How to Build a Strong Relationship between Associations and Consultants



In my 30-year career in the association and consulting space, I’ve spent almost equal time being the client (the association) and the consultant. I’ve got insights and perspectives that I’d like to share with you on how to better manage your relationships.
Here are six things that you may find helpful in managing relationships with consultants in a productive way:
1. Tell the consultant the real reason you’re considering them. Why do you need their help? Too often the client talks in circles about why they need help or making up excuses as to why the association needs the help. It’s important for the consultant to know the exact reason why they’re being asked to be involved in this project. Even if that reason is that you just don’t want to do this one thing. I’ve got a guy who mows my lawn every week. I can make up a bunch of reasons I hire him yet the fundamental reason is that I don’t want to do it. Be very transparent about the reason why you’ve asked the consultant to become involved.
2. Let the consulting firm do it, fully. If you don’t want to do it in the first place then you’re probably not very good at it anyway. Let the professionals do it. I have had more mistakes happen because the expert, or the specialist, was not given the freedom to do what they do best. Give the consultant the space to actually do what you hired them to do. It’s unproductive and a waste of the consultant’s time and the association’s money. Hire them and then get out of the way.
3. Give the consultant the chance to get off the hook during the sales process. Ask them the following questions, “What is a red flag in terms of this project that I’ve described for you? Is there anything that’s unreasonable or that I might not have right that you need to tell me?” Give the consultant the chance to answer that question.
I’ll give you an example that I used to see in membership recruitment all the time, “Hey, Moery Company, we want you to sell membership for us.”
Fantastic! We’re going to do it! Man, I’m fired up!
“Okay, tell me about the program right now and how we can help?”
“Well, we recruited five new members last year and we’ve got a new chairman. We’ve got a lot of people that are in this industry that we don’t have as members. We want to recruit 5000 new members this year. It’s a special program and initiative. We’re calling it Project 5000.” The numbers may be a bit expanded, however, it’s pretty close to the truth of what a client told us during a sales call. That may sound crazy, yet, the consultant may not tell you that that because they don’t want to jeopardize getting the business from you. I advise our association clients to ask the consultant this question, “Hey, this is what we think the project is about and here’s what we want to accomplish. Is there anything that’s unreasonable, or outside of the norm, that you need to tell me about now that we need to talk through?”
This leads to the next point:
4. Set clear expectations on feedback. For example: ask the consultant for a weekly report in writing. Request transparency. When I’m wrong, I want the consultant to tell me. Because when you’re wrong, as the client, I’m going to tell you. Set real expectations and clarity on feedback and how you’re going to communicate. Talk about that in the sales process, it will make your whole relationship so much more productive. We get hung up by telling the client, or the association, things that they really don’t need to know. We’re afraid of it because we haven’t set up a feedback mechanism. It is really important to do that during the sales process.
5. Set clear goals. I know this is kind of elementary, however, it is essential to do it during the sales process and before you close the deal. What are the results, by when, and who is going to do it? Agree to that at the launch meeting, not after the fact. I can tell you, in our sales projects, I get really nervous when they say, “Well, we don’t know what the goal should be, but let us get back to you.” Or, “We’ll figure it out down the road.” In the rhythm of business and the cadence of closing deals, I’ll go ahead and sign that contract.
Here’s what ends up happening: I knew that this association had not been closing a lot of sponsorship deals. We crushed it! We were able to sell twice as many sponsorships in a shorter time frame than they have ever brought on board. I walked into our meeting thinking, “Man, we’re going to resign this deal. We’re going to make more money, for both of us, it’s going to be fantastic!” The association came back and said, “This really wasn’t what we expected. We expected it to be 3x instead of 2x.” Such a demoralizing thing for our team that really put in a lot of work. Our team thought they were successful and celebrated that success. And rightfully so.
We never got bad feedback from the client. They weren’t upset; however, they didn’t renew. They said they did not renew because we didn’t meet their expectations. Whose mistake is that? Frankly, it’s mine. All because we did not get clarity upfront and we didn’t push to get those clear expectations. Set goals and expectations for the project, including deadlines.
6. Build one month of consulting into the agreement after the project is finished. Let’s say you want a dues review or you’d like for someone to restructure your sponsorship program. During the project you will come across new learnings, get some feedback, or come across an unexpected hurdle. You may need to implement or ask for additional consulting services regarding those learnings. Maybe you need to do one more final presentation to a different group of leaders in the association. This month gives you and the consultant margin. It gives you time and the opportunity to address important items for a better outcome to the consulting project. The association doesn’t have to go back and take advantage of the relationship by saying, “Hey, can you do one more report out to the board?” The consultant doesn’t think, “Gosh, you know, they’re taking advantage of me and they really should be paying extra.” Go ahead and build another extra month of consulting. It’s a minimal fee to cover the opportunity to continue to work together and tie up any loose ends that need to be tied.
I hope the advice is helpful to you because associations are going to be outsourcing more and more work, there’s no doubt about it. The better we get at collaborating and working with subcontractors and consultants, the better your organization is going to be.
Are you working with consultants or subcontractors? Is there anything else you would add to the advice above?


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