Internet communication can be a wonderful thing. I just reconnected with a friend who was formerly employed in a large consulting firm and is struggling to make it on his own. His LinkedIn post to me: “wow, finding new clients is a full-time job.” My response, which is the nuts and bolts of this blog: “After toiling away at my business, I distilled the steps required for a successful one-woman consulting firm to four: marketing, sales, delivery, and follow-up.” This may not be rocket science, and it may not be conventional advice, but this is what I found to work for me as I became a self-employed consultant.
In a nutshell, I found marketing to be all of the networking one undertakes; sales is “closing the deal;” delivery (the fun stuff) is doing the work; and, follow-up is looping back to ensure the client was satisfied. The latter also serves to keep the consultant top-of-mind for new work.
True confession: My personal strengths are in the first three – marketing, sales, and delivery; while, ironically, my weakest link is follow-up. I say that because my greatest source of new business comes from previous (satisfied) clients. They either want a new product or services and/or refer me out. Today, all of the business comes either from former clients or their referrals.
Tip #1 – Marketing
Marketing is comprised of all of the networking one does – whether keeping in touch with former work colleagues, classmates, friends, and family; joining professional networking organizations – that seem to abound today; joining service organizations (like Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions Club, Soroptimists, etc.); staying engaged in nonprofits (those that sing to your soul); seeking out opportunities to serve on local commissions, task forces, etc.; and, staying active and involved in religious or other community organizations.
None of this happens overnight. A model a former colleague from a professional networking group followed was “know, like, trust, refer.” Rarely does anyone refer another unless she or he has the confidence level that the work product will excel. (Of course, one does have to deliver to ensure the referrals continue.)
Relationships are built over time, so part of the success for the one-person firm is to spend the time up-front in relationship building and to be there when the phone rings, an email comes in, or a text arrives. A few others I know launched consulting firms when I did; however, virtually all of them became unnerved when the work didn’t come in right away and went back in-house. I, too, toyed with several “big” HR jobs, but never bit.
For me, I held onto sage advice given by a mentor: “people like you ask for my advice (on how to start a consulting business), and almost never follow my advice. Do you want to know why? 1) money – you can’t stand to not be earning large amounts of it; 2) fear of telling family and friends; and, 3) the up-front time it takes to get your business going. However, I promise you that if you withstand those challenges, you will be a happier person in one year.” True that!
Early on, several colleagues indicated “I’d love to work on a project with you.” I came to understand that meant that I should find the work (the hard part) and they would be happy to do it (the fun part). My stock answer now is: “Sure, great – you find the job and let me know and I’ll be happy to participate.” Hasn’t happened yet!
Tip #2 – Sales
This entails meeting with the client face-to-face (or virtually in this day and age) and listening carefully to what the issue or concern is that requires assistance. The back-and-forth involves active listening – the process of verbal give and take to ensure the concern is fleshed out, and the consultant can propose a process, product, or solution to meet that need. Once agreed to, it’s time to write a proposal, that, if successful ends up in an “Agreement for Professional Consulting Services.”
Lessons learned: it does no good if the consultant fails to assist the client in identifying the true issue or concern. Pepper the prospective client with questions, and frequently state “I heard you say x, y, or z.” Be prepared to be corrected, which is great. The give-and-take typically results in the consultant being able to propose a process, product or solution that will meet the needs. A question I frequently ask: “This will have been a success if at the end of the process, if what happens?” Getting the client to answer that question is crucial.
Tip #3 – Delivery
This is the fun stuff – being able to deliver what was agreed to. It is critical to check-in and ask for feedback from the client to ensure the consultant is on track, too. If not, it’s time to flex one’s process and try something else. A happy client is a satisfied client that will come back to the consultant for more assignments.
Tip #4 – Follow-up
This includes setting up a timetable – one that could work is to follow-up one week later, one month later, six months later and a year afterward. This could be a simple check-in: “Been thinking about you and wondering how our process worked out. Was it successful? Did it meet your needs?” More frequently than one would expect, this results in new work, with the satisfied client saying . . . “I was just thinking about you.”
To recap, I’ve found that a successful one-woman consulting firm* is comprised of four critical elements:
*I partner with others when appropriate. That could mean a skillset needed; too much work on my plate; and, an assignment that can be delegated to others with the same work product standards.
I am eager to hear from others who are similarly situated. What works for you?