How To Hire A Consultant

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This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.

Hiring campaign consultants can be tough on a candidate or manager, and the wrong initial choices may start a campaign into a death spiral. 

Fortunately, there are some common-sense guidelines to help your campaign gain altitude. 

Do you really need someone?

This question often goes unasked.  In the excitement and tension of starting a campaign, jobs are created, people hired, and tasks assigned based on assumptions, not planning.

The old axiom, “If you want to be a candidate, find a manager.  If you want to be a manager, find a candidate,” goes to the heart of campaign relationships and the importance of planning before acting.  The very first thing to understand is that a candidate cannot be successful at both jobs.

Start at the top

From the smallest race to the largest, you will need someone.  Start at the top—the consultant or manager who will oversee all the aspects of your race.  You don’t necessarily have to hire the best known or most expensive.

Campaigns are stressful.  You need someone to help with the load, not add more.  Find someone compatible.  Not someone who follows your directions without a word, but someone you trust to help plan your campaign and be honest with you.  Personal chemistry is important.  Choose a manager to make decisions, including who else if anyone should be hired.  Then let the manager do the hiring. 

Ask the right questions

Don’t hire someone because “she’s the best” or “he’s available right now.”  Ask the right questions.  What’s their idea of a well-organized campaign.  What role do they see for you.  For themselves.  Why did they win—and lose—previous races.  How many other clients will they have.  How much time do they have for you.  How often will you be in contact.  Will you speak directly to them, or will someone else be assigned to your race.

How do they charge and how are they paid.  Do they accept commissions or have financial interests in businesses they may direct you to. 

Ask for a previous client list, including addresses and phone numbers.  Don’t just call the winning candidates—call the losing ones too, and ask if they would hire the person again.  Listen to the music, not just the words.

If they don’t have much experience, do they offer something else—energy, enthusiasm, commitment to your campaign alone.  Look for value added.  For example, some charge for the race, regardless if it takes a year or several months.  If you can get them on board early with advice and help for the same price, give that strong consideration.

Bargain, bargain and close the deal

The purpose of campaign money is to get your message to the right voters at the right time.  Everything else simply assists that, so be careful how you spend—especially at the beginning.
 Select who you want to hire and bargain.  Let them offer ways you can cut costs or help your cash flow.  “Industry standards” aren’t law, just guidelines.

Adjust commissions.  Establish a tiered or staggered price schedule reducing costs or commissions as more money is spent.  Offer a generous win bonus in exchange for monthly salary cuts.

Once you reach a reasonable settlement, close the deal.  Don’t keep grinding; don’t run to another company looking for a better price.  Close the deal.

Dividing—and understanding—the roles

Your manager should work with you to create a written campaign plan which contains a statement of the campaign, research objectives, a detailed budget, fundraising plans, cash flow projections, a calendar and an organizational description.

Understand that as a candidate your two primary jobs are raising money and meeting voters.

Don’t go around the manager to get information from other campaign workers and consultants—and don’t let them go around the manager to get to you.  Sit in if you will, but respect the structure.

Once you have a written plan in place and lines of authority are established, stick with it.  For each campaign that made a radical plan change and won, hundreds more have lost by drifting from their plan.

But if you must fire, do it right

Every campaign will commit errors.  The test is “could we see it coming, could we have responded better, and did we go off track?”  If the answer to all three is yes, then you have a problem.
Sometimes people do fail in a single, spectacular way.  Or fail over and over at the same task.  Separate those from the occasional stumble or minor irritations.

If you must fire someone, do it right. 

First, as part of the hiring process, you should require a signed confidentiality agreement with a non-compete clause guaranteeing that all information stays behind and they don’t go to work for the opposition.

Second, be absolutely certain that you have clearly defined the job expectations and brought short-comings to the person’s attention.  Your displeasure must not come as a surprise.

Third, assure yourself that someone can step in to fill the job, and that you aren’t creating a void you can’t overcome.

Then speak privately with the person away from campaign headquarters or after everyone else is gone.  Outline your reasons for termination.  Be frank, firm and calm.  Offer a settlement you think is fair—or more than fair.  Require an immediate departure, agree to a previously drafted media release that you will handle, and be certain all information and campaign materials are accounted for and left behind.

Always stay focused

A campaign is designed to do one thing—win.  It isn’t designed to just spread money around, hire cousins, or pay for personal assistants.  Hiring the right people at the right time is a big part of puzzle.  Stay focused.  Do it right.

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