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“Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime . . . ”
"My sometime is now," the tune continues. In 1964, crooner Dean Martin knocked the Beatles' "Hard Day's Night" from their number one pop chart perch with that bit of wisdom. Almost fifty years later, it still rings true. In workshops and articles, I've said that relationships with consultants are marriages of convenience. The successful ones have many of the same phases and facets, including courting, sharing of private information, and cooperation. Likewise, with consultants, there's an understanding that the arrangement has been assembled for a specific purpose, essentially being born to die. Many camp executives tell me that their previous consulting experiences have been too much like bad marriages of convenience. Believe it or not, many consultants feel the same way! How in the world does that come to be? This month, we're going to look at what you can do to ensure that your next "marriage of convenience" is everything that you want and hope it to be.
The Benjamin Franklin adage that "haste makes waste" has never been truer. The classic movie marriage of convenience usually involves getting married quickly to avoid some very unpleasant outcome. The comedy comes about as the parties learn about each other long after it's too late. Many consulting relationships seem to fall on these same hard times, but laughs are often nonexistent as fees and frustration mount. The key to avoiding this kind of disappointment is the same for both situations: spending time to allow the parties to get to know each other. In the one case, we call that "dating." In the other, it's called "interviewing."
How do you meet that perfect Mr. or Miss Right? TV ads claim that one in five marriages begin with meeting online. Perhaps that is true — but what about the other 80 percent? I'd guess that those come about the old fashioned way of meeting people and dating. Ask the average frustrated would-be suitor, and you'll probably hear that they don't know how or where to meet people. Beyond dating services, there are still introductions through friends, social and professional gatherings, and the personal ads in the paper. In reverse order, think of the yellow page phone book for consultants like the personal ads in the paper. Sure! There's a list of possible candidates, but there's also risk involved, and you'll need lots of time to sift through them all to find the right one. Group meetings are probably the next best venue to find the right person to fill the void. You're likely to be able to network well enough to narrow your search without indicating that you're looking or what you're after. Moreover, you're likely to know someone else in the room who also knows that person and can provide some insight. Finally, in engaging a consultant or finding a love interest, the personal introduction is probably the most reliable way to meet someone compatible. This certainly is no guarantee of perfection, but it goes a long way toward narrowing the field.
So now you've met the other party: What happens next? Whether you're courting a future spouse or future marketing consultant, getting to know that other person is an irreplaceable part of building a successful relationship. Oddly enough, you want to learn almost the same things about each other when dating as when considering a new consulting relationship. Bear in mind that you're looking for a partner to help you accomplish certain objectives, so you should be comfortable with their personality. Do they mostly talk, or mostly listen? Are they enthusiastic? Do they seem to thoroughly understand your needs? Are they confident that they can help you? Can you imagine spending pleasant, productive time with them? One other often overlooked point has to do with the other party's associates. In personal relationships, along with the odd collections, habits, and mannerisms, you inherit the other person's friends. In consulting relationships, both of you need to know specifically who will be working on your project, and with whom you'll work with most closely. It's common for one person at a consulting firm to make the initial contacts, but a completely different team actually works on the project. The people and personalities who need to cooperate to "deliver the goods" must be as compatible as possible. Before we move on, though, let's imagine situations which can significantly shorten the dating phase of a relationship. Consultant "shotgun weddings" often come about when there's an urgent and unavoidable problem requiring immediate action. In my business, this happens most often when regulators make dire, undisguised threats which are likely to severely impact operations. What do you do then? There's no time for "dating," right? Well, not exactly. Even in their most efficient mode, most regulatory agencies can't act instantly. You should use the time that they're gearing up to run through a focused but shortened search. Think of it as "speed dating," and you have the added benefit of picking who is invited. To cut right to the chase, go through your desk drawer and break out that stack of business cards of folks you've already met at the group meetings, conventions, and workshops. Then call other similar organizations in your area and ask for recommendations based on the contacts you've already made. Ask your American Camp Association (ACA) section executive about others who have had similar troubles, and who would be willing to share that experience, referring someone that they know. Obviously, there are no guarantees that their "Mr./Ms. Right" will be perfect for you, but any head start will be enormously helpful.
At some point, relationships grow to a point where people begin to think seriously about "where is this going?" In consulting, that's when the personalities match and there's a definable need to be met. If the courting stage has gone well, this is where things begin to go wrong most often because the familiarity between the parties makes both inclined to skip the formality of a formal agreement. More than ever, ironing out the details of expectations (scope of work, information flow, reporting procedures, authority to speak about the project to others) as well as the specific terms (what the agreement is to cover, what is not covered and will cost extra, how often bills are presented, and how quickly they are to be paid) are all places where an otherwise friendly relationship goes awry very fast. Almost everyone who owns a car has been breathtakingly surprised at a repair bill after the work is done, yet many people are reluctant to ask up front, "What's that going to cost?" This conversation with the consultant may help you overcome the sticker shock of what the project may finally cost long before it's even begun. Consulting and design are almost never the majority of a project's total cost, but instead a very small percentage.
