Future of Work

How to grow your consulting business

Liz Ryan
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Future of Work

Everybody is a consultant now, including you. My seventeen-year-old kid is a consultant. You have to be a consultant now, because the old work world is gone.

My dad worked for the same company for thirty-five years and retired from that company with a pension and a great health plan. He and my mom are still covered by that plan right now, thirty years after his retirement.

Do you expect to have those benefits when you retire, if indeed you retire? That is not going to happen. Long-term employment is in the past. We have to manage our own careers now.

Once you tune into your own consulting frequency you see that consulting is nothing more complex than solving problems. Once you stop thinking about your work as a series of tasks and think about it instead as a problem-solving process, you can easily see how you can solve problems for lots of people.

Once you realize that you can solve bigger and more complicated problems as a consultant than what you are typically given to do in a full-time job, you might get excited about your entrepreneurial prospects.

You might start a part-time consulting company alongside your full-time job or your full-time job search.

Hurrah for you! That’s a big step.

Here’s what will happen. You’ll crack the code on landing consulting projects and completing them. Your clients will be happy. You’ll over-deliver and under-charge for your services on your first few projects. That’s okay!

Slowly, your consulting practice will grow.

It’s a fantastic feeling when you get your first check from consulting work. Then, you’ll pay the entire month’s rent or mortgage with your consulting income. Then you’ll go on vacation and say “Wow! My consulting work paid for this vacation.”

Then you might say “I want to grow my consulting practice.”

How do you do it? You can’t work any harder. You don’t have any more hours in a day than anyone else does. There are only two ways to grow your consulting business.

One is to increase the volume of projects and hire people to work with you on them. That is the traditional way to grow any business – to grow the engine. We call this part of business The Crank. You turn a crank to make money. You can hire freelance folks to work with you so that you can take on bigger projects or perform more smaller projects.

Here’s what you will find. The management time that you must invest in assembling your team and coordinating projects is not trivial. For a long time, your management time investment will dwarf the time it would take you to actually perform the work yourself.

That is one reason lots of consulting firms prefer to stay small.

There is another way to grow your consulting business, and it doesn’t have to do with increasing the volume of projects. This is the High-Flame approach. Everyone has a mix of Crank and Flame in their work, whether you work for yourself or someone else.

The greater the amount of Flame you want in your business, the more distinctive your consulting approach must be. When you focus on growing your Flame, your business will grow in a different way. You won’t have more projects to perform — you’ll have fewer of them. Your consulting rate will increase.

How can you engineer this shift? It’s not a matter of marketing or selling. It’s inward work. You’ll begin to pay close attention to what you do in your consulting work that is different from other consultants or other firms.

Our client Aimee had a physical shock one day when she was talking with a client about the client’s design needs. Aimee said “I was consulting, but I was teaching my client and although she is a sweetheart, she did not want to be taught. She did not want to change her view.

“I heard myself trying so hard to convince my client to broaden her mental horizon and I finally said to myself ‘This is too hard. I need to work with clients who get me and who are excited about my approach to design.'”

Aimee decided then and there to take a risk and approach clients about bigger projects. The worst they could do was to say no! Aimee decided to raise her consulting rates.

She realized that she had allowed herself to be lulled into a stupor because the Crank in her business had been very steady. Aimee raised her consulting rate by fifty percent and changed the branding on her website and her LinkedIn profile. She made it clear that she wasn’t open to doing just any sort of design work.

She became a specialist in the work she’s best at and loves to perform. She allowed more Flame into her business and stopped focusing on the Crank aspects of it.

Aimee’s business grew by eighty percent with fewer clients than she had had before. Aimee was stunned. “Why did it take my so long to step out of my comfort zone?” she asked us. “Because you are a human being,” we said.

When you realize that not everyone will get you or hire you no matter how hard you work or how you describe your services, you’ll gain confidence. You won’t worry about being the all-things-to-all-people consultant who can make everyone happy.

Peter is a career coach. “I guess my brand was to be very engaging and a good listener and of course to have good career advice,” he said, “but I knew that I was more focused on the Crank in my business than on my own flame. I wanted to write and speak about what I believe in, but I had no time to do those things.

“I was earning my whole family income on consulting and I was happy about that, but I was a slave to the Crank. I didn’t see a way out. Lying in bed at night I’d think ‘More clients!’ and that is not a healthy way to live.”

Peter took two weeks off and didn’t see any clients for those two weeks. He thought about what he cared about most. He thought about his most exciting and triumphant coaching experiences, the times when he felt the most in his body and the most alive.

When his two-week hiatus was finished, Peter shifted the focus for his coaching practice. He wrote two articles that described his approach to coaching, and he put the two articles on his LinkedIn profile.

He invited coaching clients to work with him if his worldview resonated with them, and find a different coach if it didn’t. Like Aimee, Peter raised his coaching rate.

“My friendly pricing was putting me in competition with a lot of other people who don’t do what I do,” said Peter. “That is not a slur on them. God bless them — they perform a valuable service to their clients. I see things differently. I need to work with clients who choose me because of what I believe and what I will give them, not because mine was the first listing in some Career Coach directory.

“I was afraid to claim my personal style and my approach. I thought it was safer to be in the pack, one of probably fifty or sixty people in my city who do what I do, all pretty much the same way. When I raised my consulting rates, a lot of people said ‘There goes Peter’s business! No one will hire him now.’ But people did hire me, and they took my advice more seriously, too.”

Peter was so much happier with his work and his life six months after he shifted his brand and his pricing that he started a workshop program to teach his approach to other people.

Now Peter is over the moon. “I telll my clients to be fearless,” he said, “but I was stuck in fear myself! I was afraid that without my mighty Crank and all those clients, I’d be vulnerable. Now I have half as many clients, much more free time and more money in the bank. Practice what you preach, right?”

Do you want to shift your focus from the Crank side of your business to your Flame? Here are tips to get started:

  • Write or type three pages or more about your worldview — not the services you provide or the results you achieve for clients, but rather your beliefs about the way your work should be performed and why.
  • Write about your ideal client. What problem do they bring you? Why is this your favorite type of work? How can you help this ideal client? What will be different for your client after they’ve worked with you?
  • Think about the pain that brings your ideal client to you. How does that pain show up? What does the pain cost your client — not just in dollars, but in aggravation, lost sleep and other annoyances?
  • Visualize yourself sitting with or talking by phone with a prospective client, and quoting him or her a rate that is fifty percent higher than your current consulting rate. Visualize your new client saying “That’s a big investment, but it’s worth it! I have a big problem.”

Many salaried people and many entrepreneurs have big, bright Flames that are obscured behind mountains of Crank-related problems, paperwork and action items.

Can you remember why you became a consultant in the first place, narrow your consulting focus to solve just the problems and work with just the clients who most badly need and will most value your services, and grow your business and your Flame in the process? I know that you can. Now is a great time to start!

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Liz Ryan is the CEO and Founder of Human Workplace.

Image: A Businesswoman is silhouetted as she makes her way under the Arche de la Defense, in the financial district west of Paris, November 20, 2012. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann.

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