Susan's Super Citizen Showcase

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Panel a-buzz on the business of communications consulting in Vancouver, BC, Canada

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) BC Chapter hosted a panel discussion on "Setting Up As A Consultant" at the YWCA in Vancouver tonight from 6 to 7:30.

Panelists included - in photo, above, from left: Elizabeth Phillips, consultant and managing partner of MPA Communication Design Services Inc.; Gayle Farrell, president of Siena Consulting Inc.; Simone Abt and Gwen Hardy, managing partners and co-founders of Elettra Communications; Karen J Lee, ABC, MC, owner and principal consultant of The KJ Lee Group; and Chris Freimond, president of Chris Freimond Public Relations Inc. - and our president of IABC B.C

The event was billed as a chance to: "Listen in and ask your burning questions to a unique panel of knowledgeable speakers from diverse communication fields – they’ll tell you how and why they began consulting, the dos and don’ts of getting started and ways to be successful."

The audience of communicators - some of us whom are already consulting - asked the panel questions about: the most effective way to get new clients, fee structures (hourly vs. per project), differentiating yourself, how to get the confidence to go it alone as a consultant, what kind of insurance you need, how to estimate the number of hours a project would take, what to put in a contract, why it's a really really good idea to have an accountant...

The session could have been much longer than the 90 minutes scheduled - with so many interesting stories from the battlefield of consulting and so much good advice for working as a consultant in our town.

Chris reminded us that IABC is "a great pool of mentors" and we are free to reach out and ask questions. He said we "need to be thick-skinned" because some people might be too busy but most will make time to help. Karen says if you are looking for a mentor, make sure you have a good question ready - and Chris suggested it would be good to bring a business plan or a specific document. Karen says not to ask a potential mentor to "do your thinking for you." She would rather be presented with a specific question from someone who already knows their market and how much to charge.

Karen is a great storyteller who told us how much help she has received from her IABC connections. She says she once met an IABC mentor for advice on interpreting the language of an RFP (request for proposal). They sat together, on plastic seats in McDonalds, and her mentor (who worked in government procurement)went through it line by line.

Karen also told us about how, years ago, banks didn't like it when women signed for business loans without their husbands present. She once told a bank account manager: "Actually no thanks - I don't want your money" when he said her husband should be there before anything was finalized. This deflating experience didn't stop Karen, who got in touch with an IABC contact who set her up for lunch with a Royal Bank manager. This manager took interest in her vision and helped her get a business loan for a much-needed new computer and software for the first graphic designer she ever hired.

Gwen and Simone worked together before they decided to partner as PR consultants. One of the partners mentioned their company, Elettra Communications, responds to about three RFPs per year. RFPs offer a good way to draw in new business but can be very time-consuming. Some companies use RFPs to get free strategies from consultants offering solutions - so you need to be careful and set your boundaries re: how much free planning you are willing to offer in RFP responses.

Elizabeth says throwing herself into new areas of information is an important part of her professional development. It could be high tech or investor relations; the development comes when you, as a communicator, learn new languages that let you communicate the messages of different industry groups. "I'm hungry to build my vocabulary," Elizabeth told us, explaining that every year she sinks her teeth into a new lingo zone.

Gayle says her favorite way to get new clients is by word of mouth. She talked about the benefits of having a network of associates with skills and credentials that may be needed on your projects. It's great when the client trusts your judgment and you are able to source your own team from within your own network.

These are just a few of the many ideas I took away with me - and I invite readers to add: what did you get out of the discussion? Thanks to the panel of speakers and to the folks who arranged the night's events.

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