Sunday, March 4, 2007

Confidentiality and consultants in small markets

Having someone steal your idea is always a concern. This is especially so in small markets where everybody knows everybody and service providers are very likely to have worked for your competitors already (or do so in the near future).

I have had the good fortune of having clients who were rather trusting and the good sense to honor that trust. But some time ago I met a potential client who was less trusting than usual. It made me think of techniques I have seen applied and have applied myself to safeguard the client's confidentiality.

Of course you can register your idea at your bureau of intellectual properties or ask the consultant to sign a confidentiality agreement. But what if these are not appropriate at the time?
  1. Mention the broader product category rather than the product itself. Consultants, marketing consultants particularly, do need some information to be able to make a good proposal for you. How to give useful information, but not reveal all before you are really ready to do so? Mention the broader product category rather than the product itself. If you are going to sell "soap", say "personal care products". Generally all personal care products face the same competitive environment, as well distribution, pricing and marketing communication challenges. So, it's okay to refer to "personal care products".
  2. Give a comparison. If you need or want to be more specific, you can say "It's the Rolls Royce of soaps". That gives the consultant a better idea of the issues he may have to take into account when drawing up a proposal.
  3. Ask the referee. If you were referred to a consultant by someone, discuss your concerns with the referee first. She may not be able to answer all your questions, but her experience may give you an indication of the integrity of the consultant or his organization.
  4. Ask the standard question. When doing market research our first question is usually: "Does a close relative or friend work for such-and-such type of firm?" You can ask your consultant the same question.
  5. Voice your concern and wait for the reaction. You can say: "This is confidential, of course." and see how the consultant reacts. Many consultants, ourselves included, have a standard confidentiality clause in our contracts and on our website. It shows they appreciate your concern and have thought about ways to address it.
  6. Ask for disclosure. Ask if the consultant has done work in this area and the nature of the relationship with that previous client. You want to know if previous engagements where long-term or one-off deals. Be reasonable, though. The consultant must also honor the confidentiality of previous clients. So, you cannot insist on the previous client's name AND the type of engagement.
  7. Be prepared. Read up! If you know exactly what you need, you are more likely to know whether the consultant's questions are warranted or not. Not knowing makes you more vulnerable and more easily suspicious.
  8. Don't overkill. Consultants earn their living by providing good solutions AND by keeping their mouth shut. Most of us are not out to reveal client's confidential information. Data or methods that are publicly available or obtainable is not your property, even when you are the first to use them. It is also good to realize that after or even during your engagement, a consultant must be able to earn a living by solliciting and working for other clients. So, a non-compete clause cannot be as broad and exhaustive as you may want it to be.

Comments welcome. This is always an interesting topic in small markets.

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