Much of the buzz at IABC’s recent World Conference centered on identifying ways for communication practitioners to add value and build respect among peers back home. Some went “ooh” and “aah” at the sight of the hottest new social media platforms that promised much employee “engagement,” but little in terms of results that matter to business leaders back at the office.
One of those business leaders told me recently: “Our communication people are worried about the wrong things. I tell them about a business problem I’m having and they trot out the same activities. They worry about click-throughs, opens, mentions, share of voice, awareness and retweets. I’m worried about sales and gross margin. Where can I find communication people who can help us improve our business?”
More and more communication professionals are already adopting the role of a strategic adviser who improves business results that are greater than the cost of creating the results. They’re removing communication breakdowns that impede organizational performance. They’ve moved from a focus on activities to a focus on results.
One communication pro worked with a team representing a variety of disciplines to increase sales by more than 20 percent. Another helped her company improve on-time delivery by 38 percent, which, in turn, increased sales by 30 percent.
Others have improved cycle time by 70 percent, increased productivity by 11 percent, reduced scrap and rework by 60 percent and cut turnover by more than 25 percent. There are many more stories about communication departments that are contributing to results that matter.
After more than 30 years serving in a management consulting role as a strategic adviser, here are some things I’ve learned.
What clients want from a strategic adviser
First and foremost, they want someone to make a positive impact on their business. The impact needs to be greater than the cost of creating the gain or you’ve likely drained value.
They want us to know and understand their business so we can make smarter decisions. Pharmaceutical companies have different needs than consumer packaged goods companies. Manufacturers experience different challenges than from retail companies.
They want help developing strategies, leading their thinking about the future, joining them for brainstorming sessions and helping them understand how they compare to others within and outside their industries.
That’s a tall but realistic order.
Traits of a strategic adviser
Strategic advisers have distinguishing qualities that appeal to their clients. Here are some of the most important.
- Strategic advisers understand and like their clients. They value the relationship, not just the work they do (although they like that too).
- They’re consistent. I’ve had clients tell me, “I knew you’d say that, but I just had to hear it for myself.” Consistency comes from being grounded in a way of thinking about organizations and what it takes to improve them.
- They provide clients with options, give them their recommendations and let their clients choose.
- Strategic advisers offer fresh perspectives and challenge their clients’ assumptions.
How to gain trust
The strategic adviser-client relationship, whether it’s an inside or outside client, is based on trust. There are specific characteristics that I believe are critical to gaining and retaining trust between a strategic adviser and his or her clients.
- Listen! You and I may know we’re smart, have been around the block a few times and probably have amassed a pile of opinions about and answers to questions clients have asked us a thousand times. That doesn’t matter one whit. Listen! It will make you smarter. It will make you look smarter.
- Listening helps you empathize—for real. Empathize with your client’s plight, frustrations, fears and anxieties. Figuratively climb into the chair they’re sitting in and feel what they’re feeling so you can understand how you can help your client.
- Build a shared agenda. If you create the agenda, it’s your agenda. If the client creates the agenda, it’s his or her agenda. Joint agendas lead to joint ownership which leads to joint decision making, which in most cases leads to more positive results.
- Ask great questions. I often tell young people I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some good questions. Meaning, I ask questions that help my clients find answers that help them better understand the business problem, its root cause and the best way to implement the solution.
- Take a point of view. Don’t be wishy-washy. If you know what you’re talking about and have a point of view, share it with your client. If you’re just starting out, adopt an intelligent and substantiated point of view about issues that are important to you and your clients.
Give away ideas. I suggest solutions to a lot of business leaders who have performance problems and don’t expect to be paid for them. My mission is “to enable people to use their chosen careers to realize their dreams and discover their greater purpose.” Achieving that end is worth giving away a few ideas.
Return calls unbelievably fast. My client’s urgency is my urgency.
Ask for feedback regularly. The best strategic advisers understand the importance of continuous improvement. You can’t keep up with the others unless you’re continuously improving. No one knows how you’re doing better than your client. Ask. Listen. Improve. Ask again.
When clients trust, they will…
For one, they will continue to want your advice, act on your recommendations, involve you on more strategic issues, respect you and refer you.
Interestingly, they’ll also give you the benefit of the doubt and forgive you when you make a mistake.
Elevating your role
If you’re a traditional communication practitioner, your business is probably focused on distributing news and information. If you want to become a strategic adviser, your business needs to focus on improving results.
In my three presentations at the World Conference, I repeatedly heard people start their comment or question with a reference to activity: communicating through social media, their intranet, town hall meetings, newsletters, or some other formal channel. This is the opposite of what a strategic adviser does. Start with results. What results do you need to improve? Here are questions that will help you find the flaw.
- Where are the best opportunities to improve performance by better managing communication?
- What?s the size of the opportunity?
- What are the root causes of the underperformance?
- What will it cost to improve?
- Is the ROI acceptable?
Don’t start with the formal channel that you plan to inflict on your organization. It may not represent the solution to the business problem.
Start with the result you need to see. Then, prescribe a solution that improves the result that is greater than what it cost to create the results. That’s value. That’s what great strategic advisers do and get paid for.