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Retaining Consultants for the Long Run By Cathy Weselby Retaining temporary workers may sound like an oxymoron, but with further study, it makes sense. With more companies hiring skilled consultants to lead strategic initiatives, there is more risk associated if the consultant decides to leave before the completion of the project. When a consultant walks, the amount of time and money that it takes to find a replacement is an issue; but more importantly, it could jeopardize the relationship with the client. Working to keep consultants on board is sound business practice. Why Consultants Walk An agency can control the type and extent of benefits offered to its consultants, such as health insurance, holiday pay, 401(k) plans and tuition reimbursement, in the hope of increased retention. However, a study by Jeffrey P. Slattery, MBA director and associate professor of management at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, found that temporary workers were more likely to leave an assignment based on disgruntlement with the client company, rather than discontent with the agency. Numerous workplace retention studies support this claim, reporting that employees usually leave because of the manager. Does this mean that retaining consultants is out of your control? Not necessarily. There are strategies that an account manager or recruiter can employ to strengthen the bonds between the client company and the consultant. Think of your role as a coach, and your consultant, a marathon runner. The coach’s job is to support and encourage the runner toward reaching the finish line and to remove obstacles. With the client manager, your role is also as coach, using your communication skills to reinforce the relationship and make sure the assignment runs smoothly. The Starting Line The opportunity to manage the relationship begins early on. It’s in the account manager’s best interest to take control and meet with the consultant, as well as the hiring manager, to set the expectations for the assignment right from the start.
“You need to avoid a consultant’s sudden departure by preventing it in the first place,” says Doug Jones of Jones and Associates. “I recommend a formal project definition process in advance of putting any consultant in place. Your client manager, consultant, and you (or your project manager) sit together and agree on the specifics of precisely what the project milestones and the deliverables will be, precisely what resources and tools will be available, and precisely what the process will be for resolving any questions or disputes along the way.” It may sound time-consuming, but Jones cautions that a little effort early on will pay off down the road. “If you don’t take this type of proactive approach with the consultant and client manager, you’ll be in damage-control mode much of the time.” If a face-to-face meeting with all parties is not feasible, encourage the client manager to meet with the consultant on the first day. Coach the manager to discuss the expectations for the assignment and how the job fits in with the department and company, so that the consultant can better understand his or her new role. With the consultant, the account manager (or the recruiter) needs to clearly communicate the expectations for the assignment. The consultant needs to know the specifics, including any downsides, so that he or she has an accurate picture of the job. Most importantly, the consultant needs to feel supported by the agency, and know that they have a “go to” person when they have a question or a problem. Verify with the client manager that things have been set up for the consultant. If the manager is new to hiring temporaries, you might want to provide a checklist for the on-boarding process, including details such as computer set-up, and access badge requests. Many times these processes take several business days to complete, and it can be frustrating for a consultant to start an assignment without any tools or access privileges. Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh Associates, advocates agency involvement on day one. “We have an on-boarding model, where the recruiters walk on with the consultant where they’re assigned and do what we can to make sure the initial orientation piece is handled well,” says Lanzalotto. Being physically present on the consultant’s first day shows that you are committed to his or her success. Check Points Once your consultant is off to a running start, don’t forget to check in periodically. Annette Gilsdorf, branch manager at StarTemps, contacts consultants who are out in the field once a week, and checks in with her clients biweekly. “Continued contact with both parties throughout the assignment will prevent issues from getting out of hand,” explains Gilsdorf. Brian Margarita, CEO of TalentFuse, advocates taking consultants out to
lunch once a month, and during the meal, asking the difficult questions. “It’s what you don’t know that kills you,” says Margarita. Skillfully phrased questions are a coach’s best tool. “Questions help bring issues to the surface and promote productive dialogue,” says author and coaching expert, Marty Brounstein. “If I can get you to think about and talk about what you’re going to do, you’re more likely to do it. If I don’t bring it up, it may never happen. Questions are powerful.” Dorothy Leeds, author of The 7 Powers of Questions, suggests an added bonus to asking questions – they get people to persuade themselves. “People believe what they say, not what you say. They are more likely to believe something they thought up, and a well-phrased question can get their minds in a specific direction,” says Leeds. Alyse Parrino, executive recruiter at Mee Derby & Company, credits her ability to successfully retain consultants due to frequent communication with both sides. “I’ve met with the contractor face-to-face and asked behavioral questions, such as ‘When they do (blank) how does that make you feel?’ and ‘Have you spoken with your manager about the way you are feeling?’ I would really get to the root of the problem. Most times than not, the managers were not aware of how the contractor was feeling.” Hitting the Wall Consultant Emily Seltzer once gave notice before her assignment was complete. “My commute was killing me, and I had received an unsolicited offer I really couldn’t refuse financially. I never would’ve considered asking for my current place to match it, but within hours of giving notice, they matched the hourly rate (which was about 40% higher than I was making). They offered to pay for installation and monthly cost of a second phone line at home so I could telecommute a couple of days, and they offered a sizable retention bonus payable at the end of three months. The key was that I wasn’t unhappy there to begin with, and all of these things mitigated my reasons for even considering going elsewhere. I ended up staying another 12 months.” It’s important not to make assumptions about what is motivating to someone. Contract employees generally have different career motivations than FTEs. If they’re not looking to transition from a temporary to a full-time staff position, they most likely enjoy assignments that offer flexibility and variety and present new challenges. An American Staffing Association study found that flexible work time is a priority for more than half (64%) of temporary workers. The safest strategy is to ask. As coach, this means checking in and asking questions about what specifically motivates the consultant. If money is the issue, then a rate increase or stay bonus may be in order. If life balance is the motivator, then the option to telecommute might be incentive to stay.
Crossing the Finish Line In the end, it’s all about building relationships and using the communication skills of a coach to nurture those relationships. It’s about thinking long-term, and determining how you will support your consultant throughout the length of the assignment. Moreover, it extends beyond the assignment. Successful agencies think relationship, not transaction – relationship with client managers and relationship with consultants. “To us, the experience that a consultant has with Yoh is critical to how they develop the relationship with us. We consider the people we place on assignment with our customers, as a customer. If you have that mentality and that mindset throughout the relationship, I think that goes a long way to the relationship that you have with your active consultant base,” says Lanzalotto.