6 ways to make the most of your associates

Growing consultancies often use self-employed associates to deliver projects rather than having employees.

In the early days when business is less consistent, it allows you to deliver work without the costly overhead of employees and gives access to a wider range of skills and expertise that you can buy in as you need it.

Keeping your associates happy and engaged with your business is key to your success.

Using associates comes with a number of challenges:

  1. Ideally, you’d like to use the same associates regularly, so they build up experience in your systems and business. This can be challenging if there isn’t always regular work, or, if they are good, they will be much in demand elsewhere.
  2. Leading on from this – how do you create loyalty so they would choose to work with you rather than your competition?
  3. How can you be sure that they are good enough – after all, you’re only as good as your weakest person and they could easily damage your reputation if they get it wrong?
  4. Making sure they stay ‘on brand’
  5. They can go rogue and jump ship to the client.
  6. They might take your assets and use them to build their own business.

Here are six ways you can manage your associates effectively and keep them coming back for more:

  1. Using the same associates

    Once you get a regular pipeline of business, it’s much easier to be able to offer regular work. But until that time, what I find works best to keep associates on side is regular communication:
    – Once a quarter, reach out to see what their availability is like. I use a combination of email, phone, or a messaging system like Signal, depending on their preference
    – Newsletter
    – Regular updates on the pipeline and upcoming opportunities
  2. Loyalty

    This follows on from the above. This is all about making the Associate feel ‘loved’
    In addition to regular communication, you can:
    – provide constructive feedback at the end of each project
    – have regular social get togethers (easier now lockdowns are easing)
    – budget allowing, run a supplier conference which is a combination of learning and fun.
    Not only do the Associates feel valued, but they get to meet their fellow Associates, improve their skills and if done properly they will want to know when the next one is!
  3. Recruiting the best

    This is no different from recruiting an employee so make sure you have a robust recruitment process and follow legal requirements when interviewing. Having recruited them:
    – Have slick onboarding processes so when they come on board, they have a signed agreement and all the tools necessary to work with you
    – Have an induction/training programme, so they understand how you work
    – To assure yourself of their quality, (unless it’s a bodyshop gig), only use a new associate on a larger project where they can be mentored by seasoned Associates
    – At the end of each project conduct an end of project appraisal
  4. Making sure they stay ‘on brand’

    It’s worth reminding your Associates that they are representing your organisation when they are on projects. Other suggestions:
    – Give them a work-related email with your standard work footer
    – Get them to complete a branded timesheet
    – Have regular internal team meetings (online)
    – Use of online tools to chat and share internal comms e.g. Microsoft teams and Signal are excellent for this
  5. Stopping them from ‘going rogue’

    There is always a risk that the client will want to take them on particularly if you have associates on long term projects. The associates can start to feel more aligned with the client and the client will want to attract the best talent.
    To be honest, it’s the same risk for any employees you may have.
    The actions you take in the points above should minimise the risk.
    Usually, this is covered off in the professional services agreement which would generally prohibit them from working with your client for a period of time.
    Equally, you should have something in the agreement with your client that stops them from poaching your staff.
    The reality is, it happens and if the client is someone you will be working with over the longer term, you may have to take a view on how strictly you want to apply this.
  6. Using your IP for their own purposes

    Another challenging area.
    – Ideally, you won’t be giving access to all your processes and documentation so it will be hard for them to take everything lock, stock and barrel.
    – The professional service agreement should include a statement prohibiting them from doing this
    – Remember that what makes you successful is more than just the documents you use so that even if they did try and pass the documents off as their own, they won’t be able to do as good a job as you
    – You could sue them if you wanted to make a point. Costly and messy, but it is an option. Often a cease-and-desist letter is sufficient to put the wind up them.
  7. Pay them on time

    This is a supplemental one after feedback I got from some associates at a conference I recently attended.
    Apparently, very few consultancies pay on time, so if you get this right, your associates will love you for it!

When you get quotes like one of my clients, Salentis International, gets you know you’re doing it right:

‘Your comms and the sense of belonging you bring as a company are fantastic; I really hope I get to do some work for you soon as you clearly value your Associates (not always the case with companies in my experience!)’

‘I remain very interested and please do keep me ‘in the family’’

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