What should be in a complete proposal and agreement? Although the form of the paperwork varies widely, there are several elements which should always appear. They are the scope, the exclusions, the deliverables, and the terms. Each of these deserves their own discussion in detail.
In simplest terms, this lays out in simple language what the consultant intends to do to solve your problem. In addition to establishing the assumptions of the project, which form the basis of the proposal, it should answer questions about what information will be needed, how it will be gathered, and what will be done with it. It may be broken into steps or phases so that you can see a progression of work from beginning to end, and provide an estimated timetable or milestones. Regardless of the format or details, anyone should be able to read it and understand what the proposal is intended to accomplish. Phrases that allude to conversations or are otherwise open to interpretation need to be replaced with a description that highlights those. If either you or the preparer of the scope aren't available when the time comes to reconcile the work to the agreement, outside of a court of law, the only understanding your organization has of the scope is contained in that document.
In nearly twenty years of practice, I've never encountered a project that was such a "slam dunk" that I couldn't imagine something that could derail the scope. In fact, without exception, you're paying the consultant for a specialized crystal ball that can foresee just those sorts of events. So you should expect that a complete proposal will contain exclusions. You're engaging someone with experience in this specialized area, and expect them to be aware of, anticipate, and keep you abreast of wrinkles that can and do develop. The marketing agreement for a video shoot of your aquatics program should probably have an exclusion about inclement weather. The engineering agreement for a dining hall design should have an exclusion about unanticipated site conditions like weak soils. No hydrogeologist you should engage will guarantee what the new well will yield. Unknowns? Certainly! But instead of causing you to have cold feet, you should take comfort that the consultant has the experience and confidence to look over the horizon for stumbling blocks you didn't know could exist. Talk to the proposer about the likelihood of these conditions. Ask if you should budget for them, and if so, how much. Get comfortable with their skill level and ability to communicate those things with you.
It's also important for you to understand what you're going to have when you're done. Who holds the copyright to your marketing packet? Are you going to have the brochures, Web site, and videos, or the proofs only? Is your surveyor providing paper maps, but not digital files for your engineer to use in design for the new dining hall? Is the surveyor providing digital survey data, but no seal so that he's not legally accountable for the work? Is the engineer preparing plans for regulatory review or for construction? The proposal/agreement should clearly describe what you'll have when you're done. If there's any doubt in your mind, get it clarified in a revised agreement. Avoid addenda to the agreement at this stage, because they're hard to track. Have the consultant change the agreement. Just to be sure, have the date of the document revised as well. Again, phone conversations are great to work through these issues, but it needs to be in writing to mean something.
Finally, the project needs an administrative framework. Among a litany of other things, you should see the cost to accomplish the identified and stated goals, a timeframe to accomplish the work, a method to expect and pay invoices, and other administrative details like who carries what insurance and in what amounts. Finally, there needs to be a plan to end the project, and this is where the "prenuptial agreement" portion of today's lesson is most critical. Remember that this arrangement is a limited-term marriage of convenience. It's destined to end when the work is done, or one of the parties quits. The document must provide a mechanism by which either party can end their role either by completing the project or severing the relationship. Through a combination of assigning values to specific deliverables or phases of the project, the document must ensure that the consultant is compensated for work to date. At the same time, you must insist that you also receive the work for which you've paid.
On Relationship Counseling . . .
At my wedding more than twenty years ago, the minister charged Joann and me to remember always that what we would get out of our marriage would be completely dependent on what we invested along the way. He was exactly right. The consulting "marriage of convenience" is no different. To be healthy for everyone, it requires diligence, honesty, forthrightness, and commitment. Frequent, detailed, responsive, and interactive communication is an inescapable must. Telephone calls, e-mails, site visits, and formal correspondence all deserve their due time and consideration if the relationship is to flourish or your project is to see the light of day. Success demands that both parties contribute their own gifts and talents, and allow each to bring their best to bear on the situation at hand.
We've seen that the successful consultant/client arrangements are really about relationships, and we know how long it can take to develop a meaningful, insightful one. So, long before there's a crisis, start thinking about dating again. Build and nurture a circle of reliable professionals who know you long, long before you even know when you'll need their help. Take care of the relationship by being responsive to requests for information and paying invoices promptly. Be involved by learning about the processes and helping when and where you can. Just maybe, your next "sometime" and your consultant's will be now.
Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with a particular passion for helping camps with infrastructure, planning, and regulatory issues. He can always be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (570) 828-4004.