How to Choose the Right Communication Services Provider for You

Today it’s often the communications budget that’s the first to be slashed when company leaders are looking for ways to reduce costs. Communication teams are often looked at as an expense rather than as an investment. They’re expendable in a corporate re-organization. In many companies, communication teams today are expected to do more with less.

The problem is, today, communicating regularly with your audiences is vital. As they say, “content is king.” Effective, appropriate communication becomes even more essential if your company has a crisis that affects your customers or clients, or the public at large. Communicating effectively is also essential when you’re launching a new product or service, or even when you’re holding a special event. Your brand is everything you do and how you do it-and communication is a vital part of your brand.

Facing the communication conundrum

Most large corporations have in-house communication teams. Many medium, and especially smaller businesses, do not. Neither do many non-profit organizations or associations. And this can leave SMEs and non-profits, more so than larger organizations, in a communication conundrum.

Let’s say you’re an SME with an innovative new product that could change your industry. You’ve got to get the word out. But you’re the product expert, not a communication expert. And you don’t have a communication staff. What to do? A haphazard approach to your new-product launch could have disastrous rather stellar results. You should have a communication plan for every crisis; for every new product launch; for every event. And that requires the right expertise. So does writing your blog posts, news releases, website copy, and a whole lot more. Writing your company’s B2B or B2C communications is not a job to just hand off to the executive assistant. Nor to the sales team.

To hire, or outsource

Hiring a full-time communication person is costly. There’s a salary and benefits package; there’s time and cost invested in recruitment. It can be difficult to find the right person for your organization. And what if the person you eventually hire quits within the first few months, or a year or two? You’ve invested thousands of dollars in the hiring process, and now you have to do it all over again.

More and more organizations today are outsourcing their communication needs. It’s a very viable option for SMEs and non-profits that don’t need a full in-house communications team, or that can’t afford to have a person on staff. And it’s a great option for larger corporations whose teams are overloaded, or that are looking to control costs. Developing a trusted, excellent working relationship with an external communications ally can make it seem as though they’re part of your internal team.

Establish an outsource budget

The first thing you should do is establish a communication budget if you don’t have one already. If you’re hiring an outsource resource on a project basis, for example, it’s likely the first question they’ll ask is, “What’s the budget for this project?”

You don’t want to be saying, “Well, I need this done but I don’t really have a budget for it.” That can lead to a bad situation when you get the invoice. It will also leave your provider with the feeling from the first conversation that you’re not really serious about communication-that it’s an afterthought. They’ll be wary of doing business with you. That’s not a good way to start off when the aim should be to develop a long-term, trusted relationship. For the same reasons, don’t make the first question you ask, “How much do you charge for this?”, or “What’s your hourly rate?” Some communication providers may refuse to even consider doing business with you if the first thing you’re interested in is the cost. That’s because their main interest is in adding value for you, and helping you achieve your communication and business objectives. They don’t want to deal with difficult clients who are more concerned with how much they’re spending rather than the investment that’s being made in helping them.

Outsource options

If you’re looking at outsourcing for your communication needs, there are several options to consider. You can engage a:

  • big agency
  • smaller, or boutique agency
  • “virtual” team
  • professional independent communicator

It really depends on three things: your budget, your needs and your trust level.

  • Large agencies usually have a lot of staff (and salaries and overhead to pay), so their fees are often much higher, and perhaps unaffordable for your communication budget. Think about your needs, and whether you really need a big agency partner to handle them.

  • Smaller or boutique agencies usually have a small staff (often anywhere from five to 25 people) and usually focus on a few specific account-industry-areas. This makes them more specialized (more on this in a moment), which can be beneficial for you. Often, smaller agencies focus on working with smaller companies.

  • Perhaps you’ll want to look at engaging a “virtual team.” It’s common today for professional independent communicators with different expertise-for example, a writer, a graphic designer, a media relations expert and a web designer-to band together as a “virtual agency” on a project basis. You liaise with one person, and everything comes together in the background. Quite often, these independent communicators work from home offices. Choosing a “virtual team” can be very cost effective.

  • If you have minimal or only very occasional communication needs, then you may want to consider a solo professional independent communicator (PIC). If for example, you only need blog posts written regularly, then this makes sense.

Dealing with multiple suppliers

Some companies when they’re outsourcing hire different providers for different services-a writer for this, and a graphic designer for that, for example. But it means you’re managing a host of different suppliers, and dealing with numerous invoices. Sometimes it just makes sense to go “one-stop” and engage either a “virtual team” or a smaller, boutique agency that can provide all the services you need. They may sub-out certain parts of the project, but ultimately you’re dealing with a single supplier and building a relationship with them.

