You lead an in-house team of meeting planners and you’ve just been given staggering news: your company’s CFO has announced they are spinning off the event department in 90 days.
In three months, your event team will be a separate business and will no longer be guaranteed to get the company’s event work, which will now be put out to bid. Your group will have to compete with other event agencies if it wants the business. You will, however, be free to pursue event work from other companies, but you’ll have to compete for that as well.
You’re faced with a potentially frightening thought: would your in-house clients hire you and/or your team if they didn’t have to?
This scenario forms the basis of an exercise I run when working with in-house event and meeting teams to help make them more innovative and entrepreneurial. And let me tell you, it’s a real eye-opener, because it forces people to take a hard look at the value they currently provide, which is often not nearly as great as it needs to be to protect their jobs.
- Becoming Indispensable To Your Clients & Company
Your ultimate goal is for your team to provide so much strategic value to your clients that they can’t imagine running their business units without your help. That if the company decided to actually disband or significantly cut back your department, those clients would rise up in revolt in your defense.
Picture a product or service you can’t imagine living without. Spotify, Netflix, wifi, your weekly yoga or spin class, etc. Now think of how crazy you’d go if that were to be taken away from you. That’s the level of value you want to be providing.
To do this, you need to transform client perceptions of your team, from logistics managers to business event strategists.
- From Order Takers to Trusted Advisors
To be a trusted advisor to your client, you first have to figure out what it is they find the most valuable when it comes to events and event services.
And here’s where the big disconnect often comes: the things planners often think of as important, are simply not that important to clients. This is why so many planners lament that their clients “don’t appreciate what we do.” There are things the clients care about; most planners simply aren’t doing them.
Planners focus on making sure the meeting gets properly planned and executed, a process involving budgets, floor plans, time lines, venue contracts, etc.
These are minor details to the clients. For them, the event is a means to an end, a vehicle to achieve a strategic business goal. An event can be flawlessly executed and come in under budget, but if it didn’t move the needle in advancing those business goals, the client’s not happy. What the client will find super valuable, however, is your ability to really understand what they want to accomplish, know the target audience, and design an event to achieve those goals with that audience.
In other words: customized strategic guidance. The event needs to be properly organized, of course, but the client doesn’t care as much whether your team does the execution, or if you outsource some or all of that to free up enough time to provide that strategic guidance.
- The Value Curve for Professional Consultants
Think about your last visit to the doctor. A receptionist checked you in, verified your insurance, and handed you some forms to fill out. A nurse took your blood pressure and other vital signs, and perhaps came back later to draw a blood sample. An outside lab analyzed that blood. Probably a third party handled the billing. Your doctor didn’t do any of that. She only came in to examine you, discuss your symptoms, and recommend treatment.
Do you really care that the lab work was farmed out? Of course not, as long as it was done correctly. You trust that the doctor picked a reputable lab, and is analyzing the results for you. What you value most is their expertise.
This customized strategic guidance is the highest value a professional consultant, in any industry, can provide. When you hire a lawyer, what you value most is his ability to understand your unique personal situation and goals, and map out a successful strategy, talking you through various scenarios, and quarterbacking the execution. It doesn’t matter if he outsources the stenographer or someone to file the court papers. You’re in his hands.
- High Value Services for Planners
So what should you be doing to provide services that your clients will find tremendously valuable? For starters, here are some basics to apply to any event:
- Understand their business
- Understand how the event fits into the business
- Help the client articulate clear goals for the event
- Determine whether the event is in fact the right vehicle to achieve those goals
- Design the event in a way to insure it achieves the goals
- Collaborate on ways to measure success
- Debrief after the event to evaluate the results
These steps are likely what’s most important to your client, because they position you as a key player in helping them grow their business. They’re also harder to outsource, either to an internal or external resource. The challenge for many planners, however, is that this taps a different part of the brain from managing logistics, which is far more cut and dried. The fact that being a strategic advisor is not cut and dried, though, is what makes it so valuable.
- Challenging Orthodoxy: Hallmarks of A Trusted Advisor
Being a trusted advisor means challenging some preconceived notions.
- ‘The customer is (NOT) always right’. To follow that advice, you’d need to do whatever your client asked you, no matter how dumb an idea it might be, which is the basic definition of an order taker. Smart trusted advisors are willing to push back against their clients, if it means safeguarding their best interests from their whims. Imagine if you went to an attorney for guidance on a legal matter, and told him you wanted to use a defense you saw on Law and Order the other day. An order taker would fulfill your request, even if it might lead to you losing the case. A trusted advisor would say, “Not on my watch. I won’t let you put yourself in that position.” Likewise, a valued financial advisor would counsel against investing in your friend’s restaurant idea if it wasn’t consistent with your long-term goals and risk profile. Whether you call it ‘tough love’ or ‘telling truth to power’ it means having some potentially uncomfortable conversations, but those conversations will earn you the client’s respect.
- Talk the client out of an event if it’s not a smart investment. A trusted advisor treats the client’s business and money as if it’s her own. That means if a client comes to you with an event to produce, and you don’t think it’s likely to accomplish their business goals, you need to say so. This might involve telling the client they need to spend more money, if that’s what it will take to get the job done. Or you might point out that those goals could be more cost-effectively accomplished through a different vehicle than an event. [The client may insist, advice be damned, that they want to proceed anyway, in which case you’ve at least voiced your professional opinion.] It may seem counter productive to turn away an event request, but that’s the kind of advice the client needs from you, and it will carry far more weight the next time you advocate to defend the budget of a different event.
Order takers are easy to come by, which is why they tend not to provide enormous value. Trusted advisors are much harder to find, more likely to become indispensable to their clients, and hence more difficult to replace. Focus as much of your time and effort on the strategic elements that are the most valuable to your clients, and delegate or outsource the tasks that can be filled by order takers, and you will be well on your way to becoming a truly trusted advisor.
NOTE: An earlier version of this post appeared in Plan Your Meetings magazine.