Category Archives: Consulting Sales

Can You be an Independent Consultant and Work for a Firm?

Independent Consultant
Independent Consultant

Although there are many ways to categorize consulting, one major difference is whether someone works as an independent consultant, or as a consultant working for a consulting firm.

Firm consultants vs independent consultants

Independent consultants generally have a large network of clients and potential clients. They either do their own marketing to sell projects to people in that network, or they partner with a firm that helps them identify work.

An independent consultant often does short gigs for clients, usually working alone to perform a study or tightly defined task.

Conversely, a consultant working for a firm often works with a team of people. The team can be a combination of fellow employees of their firm, employees of the client, and other consultants.

These rules are not set in stone. Consultants from a firm can work alone and independent consultants can be part of a large team on a long-term project.

A consultant with a firm will be charged the going hourly rate to the client based on that individual’s skills and experience. That consultant is paid a salary that is often a fraction of the rate billed. That consultant generally receives a full benefits such as health insurance, a 401(k), and paid vacation time. Although firm consultants are responsible for developing new business, they have less responsibility for finding their next job. The firm generally has a sales team that finds the work for them.

Independent consultants are responsible for finding their work. They get to keep most of their billings after taxes, but are responsible for their own health insurance and retirement savings. If they want to take vacation time off, they don’t get paid.

Consultants that are risk averse often stay affiliated with a firm that will do the heavy lifting of sales for them. They can do the work of a consultant and not worry so much where their next job is coming from.

Some consultants work for a firm until they can develop a good Rolodex of clients before they set out on their own. Sometimes, just because they have consulting experience, they may get an opportunity to do some independent work for a client gig.

Conflict of interest

There is nothing wrong with a firm consultant doing a one-off gig or even transitioning to becoming an independent on a full-time basis. The critical consideration is to avoid any conflict of interest.

Consider if you work for a client for your firm, and that client offers to pay you separately to do additional, independent work for them on your own time. If your firm provides the same service the client is asking you to do – even if it is not your role, you could be competing with your own firm.

Whether there is any question of competing or not, it would be advisable to meet with your manager at your firm and get their opinion. If they have any reservation, it may be a conflict of interest. On the rare occasion that they don’t have a problem, make sure that the time you work on the independent work never interferes with the work you are doing with the firm.

If a completely separate client asks you to do independent work on your own time, this may be a more palatable set up for your firm. You still need to ensure that the time you spend on your independent client doesn’t interfere with the time you spend for your firm.

Your firm may require you to bill a minimum number of hours to the client to justify your salary. Working fewer hours in order to serve your independent client creates a conflict of interest. Obviously, billing both clients for the same hours is also a serious breach in ethics.

Finally, always ensure that you don’t use any of your firm’s resources to serve your independent client. This includes office supplies, email accounts, and intellectual property.

Conclusion

Many consultants use employment with a consulting firm as a stepping stone to becoming an independent consultant. During that transition, it is important to maintain ethical practices to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest with your independent practice and your firm.

How have you made the transition from a firm to independent consultant?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

Image courtesy of StuartMiles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Throw the Client Under the Bus at Your Own Risk

throw the Client Under the Bus
Don’t throw the client under the bus

It happened almost by accident. Jim was presenting his change request to the change review board. He had to expedite it to make the deadline. He needed approval from Paul, his client manager, in order to expedite it. He tried calling Paul a few minutes before the meeting but he didn’t answer.

He decided to attend the meeting anyway.

“Why don’t you have Paul’s approval for this?” one of the board members asked.

“I called him, but he didn’t get back to me.” Jim responded.
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How to Balance Priorities for Your Client

Balance Priorities
Helping the Client Balance Priorities

When a consultant begins a client project, there is a desire to keep a laser-beam focus on that project. It seems logical. Whether you are managing the project or simply a cog in the great wheel, that project should be the one and only thing to focus on.

However, it is likely that that client project is one of many efforts in progress for your client. And those efforts almost certainly are interrelated with your project.

The division you serve

The client manager that you report to has a vested interest in the project you’ve been assigned to. And she wants you to keep your attention trained on your project. That is after all what you were hired to do.
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7 Reasons Your Billing Rate is Low

billing rate is low
Why your billing rate is low

We probably all know someone who does the same thing as we do but makes a lot more money doing it. We can sit there in jealousy, wondering how he or she does it. But they are obviously doing something we are not. It’s probably more than one of the items below.

