I'm in a disagreement with someone representing a tech startup. We disagree about who and what has value. And it's all because of the way the industry treats strategic work, and companies misuse scope of work.
The person tells me he's is partnering with an AI-based startup. He took the initiative to contact me about a longer-term writing project. In the initial call we outlined the contours of a project. I enjoy helping people shape business thinking, and will gladly take the time to have a comprehensive initial call.
A free initial call is useful in more than one way. In addition to providing evidence of your knowledge through questions, it helps your prospective client get to know you and your style. Are your philosophies aligned? You can tell a lot about how people make decisions by paying attention to how they express their needs.
It also helps you take the temperature of the potential project—is this a hot issue where timing is critical? What cultural undertones are emerging in the conversation? Are you getting excited about the company's market opportunity?
You can learn a lot about the type of person
you're talking with
by the questions they ask, and how they listen.
This particular call was difficult because of the poor connection. I followed up with the outline of our conversation, something I'm happy to do to invest in and create clarity around a project's structure.
What I got in response was a comprehensive marketing RFP, complete with budget. No explanation for the divergence from initial scope. A short email exchange ensued. I don't do RFPs. I work with briefs and provide comprehensive outlines of a process and approach for review. If we agree to proceed, I create a draft proposal to tweak and sign so we can get started.
“Yes, of course, this is a brief.” “No, I don't want a marketing program, just the writing part,” says he. The email exchange was rapid-fire, with a sense of urgency that the project kick off before the holidays. “This all looks good, please send a proposal.” So I do, and then nothing.
The correspondence in the following days was harried and misleading.
The explanation after the silence, and the problem with it
The company representative promised to get back to me after a review with the company that very Friday.
There was no explanation as to the delay. He apologized for not being in touch and stated he had “circulated the proposal around with colleagues” and was scheduled to connect in three days. He admitted he had not communicated about his scheduling, and apologized. “I will be in touch Friday.”
This happens more than you suspect. It's like LA traffic, hurry up and wait. One week is typically not a major setback on a project. Unless you're trying to get your failing heater replaced before the onset of winter or are in the middle of a seemingly endless kitchen remodeling. Good luck to you, if that is the case. And be prepared to pay.
Two weeks later, there was still no communication. When I followed up, he could not see what was amiss. I was really disappointed. How would you feel?
I'm sure the AI company doesn't expect to work for free, with slow response times. They'd also expect work they contract to be on time and on budget. For that, a company needs to scope their project properly and hire someone who can run with it.
The problem is that most companies fix on the dollar amount they're willing to spend for a wish list as scope of work, instead of taking the proper measure of the need.
Be clear about who and what creates value
I give people plenty of free advice on strategy and communications. This is so you can get to know my thinking and the work I have done / can do. Our first consultation is always free, even though many coaches and consultants charge for it.
The project's process outline to level set and get buy-in is also free. There's a ton of value in there already. But I've learned that sometimes the project gets pulled or postponed for no fault of the person championing it. So I'm happy to invest a little to make him/her look good.
Often champions find ways to hire me even when part of the budget gets pulled. Because they understand the value we can create and find a leverage point to get started.
When I'm working on a fee-based project, I'm not going to charge my time. Coaching and counseling is part of the project. However, the project always comes first. If there's enough need for a separate scope of work, then I'll gladly draw one.
This is why sometimes clients who engage me for writing projects agree to pay me a retained amount. Sometimes that works out best for everyone.
If I write a proposal, I restate your problem in a way that makes it immediately actionable. This is why you're hiring an experienced strategist. They know who and what creates value. You would not want to hire just any hack to fix a leaking and corroded water line, now would you?
But say you call a plumber, anyone. Because you know there’s a problem. They'll charge you $120 just to come out and evaluate a solution for that problem. Then you pay for their time to repair it. Similarly as you might consult a lawyer, you pay her hourly fees.
So why wouldn't you pay for someone to restate the problem in a way that makes it actionable? Scope of work and fairness in communicating with you is how you can tell if someone is serious about the work. When you're working with pros who know how to scope work, you get to:
- focus on doing the best possible thinking
- find communication easy and create momentum through it
- spend no time on ambiguous and unclear tasks
- feel compensated fairly
- get better results for the client
My clients and their companies know what they're getting and its worth. They know I can guide them on scope and right size the project based on their constraints. When you're willing to be transparent and fair there are no surprise invoices. We can build flexibility in the process, and you know you'll get an honest answer to your questions.
Companies that try to see what they can get for free, end up not getting what they didn't pay for anyway. So don't be afraid to educate your clients on what creates value. Charge for your expertise and experience.