Recovering steam

My clients usually get more than they bargained for.

I get hired by the CEO’s of b2b and service businesses to sort out their brand issues. And my fieldwork usually involves one-to-one conversations with customers and customer-facing staff.

When I’m talking to my client’s customers I make it clear that I’m interested in the good stuff. I want to understand what they like about the service they are receiving so that I can bottle it up to make my client more attractive to more customers. The customers I speak to tend to be strong advocates for my clients. They want to help. And they do help, with useful observations made in rich language that is gold dust for my purposes. However, because they want to help, they also tell me other things that they think my client needs to hear, which are unrelated to branding. These extra insights take the form of well-intentioned constructive criticism, which I turn into management consultancy, which my client gets as a bonus.

These extras are not intrinsic to my brand advice but they are a very useful byproduct. I get more than I bargained for and so does my client.

I refer to this as recovering steam, which is a throwback to my days as a chemical engineering student. Chemical plants generate a lot of heat, which has the effect of turning the water that is used as a coolant into steam. This steam can be used to drive turbines and generate electricity. Despite using an awful lot of energy, many chemical plants are actually net contributors to the power grid because of this recovered steam. The steam is not intrinsic to the manufacturing process but it is a very useful byproduct.

A similar thing happens when I interview my client’s staff. These interviews are on the record unless the interviewee requests otherwise, and I make it clear from the outset that I am looking for positive contributions to inform brand development. We talk about things like culture, client relationships, business development, and the company’s service ethos. Again, unprompted by me, these people tell me things which are not connected to the brand, but which they think the CEO needs to hear. This feedback is typically about processes, management priorities, or internal communications. For whatever reason, I find myself being trusted to sensitively convey important feedback from the shop floor.

These insights are not in scope for my brand work but they are valuable to my clients. It’s likely that commissioning some external consultancy work, on any topic, was the only way that these issues were going to be surfaced.

I don’t price recovered steam into my fee because it is entirely unprompted and unpredictable. But recovering steam is a much-valued outcome of most projects. And it’s worth noting that it is made possible by my preferred fieldwork method of one-to-one interviews. Workshops have their uses, but you don’t get this kind of lucky in a meeting.

Steam above a mug