One of the main occupational hazards for communications professionals is dealing with the frustrations of working with internal clients. The space between the communicator and the internal client is fraught with dangers, disconnects and delusional expectations.
The first rule is this – do not accept the conditions that have you set up to fail. This happens a lot. Communicators are put in mission impossible situations all the time, so it’s vital that you develop a Spidey sense about when this is happening to you, and take immediate steps to shift the situation before you’re in too deep.
An example I see regularly among my clients is that communicators are asked to develop a communications plan for an internal client’s project, but the client has no idea what the project’s objectives are.
That’s a red flag – how can you develop a solid communications plan for a project that isn’t fully baked? At that point, the best thing to do is to slow down in order to speed up – you might be able to work with the internal client to help them shape their objectives, or if that’s not within your scope, escalate the issue with your manager and work out an alternative, such as delaying the assignment.
Another frequent challenge I come across is that a communicator is asked to support a sensitive file such as a restructuring announcement, but they are told that they can’t get the information or participate in meetings about the announcement because access is reserved for those above their pay grade. There’s another red flag – you can’t possibly deliver high quality communications advice or products unless you have timely access to the right information and business context. Sure, you may well have to commit to confidentiality of sensitive information – that’s fine – but you can’t responsibly commit to providing professional advice unless you have the right information and access to decision makers. Again, this speaks to the basic issue of being appropriately set up to succeed which needs to be clarified with your manager and internal client.
A classic challenge that communications professionals face is that we’re called in too late to make a meaningful difference. While sometimes this can’t be avoided, more often the issue is structural or cultural – communications is an after thought, and by the time we’re called in there’s no way we can respond effectively.
This is tricky – my advice is to do your best with the cards you’ve been dealt, but then take the time to follow-up with the internal client to raise the issue in a calm, professional manner. Give examples of similar projects in which you were able to provide a much higher level of support because you were pulled in early into the process. Be careful to avoid the trap of becoming part of the problem – if you just roll over and accept these conditions, for example by pulling an all-nighter so that you can meet the timeline, you’re just teaching clients that it’s okay to call you late in the game because you’ll just keep pulling rabbits out of hats.
Then there’s the problem of the “Goldilocks effect”. This happens when you’re working with an internal client who can’t or won’t articulate what they want – they’ll only tell you what they don’t want.
You know the drill: This one’s too hot. This one’s too cold. This is too hard. This is too soft. It’s enough to make you pull your hair out!
In this kind of situation you have no alternative but to refer to rule number one – do not accept the conditions that have you set up to fail. At this point, you have to politely but firmly let your internal client know that it is not a responsible expenditure of the organization’s resources to have you produce a bunch of alternatives unless we have a clear definition of success. Your best bet is to elevate the conversation from tactics and make sure the strategic context is clear.
This is where the Results Map® Top 10 Questions come in – ask the client, “what does success look like?” and “who are we trying to reach, and why?”. The idea is to break through the tactical tunnel vision and clarify the big picture strategic context for your work.
Here are three key sanity saving strategies that can get you out of trouble regardless of the specific challenge you’re facing with clients:
- To raise your performance, you have to raise your level of altitude. Move the conversation up and out of the weeds. Focus on the North Star – what is the ultimate corporate or business objective? How can communications help achieve those goals? By looking up, the strategic path forward becomes clear
- Try to depersonalize the discussion. You’ll do better when you shift out of an interpersonal, subjective conflict and move into a more empirical, neutral conversation. So often, our internal clients become fixated on a particular product they want like a blog or a podcast and they’ve lost sight of the reason why. By asking the question “help me understand” or “what problem are we trying to solve”, you can help elevate the conversation to a strategic level and identify a more reasoned solution.
- Wherever possible do your best to replace noise with evidence. Everyone has an opinion about communications, and our clients often get tripped up in very subjective opinions that have no basis in fact. The problem is that when a communicator gets into a fight with someone who is at a more senior level, or who has a professional credential such as a lawyer, doctor or engineer, the communicator’s going to lose. So, make sure you don’t show up to a gun fight armed with a fly swatter – be equipped with data and evidence. This might include metrics on past tactics you’ve used or external industry benchmark information.
Developing your consultative practice and creating your own sanity saving strategies for dealing with internal clients takes time. This collection of our top blog posts on consultative skills can help. You can also check out our Rock Star Consultative Skills for Communicators Workshop.
Remember – if you don’t invest in ensuring that you’re set up to succeed, you can be pretty sure that no one else will do it for you.