How to Succeed in Consulting (by Really Trying)

“Always be closing.”
–Blake, “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Life as a consultant has its ups and downs. The number of consultants and consultancies is only going to increase as more people join the Free Agent Nation (voluntarily or otherwise). A large group in that mass emigration is we marketers.

Problem is, we aren’t necessarily prepared for the consulting existence. We may know how to market every product under the sun, but we’re not always so sure how to market ourselves — or how to deliver on our marketing. With this in mind, I’ve compiled a short list of principles to help the disciplined marketer succeed in consulting.

1. Know what you do.

The first question most of us get asked at any social gathering is, “So, what do you do?” As a consultant, you must know the answer. Hemming and hawing is unacceptable, as is a five-minute lecture. At a meeting, you’re unlikely to have any more time to explain yourself than you would at a cocktail party. For that matter, once you become a consultant, every cocktail party is a business meeting (see point 3 below).

It’s important to be specific; at my company, we don’t just do sales and marketing consulting, we specialize in lead generation and telesales. You may be tempted to speak in generalities. Don’t. The market is crowded. The more specific your niche, the more you’ll stand out to your target customer.

2. Do it well.

Whatever you do, do it well — both on relative and absolute scales. Strive to be better than the competition, but also strive to be the best you possibly can. Your pride and work ethic do matter to customers. I know if I am hiring a consultant and have a choice between an underachiever and an overachiever, I’ll take the overachiever every day of the week, all other things being equal. Be thorough, be persistent, and take pride in what you do. Those qualities will shine through your work to your clients.

3. Always be selling.

Here’s another way in which we marketers run into trouble. There’s a big difference between marketing and sales. Most marketers (myself included) don’t feel comfortable selling themselves. We may not be shy, but we don’t have the aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach of the prototypical salesperson.

We can learn to adopt basic techniques of our sales brethren, if not their manners (or drinking capacity). Always be selling. Every interaction is an opportunity to make a favorable impression. The best way to do this isn’t to launch into a script that touts your services; it’s to listen carefully, understand needs, and offer solutions and advice — even if they don’t lead directly to a contract.

One of my clients started off as a favor. I went out to lunch with an old acquaintance. As we ate and reminisced, he mentioned he had always wanted to start a business. He didn’t have any money, so I gave him free advice on how to bootstrap his venture and start the ball rolling. Later, he needed a business plan so I helped put one together and deferred my fee. Today, he’s raised his first round of funding, and not only has he put my company on retainer but he’s also referring other potential clients to us.

Because I was always selling — making it clear what our firm could do and showing we could help, even without a formal engagement — our firm earned a lucrative contract and a beachhead into that client’s business community.

4. Turn down work.

Sounds crazy, but it’s critical. Even if you’re always selling, you should always be willing to turn down work. This is true even if the customer doesn’t suffer from clientitis. The best way to win new clients is to get referrals from existing clients. The best way to get referrals from existing clients is to delight them with your work. The worst way to delight them with your work is to take on so many clients that you can’t satisfy any of them. Jerry Maguire was right — sometimes the answer is fewer clients.

5. Act like a pro.

Whether you’re a first-time consultant or a 20-year veteran, you’ve got to act like a professional. This doesn’t mean wearing sunglasses at night and referring to yourself in the third person. It means treating consulting with the same seriousness as a full-time job. Becoming a consultant isn’t an excuse to sleep late, explore scrambled cable channels, and make terrycloth your main fashion statement. I’ve known consultants who couldn’t remember what day of the week it was. Don’t let that happen to you! You’re the boss, and it’s time to crack the whip.. .on yourself.

The fact is consulting is hard work, more so if you’re an independent consultant. The economy is tough, and money is tight. If you know what you do, do it well, always stay selling, turn down work, and act like a pro, even a marketer like you can make it as a consultant.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.