You’re not up to date on technology

There is still demand for mainframe COBOL programmers. But everyone knows it’s not the hottest skill in demand. While organizations still need people to maintain their old back-end systems, they’re paying top dollar for cyber security skills and mobile app developers.

Technology changes at a more rapid rate than ever. Last year’s hot technologies may be obsolete by next year. If you don’t invest the time and money to keep up to date on the latest technologies, you will find fewer companies willing to shell out high billing rates for you.
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Consulting Sales and Business Development

Consulting Sales and Business Development
Consulting Sales and Business Development

I recently had a conversation with someone who owns his own small sporting goods business. He told me he wasn’t interested in sales. “I just don’t like cramming something down somebody’s throat that they don’t want.” He told me.

That doesn’t sound very desirable. But then again, that is not what good selling is about.  Consulting is a form of professional services. Consultants serve professionals to help them become more successful. It follows logically that consultants must deliver value. If a consulting firm’s sales team crams a project or service down the client’s throat that they don’t want, there is no value involved.

This is why so many consulting firms involve delivery people in sales. Sales people have their place in the sales cycle to help close a deal. But delivery people are better equipped to ensure that what is being delivered has value to the client.

Preparation

One of the key aspects of selling consulting services is doing the necessary homework on the client. I’ve seen many sales-focused consulting organizations who meet a client for an initial introduction. The majority of the meeting is focused on the consulting firm. They go into great detail about their history, what they do and why they have been so successful. They have solutions and they’re not afraid to use them, regardless of whether they help the client. Their primary goal is to sell.

Customer focused firms do their homework to understand the client’s business, they make the initial conversation about the client’s business issues and try to determine where they need help the most. Instead of trying to fit the firm’s solutions to the client’s problems, they try to learn about the problems to see if they can provide a solution.

Trust and Credibility

The standard joke about sales people is that their favorite sentence is, “We can do that.” Sales people never want to turn away a sale. Our delivery people will figure out a way to make it work.

Michael Porter, Harvard’s strategy guru, says that the essence of strategy is defining what you don’t do. Consulting firms should define what it is that they do based on their strengths. They should also define what is outside of their expertise. I was once with a firm who had a client ask us to propose on a business intelligence project. We had no experience with BI. We could have contracted with some independent BI consultants and proposed, using their experience as ours.

Instead, we declined to propose. Additionally, we gave the client the names of two of our competing firms that actually focus on BI. We told them, “We can deliver the appropriate value that you need. But here are the names of some firms that are very good at it. You should talk to them.”

At first the client was frustrated. They wanted to know why we were turning down business with them. They wanted to work with us. When they realized that we were adding value by not selling, we developed trust and credibility with them.

Customer service

Thinking about selling invokes images of a transactional relationship. When you go to the local department store and purchase a shirt, that seems like a transaction, plain and simple. You bought the shirt. They sold it to you. End of transaction. But if you get home and find a flaw in that shirt, you will probably want to go back to the store and get either a refund or a replacement.

How would you feel if you went back to that store and they refused to make good on the damaged shirt? If they said “buyer beware,” you might tell them you’ll never come back to their store.

Some stores do have strict policies to reduce fraud. But they need to be aware that they might lose good customers. And they want customers for long-term relationships. If they provide excellent customer service, they might become the customer’s favorite store. Customers go there regardless of competitor advertising and they don’t have to compete on price.

The same principles apply to consulting. If the client is ever dissatisfied with their service, most consulting firms will do whatever it takes to satisfy them. They know that it’s harder and more expensive to find a new client than to keep an existing one. Making sure they give excellent client service and exceed the client’s expectations will result in better value delivered and greater sales.

Networking

Great salespeople have strong networks. A large volume of contacts is nice, but it has limited value if those contacts aren’t strong. If you meet someone at a professional conference and connect with them on LinkedIn, that’s a nice start. But if you never interact with that person again, it’s a very weak connection. Imagine that three years down the road, if you identify a potential client who is connected to that person. You could send a message to that connection asking for an introduction. That person may be reluctant to introduce their friend to someone they don’t know very well. They may not even remember you or the circumstances around how you met.

