How to Create a Successful Consulting Company: Learn to Listen

Heather Conover started her strategic communications business over 30 years ago.  Prior to becoming a business owner, she was a transportation and environmental planner with an interest in what was then called citizen participation and is now described as stakeholder engagement. Stakeholder engagement has been a key focus for and has included work on major transmission projects, renewable energy, superfund and brownfields sites and other major development projects. She also works with energy and environmental technology and service companies, helping them build relationships with potential customers, research partners, channel partners, distributors and investors. Other senior staff practice areas include healthcare and biomedical, technology, government relations and nonprofits. 

Her company, Conover + Gould, has recently expanded into business strategy, hoping to build on its past work in this area, as well as to broaden its offerings to include helping U.S. companies go global and foreign companies enter the U.S. market. Conover + Gould recently added international trade expert Doug Barry to the staff as vice president.  Both Heather and Doug sat down recently with Webport Global to answer some questions about their business.

What is strategic communications?

Heather: In order for communications to be strategic, I believe that all the communications strategies used – whether stakeholder engagement, community relations, public relations, marketing communications or employee relations – must be closely aligned with a company or organization’s mission, vision and values, as well as their specific business or organization goals. 

I come from a background in planning, so strategic planning is my orientation. I work with clients to put together a master plan that is comprehensive and integrated.  And it involves many functions within the company or organization, so everyone is onboard and knows why specific actions are being taken, why specific message delivery vehicles or messengers are being used, messages have been crafted, and so on.

Is there a strategic communications component in international trade?

Doug:  Yes, a very important one and central to the success of the company trying to sell their services or products to buyers in another county.  The majority of U.S. companies that export don’t have a written plan.  I call these companies passive or reactive exporters, meaning they wait for a buyer to contact them.  They’ll sell on a one-off basis but miss entirely an opportunity to grow the business.  If done well, a plan communicates the why, how and when to everyone involved in the business.  It includes a strategy for promoting the product, include key messages and the channels to be utilized.  Above all it reduces the risk of failure because it compels you to consider all of the important steps involved in making the sale and being competitive. Conover + Gould can help create this plan and, in the course of doing so, add value to the company as a whole.

How do you add value?

Heather: We do it by first having the senior managers of the company doing direct client work.  We have great junior people, but they are properly in support roles.  Our senior people have a lot of experience—in life, business, or in a specific industry, communications area or geographic area.  We are excellent listeners and know how to probe to get at underlying issues and problems.  We might be brought in to address one set of needs, and wind up discovering something much more fundamental that needs to be addressed first.  If we don’t think we can add substantial value to an organization that wants our help, we won’t take the job.

Can you give us an example?

Doug: Yes.  Recently, we made the rounds of Washington, DC government agencies with a client.  The client had one goal in mind.  But as we listened to what the government people were saying, we realized that they needed other vital and credible information that our client had and continues to gather. It’s the policy people saying: “We need to know some of what you know so we can make an informed decision about whether and how to support your work or other similar work in the future.”   At the end of the day, we said to the client: “We heard this from the different government people and others in the room at the different meetings we attended.” The client heard completely different things, probably because they were so focused on their immediate goal.  Based on our advice, the client stepped back and approached the challenge in a different way.  We helped them look at a situation not from just one but from multiple perspectives.  As a result, they were able to thoughtfully examine available options and choose one that ultimately worked.  This is adding value.

Heather:  That’s a good example.  But the generating of multiple perspectives and selecting the best one is only part of the story.  If you identify an important need on the part of a stakeholder, you still have to craft a strategy that meets the need.  If you fail here, you’re going to fail in achieving your larger goal which in this case involves persuasion.  Too many companies tend to think about things too much from their perspective rather than listening to their stakeholders and hearing what’s important to them.  Once the value-adding insight has been made, you still need effective messages and channels to be persuasive.  That involves creativity, persistence, and a deep understanding of how people these days receive and process information.

So communication is at the heart of everything?

Doug:  I think that’s largely true.  Organizations are constantly challenged—both within and outside—to make themselves understood and to understand the needs and wants of their constituents.  Arguably, it’s more challenging today because of the 24/7 nature of our media and communications habits.  Yes, there’s a common consumer culture that understands some of the same symbolic language, whether or not they share the same mother tongue.  Beyond that it gets very complicated.  That’s why this business is so stimulating.  There’s no cookie cutter.  It’s endlessly different, constantly evolving.

You mentioned the 24/7 news cycle.  Doesn’t information overload make being heard above the noise a huge, maybe impossible challenge?

Heather: Huge, yes; impossible, no. A compelling story, told truthfully and compellingly with knowledge of communication channels will find a receptive audience. And so-called “old media,” such as cable news channels, should still be part of the mix. Recently, we put out a story about a happy ending for a not very happy group of young women who had escaped a murderous group of fanatics in Nigeria. A cable news network picked up the story. Next thing we know, a person in the U.S. sees the story and immediately decides he wants to help the young women recover from their ordeal and live safe and happy lives. So he funds their entire education at the American University of Nigeria for as many years as it takes to get their bachelor’s degree. The University is our client. It and its great work were largely unknown outside of a little corner of Nigeria. Not anymore. So there were numerous lessons for us: that there exists many generous people in the world to help address profound needs; that old media still plays an important role; that good stories are powerful when told well, using the right mix of channels; that helping good organizations do good in the world is a great motivator for coming to work every day.

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