3 ways to adjust (and pivot!) when things don’t go your way as a consultant
When I stepped into McMicken Hall for my first day of orientation to graduate school and the communication MA program, I had no idea what would be in store for me. 9 short months later I had taught three sections of Introduction to Public Speaking and simultaneously embarked on an incredibly rewarding journey as a UCommunicate Consultant.
I jumped right into the Going Home Project with Olivia McCartney, and it seemed like before I could blink we had designed and conducted a workshop to help international students returning home act as advocates for the University of Cincinnati. (More about that project here.)
The real test of my communication knowledge, skills and abilities came when I consulted on my first (mostly) solo project with the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences to assess first-year transfer students’ perceptions of their experiences at UC, with A&S in particular. I walked away from this project with a newfound understanding of how to meet the needs of a client. I also developed my collaboration skills and learned more about capitalizing on the strengths of the individuals with whom I worked.
The task seemed straightforward enough: talk to students about their perceptions and experiences. But there was oh-so-much more involved in this project than simply talking to students. First, I had to recruit participants. To do so, Iworked with with my A&S contact, LaDreka Karikari, to plan our outreach efforts. After multiple emails and pleas for student responses (and of course, bribery with Adriatico’s pizza), we reached our goal of 27 student RSVP’s for the focus groups.
I quickly learned, however, that RSVPing to a focus group, especially for students, is not considered a binding commitment. Much to my dismay, only 10 students actually attended the three discussion group sessions. I had spent hours and hours designing the sessions for these discussions, working with my client to decide which was most appropriate for our audience. I incorporated breakout groups, activities and all the techniques of group deliberation and dialogue that I had learned as a communication scholar. Yet, things did not go the way I planned.
If you want to test your mental flexibility, try hosting an event where only a third of the expected attendees actually show up. When your “best laid plans” are not actually the best for the situation at hand, it’s time to pivot.
Breakout groups went out the window, and so did my expectations for the time length of the discussion. I immediately relieved Daniel Traicoff from his facilitation duties since he wouldn’t be needed, and I asked Sarah Jernigan to stay and help me facilitate and take notes during discussion. In the midst of all of this pivoting, I tried not to reveal my disappointment, quietly picking up the packets of materials I assembled for 12 students and rearranging the classroom so that we only had one small circle in the corner.
It wasn’t all bad. We actually had a great discussion that night because I was able to recover most of the questions and themes from my discussion design, while giving each student more attention and follow-up than I had expected. After that first session, I reflected on why the other students did not show up.
2. You need to provide a reason for people to work with you.
At the time, I was completely infatuated with the project, and could not fathom why students did not see the value of this research topic. The email I drafted for A&S to send to first year transfer students read as follows:
Reflecting back on this email, I now know that the contents invited participation from two primary groups of people: those who were strongly dissatisfied with their experiences at UC and with A&S, and those who wanted some free pizza.
I kid you not, a participant from the second group told me that she and her boyfriend came to “these things” all the time, just for the pizza. The only reason he wasn’t there sharing this dinner with her, courtesy of A&S, was because he had to work. She decided to come anyway so she wouldn’t have to cook, and took some leftovers home with her after the discussion was over.
My mind was blown. Even after studying communication for four years, and drafting three different versions of the same email (you could say I was determined to impress our clients), I still missed the mark. This was an important lesson for me: market research often only attracts people who have strong opinions about the topic or something to gain. There’s a balance to be had here. Too little incentive and your audience will not respond, too much incentive and you run the risk of contaminating your results with respondents who feel indebted to tell you what you want to hear. In this situation, I worried that I had failed my client by not accurately portraying how students would benefit from this research into their perceptions.
3. In the midst of pivoting, remember how you measure success.
After the three discussion groups, LaDreka and I met at Hangover Easy. We decided to have an informal breakfast before getting down to the meeting, which allowed me some time to calm down and stop thinking of this experience as a failure. As I said earlier, when things don’t turn out the way you want, you have to pivot and that’s what we did. But you also need to remember how you and your client are measuring success while you are attempting to pivot. For us, success meant tapping into the experiences of recent transfers into UC, and A&S in particular.
Despite the dissatisfying turnout, we gained some really valuable perspectives from our discussions. I had to be real with LaDreka, and tell her that I did not feel confident using the results of those discussions to recommend any plan of action to A&S for their marketing efforts. I discussed with her some of the themes that came up during our conversations, and together we decided that we could use those responses to create an online survey that would tease out some of the nuances of transfer student perceptions.
As it turns out, students are a lot more likely to participate in a short, online survey than to physically appear at a discussion. We exceeded our goal of 50 survey responses, receiving 67, and I was able to analyze and incorporate those results into a comprehensive report for A&S, recommending a marketing plan to appeal to more transfer students.
Despite the major success of the survey, for future market research efforts, I might try to branch out and incorporate a Twitter chat or something on a virtual platform. Arguably, such platforms can encourage more of a give and take conversation than the survey format allows.
After all of the bumps I encountered in this project, I still consider the experience a success. Through it, I learned important lessons about flexibility, audience research, and the importance of knowing how you and your client are measuring success.
In the end, I mostly consider the Going Home project a success. I was happy to see the look on LaDreka’s face when I presented the report to her—she was a satisfied client. Despite my perfectionisms and type A tendencies , I realize now that when the client is happy with the success of a project, the consultant can be happy too.
~ Hannah Back