You’ll never hear a decent, self-respecting consultant or agency readily admit that higher education clients can be uniquely challenging. The best agencies tell you that bad clients don’t ruin the best ideas. Instead they insist that it’s the agency’s job to be smart and thoughtful managers of the process, and that doing that right will lead to good results, regardless of the quality of the client. Absolutely true.
But there are far too many stories circulating about clients in higher ed who introduced, often without intending to, unnecessary obstacles for vendors, agencies, consultants, freelancers, or other partners, making it very difficult to achieve exceptional results.
Spending time assigning blame won’t get clients or vendors closer to great outcomes. But let’s face it: the best work will always come from a healthy, mutually beneficial partnership. Whether it’s a comprehensive brand project that spans research, strategy, creative, and execution; a web redesign; a stand-alone video project; a media relations initiative; a freelance assignment; or outsourcing specific business functions, here are a few ways to make the most of your partnerships with external agencies or consultants.
Talk Expectations Early and Often
RFPs, project specs, creative briefs, contracts, and all the other documents that may pass between vendor and client serve an important purpose. But nothing comes close to frequent, honest conversations about expectations. Talk through what work is getting done, who’s doing it, and what your client-side responsibilities will be. The conversation is important: take it out of email to the phone, Zoom, or an in-person meeting.
Just as important, keep talking about these things as projects evolve. This gives vendors a chance to understand and manage things like scope change and it gives clients a chance to do the same. Constant communication will improve capacity for flexibility on both sides and keep all parties from getting squeezed into doing things that may, or may not, be beneficial to the project and the relationship.
To Overshare is to Care
Every organization is different, chock full of idiosyncrasies that might not make sense to anyone who isn’t a part of the community. As a client, it’s your job to share as much as possible about your organization. Context is critical to effective partnerships. If there’s a campus governance process that might disrupt an agency’s standard approach, bring it up as soon as possible and with as much background as you can provide. Talk campus politics and share cultural sensitivities and the context around them. Remember: This isn’t about judging. Provide the context, talk about how you’ve navigated the territory successfully, and help the agency do the same. Leaving your partners to fend for themselves in a complex environment will only hurt progress.
Map the Traps
They’re everywhere. The board member who has an agenda for a project that may not be widely shared but will, to this one person, represent complete failure if these obscured expectations aren’t met; a faculty or staff member who simply hates your school’s colors, mascot, tagline or logo; an administrator who firmly believes they could do better work than any partner, especially one you chose; a staff member who resents a project because changing anything feels like a critique of their previous work. These types of obstacles can derail progress quickly if they’re allowed to blindside your outside partners. Most of the time, a simple heads up is all most experienced agencies need to manage through these things. Point out the potential pitfalls before your partners walk into them and then have to spend time getting out. “But we’re paying them to deal with this” is not a productive attitude.
Listen and Hear
A sign of a great partner is one who listens and hears you. It’s easy to spot a cookie cutter solution, and more often than not, it’s not what you’re after. You want a partner who listens to you, who hears what you’re saying and incorporates their understanding of your challenges into the work they do on your behalf. Be like that as a client. Always give feedback — there’s little worse than no feedback. And, if your partner tells you that your suggestion may not be sustainable, or might not have fit with the strategic direction, listen, hear, and consider that feedback. Trying to prove how smart you are, how you already know what you’re doing, and how you could totally do a partner’s job is counterproductive. Trust the expertise of your partners. If it doesn’t feel right, talk through why.
Own the Process
Outcomes reflect the work of both client and vendor. Turning over a project entirely to a vendor won’t yield the same return as a shared endeavor, although it can be tempting so that your vendor can take all the blame for things that don’t go over well. In fact, many vendors will volunteer themselves for that role. Don’t abuse that dynamic. Shared accountability leads to the best possible outcomes. Own your part in a project — the good and the bad. Your willingness to embrace responsibility will inspire better work on all sides of a partnership.
There is a great deal of complexity in client-vendor relationships, and the nuances of higher education make those relationships even more interesting and challenging. Everyone has the capacity to be a better client, and better clients make for better vendors. That blend of external and internal expertise, anchored in mutual respect and aimed at shared strategic direction will only amplify your work and lead to deeply authentic, remarkable outcomes.
Tim Jones in the Chief Communications and Integrated Marketing Officer at Beloit College in Wisconsin.