Dealing with multiple suppliers can affect your brand. Let’s take a writer, for example. If you’re outsourcing to more than one writer, it’s essential that they all have a copy of your company style guide. And that they all follow your corporate style. This is because all your communications need to have the same look, feel and tone. If you’re using some really good, experienced writers while others are more junior and the quality of their work isn’t the greatest, it’s going to show. Disjointed communications can affect your brand reputation and perception. Then there’s your frustration factor in having to micro-manage, and polish or rewrite when you shouldn’t be having to do that. You should be able to focus on the operational aspects of your business while your trusted communication ally focuses on that aspect.

Consider these questions

There are some questions to consider when you’re looking at outsourcing for your communication needs:

  • How do I find the right outsource expertise?
  • Should I engage a “specialist”, or a “generalist”?
  • Should I engage a more experienced professional, or someone more junior?

Let’s tackle the first question. The best place to start is by asking people in your network if they can refer you to a communication provider. Take advantage of LinkedIn for this. It’s well known that people are most comfortable doing business with either someone they know, or with someone to whom they’ve been referred because there’s an inherent level of trust in a referral. You can also tap into your local or the nearest chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. The Toronto chapter (the largest IABC chapter in the world), for example, has an online marketplace where members advertise their services.

Specialists versus generalists

Should you engage a specialist, or a generalist?

Communication generalists usually have diverse experience that may be across a range of industries. A really good generalist who knows how to write effectively for a variety of audiences can easily adapt to writing for your industry audience, in the right tone. If you’re comfortable engaging a generalist, then do it.

But you may want to consider a specialist. The main advantage is that a communication “specialist” with experience in your industry understands it, and the audience. They’ll instinctively know how to write engaging copy for your audience. They’ll also understand the nuances and terminologies of your industry. They can comfortably jump right into your project. A generalist may have to spend more time getting up to speed to learn about your business. With a specialist, you can more confidently “let them run with the ball” once you’ve said, “This is what I need.” You may find yourself spending more time managing and educating your supplier if that person is a communication generalist.

As for experience, it’s the old, “you get what you pay for.” If you’re hiring a virtual team of senior communicators, their project fees will definitely be higher than those of someone just starting out or only a few years into their career. But the advantage of hiring a more experienced virtual team is that you’re hiring their years of experience and expertise, which translates into more value and benefit to you.

Check them out

Once you’ve found the outsource ally with whom you think you want to work, there are a few things you should do before engaging them:

  • Visit their website to learn more about them. If you’re about to engage a writer/content creator and he or she has a “samples” page, download a few writing samples to review them.

  • If they have testimonials on their website, get in touch with three of those people and ask a bit more about how satisfied they were with the provider.

  • Have an initial phone conversation. If you need case studies written, for example, and they involve interviewing a lot of people, ask the person about the kinds of people they’ve interviewed, and their interviewing style.

A word about fees

There are three ways communication providers usually charge:

  • project-fee basis
  • retainer
  • hourly rate

Project-fee basis: Personally, I prefer this. It means everyone knows up front the scope of the project; how much they’re going to receive; and what the invoice amount will be. A supplier who charges by the project may have a fee policy stipulating the project fee basis and what the fee includes, and anything outside that scope will be charged extra and accordingly. If you’re looking at developing a long-term relationship with an outsource communication ally, you can still engage them on a project basis rather than a retainer-fee basis.

Retainer: It may make sense to negotiate a retainer fee if you have constant, ongoing needs. But you don’t want to get into a situation where you’re paying a monthly retainer fee that’s going to budget waste because you’re not taking full advantage of your supplier’s capabilities and services for whatever reason.

Hourly rate: Engaging someone who charges by the hour can really add up and create a shock factor when you receive the invoice. Hourly rates are a hassle for both you and your provider. They have to track every hour spent on your project. You have to pay for every hour spent on it. If a project takes more time than expected, you’re paying for that time. No one knows how much the invoice is going to be until it’s presented. The hourly rate scenario can lead to disputes, which is not good for developing a good, long-term working relationship.

Tying it all together

Probably the most important thing in engaging an outsource ally is, make sure you have a written contract or letter of agreement outlining what’s to be done and by when, and the fees. This will help prevent any misunderstandings or conflicts. Those can end what could’ve been a great long-term relationship before it even gets off the ground.

Outsourcing for your communication needs has a lot of advantages and benefits that can create a win-win for all parties involved. It can help you ramp-up your communications while keeping things cost effective. For communication providers, adding value for you starts with building a great relationship. The right outsource ally will help you achieve your goals to drive your business forward, and be in it for the long-haul with you. They’ll help you survive crises and bumps along the road, and they’ll help you celebrate your successes, too. When you’ve found the right ally, you’ll instinctively know it.