Check out The Back Channel, My Most Important A/R Tool for useful tips on an important subject. One of John’s key points is to not abuse the back channel, but to use it judiciously.
I find this a very interesting topic, and this really touches on what I see as a larger issue. When talking about using analysts and analyst firms, don’t we need to differentiate between using Analysts from the “sell-side” (vendor) of a company, and from the “Buy-side” (end-user side) of a company? In my experience, Analyst Relations people focus overwhelmingly (and not surprisingly) on their representing their company’s sell-side. And in my experience, AR folks do not want to hear about back channels – they want to be in the loop so as to optimize the interactions and value from the interactions, and so it seems to me that this ‘formalizes’ the interactions to a certain extent. As a former client services analyst/manager at another analyst firm, working most often the buy-side of companies, I made it my personal commitment to create as many ad-hoc, real-time interactions between the buy-side contacts of our clients and our analysts as I could. I took great pride in how many real-time interactions I could create, and had a gentleman’s agreement with our analysts that they would alert me when I needed to be alerted to ad-hoc conversations that had taken place. “Back channels” is almost a dirty word to me – as it implies that there are inhibitors to the creation of value – a failure in the analysis value chain – that client contacts unfortunately feel they need to try to overcome.
In my opinion, a rather simplistic view of the problem.
First, figure out the analyst’s preferred means of communication. I’m an e-mail person. I hate being interrupted by out of the blue phone calls or IM’s asking, “U there?” When I’m writing or thinking through a difficult problem, my taking the call or IM (all too often to hear a gushing PR person or AR person saying the shipping of Release 1.01 will cure world hunger) means I then have to take 10 minutes to get back into what I was doing. So I ignore calls or IM’s, and return them when it’s convenient for me.
Second, now that you know my preferred means of communication, how do you get through all the blather? Good question. It’s usually a combination of what I’m working on, what clients are asking about, and how straightforward the AR person is. When I’m writing about X, I want to know about X. When my clients cool towards Y technology, there’s less need for me to be up-to-date on Y. If the AR person is always in push mode (“Oh, Release 1.01 is out”) but never gets back to me when I have questions, my propensity to answer their e-mail drops.
The challenge articulated so well by Guy Creese has another aspect to it, and one that I (and perhaps some others) would call the elephant in the room. One of the most important roles for the client-facing analyst or manager (the role variously called client research managers, client research analysts or other monikers by the Gartners and Forresters of the world) has been to run interference (in the best sense of the word) for the Analyst, in order to assist the Analyst (and the client) to see the most, and most continuous, value from the finite real-time availability of the Analyst. Guy Creese expresses the same thing that I have heard other analysts express as well: how best to align with clients on the right conversation on the right topic at the right time. When an analyst firm is caught between an Analyst who has no immediate real-time availability and a client who is looking for immediate value delivery, one answer to this question has been an experienced, well-developed client-facing resource capable of creating and delivering first-line analysis or other value to the client. One example: at one time, in such a client-facing role, I held monthly briefings with one of our manufacturing automation vendor clients, who realized that the only thing better than real-time on-demand access to their analyst-of-choice when they wanted it – was real-time access to their analyst-of-choice when they needed it – as well as regular scheduled monthly briefings with me. In this collaborative way, we ensured that our Analysts always had the vendor’s latest product, strategy, and market intelligence, that our Analysts were better capable (and better prepared) to deliver value in client-Analyst interactions, and we made the best use of the finite availability of our Analysts. A real-time conflict in calendars was not permitted to prevent us from creating and delivering value to our clients in near real-time. Sadly, I have seen (and heard of) a wide variation in the robustness and capability in this client-facing role. There is a good answer to the question that Guy Creese asks, but I believe that competitive pressures in today’s cost-focused environment mean that what clients see more often is a less well-developed, more undifferentiated client-facing role.
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