During my career as a small business coach/consultant, there have certainly been times of struggle, especially in the beginning years. Most consultants wonder where the next client will come from. They may ask, "Are my rates too high?" and many even wonder if their rates are too low. The typical consultant will tell you they've experienced the cycle of feast or famine. Is it ever possible to have balance?
Businesses in the U.S. are spending over $120 billion on management consultants each year, and six times that amount on other consultants and advisors. The high earnings potential is certainly there, however, with two-plus million consultants, coaches, trainers, and similar professionals all fighting to find clients, it can feel like an uphill battle.
As a multi-million-dollar earning independent consultant, David A. Fields, author of "The Executive's Guide to Consultants," and the soon-to-be-released, "The Irresistible Consultant's Guide to Winning Clients," says that many consultants are completely missing the mark on their baseline approach and overarching mindset.
To help give independent consultants a clearer path to that coveted, yet elusive, goal of financial freedom, here are six of Fields' tips to achieving a lifestyle-friendly independent consulting career:
1. Think Right-Side Up
What Fields calls "Right-Side Up" thinking boils down to a simple idea: Consulting isn't about you, it's about the clients. Consultants tend to make consulting about themselves and it's evident in their marketing materials, pitches, and even their approach to projects. Consultants who think Right-Side Up use their client's preferred communication method and style, not their own. Their proposals focus on the client's problem and outcome, not the consultant's methodology. Their marketing materials speak about their clients' issues, situations, and aspirations, not what makes the consultant great. They even turn down projects if it would be in the best interest of the client.
2. Maximize Impact
Fields contends that most consultants who lack clients believe they have a visibility problem, when in fact, most of those consultants have an impact problem. They're in front of enough prospects, but those prospects don't care about what the consultant is offering. In contrast, successful consultants focus on issues the clients are aware of and urgently want to solve. Amazingly, many consultants offer solutions they believe are important, without ever checking the market need.
3. Build Visibility
Once you have impact, visibility is critical. More awareness leads to more prospects, more clients, and more revenue. There are five specific marketing musts a consultant should employ, which have proven most effective for winning clients; writing, speaking, trade associations, digital presence, and networking. Surprisingly, the quest to differentiate, which is a mainstay of marketing, is a misguided effort for consulting firms. According to Fields, "Clients aren't looking for different. They're looking for reliable, credible solutions to their problems."
Focus on creating, nurturing, and leveraging relationships. Fields counters the common requests consultants use to try to get introductions, "Who do you know who could use my services?" (this rarely works well), with a more effective alternative: "Who's the most interesting person you've talked to in the past couple of months?" This removes the awkwardness factor associated with asking for contacts, while taking the pressure off the person receiving the request. Additionally, Fields suggests making your visibility-building efforts interactive. For instance, when giving a speech, ask listeners to write down their response to a question, then ask members of the audience to stand up when you describe the response matching what they wrote.
5. Become the Obvious Choice
The trick to becoming the consultant that clients value above all others can be summarized in a single word: discovery. Through the process of discovery, the consultant learns the client's desires, hopes, requirements, and fears better than any competitor--perhaps better than the client himself. He suggests using a carefully constructed context discussion with power questions that build trust and uncover crucial information. For instance, Fields even encourages consultants to ask questions like, "What concerns do you have about bringing in an outsider like us?"
6. Propose, Negotiate, and Close
While winning clients is the result of hard work and diligence, even consultants who follow the first five tips often fail to seal the deal. Fields suggests building a story that compels clients to sign on the dotted line, and proffering combinations of approaches, terms, and fees that are highly tailored to resonate with each particular prospect. Fees are frequently a point of contention and, when objections to fees arise, rather than offering one of the common responses to fee objections (defensively justifying the fee or weakly reducing scope), acknowledge the fee objection then ask, "what else?". This will surface other concerns and trepidations. By soliciting all opposition points before addressing any, you'll avoid becoming defensive and tackle the objections from easiest-to-hardest. This builds the time, trust, and momentum needed to effectively combat fee objections.
Lastly, according to Fields, a great number of consultants fail at the most fundamental, yet mission-critical, final step in the sales process: actually asking for the business. Professionals must foil their fear of rejection and go for it. If you don't ask you don't get, it's just that simple.