The most effective consultant-client relationships tend to morph into business partnerships. The consultant becomes an extension of the internal team. However, elevating a relationship from “vendor” status to a meaningful collaboration isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Some handy tools can help you establish an effective team.
1. IM for business
If you're using GChat or another instant-messaging service like AOL, it might be time to consider one of the IM tools that can be tailored for businesses. Hipchat, Yammer or Chatter (part of Salesforce) allow you set up targeted IM groups.
These services are particularly helpful for teams in distributed locations or who are working on multiple projects. Companies can create rooms in Hipchat or groups in Yammer for various projects, departments or areas of focus. Privacy settings determine who can access the room.
Only want to give certain people in the company access to product-development details? Make that a private room. Want a room where anyone can offer suggestions? That’s doable, too.
By “@mentioning” someone in a discussion, it’s easy to pull the right people into a conversation. When the tools notify users that they’re mentioned in a comment, real-time collaboration occurs and faster response times are possible.
Conversation histories are available and searchable, making it easy for people to get up to speed. The services are available through desktop, mobile web and phone apps.
The opportunity to be “brought inside” a company is extremely valuable, according to brand strategist Nick Westergaard.
“Chatter groups provide a great way to feel in sync, despite unshared geography,” he explains. “Whether it's sharing simple casual updates ("Jane's leaving early." "Cold out there today!"), or having the online equivalent of a quick 15-minute stand-up meeting, it offers a simple way to build a closer connection on a day-to-day basis. That's invaluable in our business.”
2. Thinkfuse: Removing status quo from status reports
Thinkfuse adds a collaborative group element to status reports. But why do you need another service if you’re already e-mailing status reports?
The answer is that it’s not just about reporting specific tasks and to-do items to a small group of people. Thinkfuse sends reports to a larger group of people, giving everyone (or a specific cross-section) of people in the company an update.
Employees better understand what everyone else is working on. Anyone in the group can identify opportunities to improve efficiencies or work together. They can see how each person is part of the bigger picture. Status updates become a means for collaboration, rather than simply chatty comments.
Managers use Thinkfuse to create report templates, send due-date reminders and collect feedback and comments in one location. It's simpler than worrying about whether the right people are CC'd on an e-mail.
3. Basecamp: Collaboration and teamwork
As a project-management-software service, Basecamp puts the emphasis on collaboration and communication, in addition to getting tasks done. The dashboard provides an overview. Project files are housed in one central location and deadlines are trackable on the master-project calendar.
Within the service, users can create benchmarks and milestones to ladder up to a larger project deadline.
Big Red Rooster, an interactive and creative agency, uses the Basecamp to share files and status updates with clients.
“Hosting the files in one location avoids confusion and ensures version control among all partners,” says Rebecca O’Dell, communication coordinator.
4. Facebook Groups: Collaboration at no cost
If you’re looking for a free collaboration tool on a familiar platform , Facebook Groups may be what you're looking for. Jason Falls has used Facebook Groups on multiple projects, including coordinating a team of writers for his blog, Social Media Explorer.
"I use Facebook Groups to communicate and have group discussions with my team of 12 blog authors. The group helps us stay connected and aware of what each other might be working on, thinking and the like,” Falls says. “I hate e-mail threads and back-and-forth in the inbox. Threaded discussions in a group take that annoyance away.”
Facebook Groups can be open, closed or secret. For internal communication, closed or secret groups make it easy to add team members and manage requests to join the group.
Collaboration improves efficiencies
Facebook Groups created an additional layer of accountability with clients. PR consultant Shonali Burke established a Facebook Group to facilitate communication between “champions” for a non-profit project she was leading.
“Having our client as part of our group showed her in real time how we were working and communicating with the champions," Burke says. "It added to the effectiveness of our ‘offline’ communications, such as weekly calls. We didn't have to go over items we'd already discussed in the group. And it added transparency to our work, which is always a good thing.”
Increased collaboration improves efficiencies, so agencies can spend less time revising drafts and more time implementing.
“We share drafts and concepts and are able to dramatically cut down on notes and iterations," says Westergaard. "It's easier to get on the same page faster.”
What collaboration tools are you using to improve communication between your company and its consultants?