It’s great to connect with people who work in the same or similar industries. But it should not end at the connection. Once you connect, review their profile. Identify areas in which they are interested. Seek out articles and blogs that are related and that they might be interested in.

Reach out to them occasionally to see how they are. If they change jobs or anything on their profile, send a congratulatory greeting. All of this will help them remember who you are and make you stick out. They will know more about what you do and be more interested in introducing you to other people they trust.

Leadership

Clients that establish long term relationships with consultants do so because they want an expert. They know that nobody is an expert in every area, but they want your expertise in your area. Chances are the client is a leader in his or her business area. They are looking for a leader in consulting.

Consultants have to develop and demonstrate leadership with their clients in order to become their trusted advisor.  Simply being a loyal servant to the client is not the leadership they are looking for. If they are considering a decision that the consultant disagrees with, a good consultant offers a diplomatic dissenting opinion. Provide evidence and data that might help them change their mind.

The client may not agree, but will appreciate your sincere effort to help them make the best decision for their business.

Conclusion

When we think of sales, we often think of the slick salesperson or the person who goes door to door using high pressure and fast talk to fool you. These techniques may work if you only want one sale from each customer and you will never deal with them again. It is the definition of fly-by-night.

Using those techniques to sell consulting services will fail. Consulting is not transactional. It is a long term relationship based on trust. In consulting sales, helping is selling and selling is helping.

How do you approach sales for consulting services?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

Image courtesy of hin225 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How to Lose Business by Gold Plating

How to lose business
How to lose business by gold plating

I worked my way through college waiting tables.  At one place I worked, we had a cook who treated employee meals differently than customer meals.  Customers received the standard fair.  They got what they ordered.  But when an employee went on break and ordered a meal, this cook had a tendency to “gold plate” it.  If you ordered a cheeseburger, you were likely to get double-bacon cheeseburger.  Side of fries? You would get a big honkin basket of fries.

It was a nice gesture, but we would often get much more than we could eat. Sometimes we would get something we didn’t even want. We could see that he was trying hard to get in good with his fellow staff members. But he was trying a little too hard. It was overkill.
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Estimating Your Work Like Ferris Bueller

Estimating your work
Estimating your work like Ferris Bueller

I live in the Chicago area and I love the city of Chicago.  As an extension, I love the movies based in Chicago.  From The Blues Brothers to The Untouchables to all of the National Lampoon Vacation movies (including that Marshall Field’s scene in Christmas Vacation), I always love the great movie scenes in Chicago.

One of my favorite Chicago-based movies is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  For the unfortunate few of you who have not seen it, I’ll give a brief synopsis:

Ferris, a high-school student, plays hooky with his girlfriend and best friend to see the sights in Chicago.
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Other Reasons to Network

reasons to network
Other reasons to network

A year or so ago I was speaking to a client and suggested that we connect via LinkedIn.  He shook his head and told me that he wasn’t on LinkedIn because he didn’t want his boss to think he was looking for a job.

I shuddered at that, considering I’ve been connected on LinkedIn with every boss I’ve ever worked for. And while people do use it as a job search tool, networking – whether you do it on LinkedIn or in some other way – is about so much more than looking for a job.

Additionally, if all you use it for is to find a job, you probably won’t be very successful.
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The Art of Schmoozing

schmoozing
The art of schmoozing

One of the things that has always made consulting so interesting to me is the multi-faceted tasks a consultant performs.  I’ve found that roles in non-consulting companies have a tendency to get pigeon-holed. This is your job and that’s what I expect you to do. People also tend to restrict themselves by saying things like “That’s not my job.”

But I’ve known a few people outside of consulting that love their jobs, never have a dull moment and enjoy a variety of responsibilities.  They have never been interested in entering the realm of consulting.
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When Expectations and Reality Collide

When Expectations and reality collide
When Expectations and Reality Collide

A detour

Sam was making good time. He was cruising down interstate 94 ahead of schedule to meet his daughter in college.  If he could keep up at this rate, he would be there by six o’clock to take her to dinner.

And then it hit.

He saw up in the distance that cars were stopped, lined up for as long as he could see.

“Damn it!” he said to no one else in the car.
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