for people to set you up for success, for your future relationships with comms consultancies or agencies.

As ever I love hearing from you. Let me know what you are taking away from this episode and where you were listening to this episode of the Candid Comms Podcast. You can find me on Twitter @AllThingsIC, look me up on LinkedIn, Rachel Miller. Find me on Instagram, @rachelallthingsic, or why not get in touch with Caroline and I at allthingsic.com/contact. And remember what happens inside is reflected outside. See you again soon.

Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 27 October 2022.

 

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