You need to balance client work with business development. It's a dance that every consultant, partner, or soloist must master. If you're leading your consulting practice, there is no other alternative.
It doesn't matter whether you call yourself a consultant, an advisor, a facilitator. It doesn't matter if you use the words sales, marketing, and business development interchangeably. If you've cultivated specific knowledge that helps others and need paying clients to support your practice, you need to sell.
Most of the consultants subscribed to this newsletter are focused on growing their practice. You want to win more ideal clients or more business with the clients you already have. If that's the case, here's a little story for you to reflect on.
The Truth Hurts
Last year, I ran a business development workshop for four partners of a respected boutique consulting firm in the UK. After everyone got comfortable and ready to start, I shot my first question: "How many hours have you spent cultivating your expertise?"
After a short pause, one of the partners said: "Thirty thousand hours. I work between two and three thousand hours a year, and have been doing this for over 15 years."
One of his colleagues added, "Well, if we count the time you took to get your degrees and a couple of qualification courses I'm sure you get to forty thousand."
"Right", I said. "Now how many hours have you invested in learning business development? This means, finding ideal prospects, turning them into paying clients, and nurturing those relationships to generate even more work?"
The partner makes a funny face while answering, "Maybe ten?!"
Everybody laughs, but you can feel how uncomfortable those consultants are.
That's The Norm, Not The Exception
That question was not designed to make the partners feel guilty, and neither should you. If you're like the average consultant, you barely invested any time to deliberately study how to generate new business. Very few have the chance to get any mentoring or specialized training.
Marketing or sales consultants usually feel a bit more comfortable promoting their services but still struggle to do it effectively. They are experts in serving their clients' needs. Developing and implementing a proper system that works for them is a completely different thing.
Whichever industry or domain you are in, you've got one foot in delivery and one foot in growth. Satisfying the client's needs, but also winning and retaining more business. It's easier to fall back on the delivery side (which is your core expertise) than it is to focus on business development.
That would work in the past, when there were fewer qualified consultants out there. But now the market is flooded with expertise. Your specific knowledge and industry experience are not enough anymore.
We need to do the work well while also convincing people we can do the work for them. And as your business and career progress, your capacity to do the latter becomes more and more important. To thrive, experts need to sell.
Yes, it can be learned. And yes, you can do that while decreasing your workload. But you will need to approach business development with the same seriousness you did with your core expertise.
You Need a Time Strategy
If I won a dollar every time a consultant said to me "I don't have the time", I could buy a beer for every Boutique Consulting Club member.
Everybody has time. Choosing to allocate it to something else just means the activity is not a priority for you. And this is fine.
But the moment you truly commit to a goal, you need to get rid of this vicious excuse and mindset. If it's important, you need to make time for it. Marketing your consulting business, for example, is a goal and priority for many of you.
The growth of my consulting business in the past years was a direct result of my conscious decision to allocate at least 20% of my time to marketing and business development. I repeatedly saw this work for dozens of other independent consultants. And that's why I advocate for you to do it too.
You need to invest at least 20% of your time in business development.
I know many of you are thinking, "Ha, that's impossible." Well, I did it. Most of my clients did it. And almost every independent consultant I know who makes high-six figures a year did it. So why can't you?
Delegating, outsourcing, and automating tasks is the common (and effective) advice. But there’s more to it. Here are some other ways to free up your time without hurting your business:
As long as you treat your time as less valuable than money, your time will always be less valuable than your money. The only way to revert the course is to be thoughtful about how you allocate it.
“To thrive, you need to build the capacity to sell consistently and in all weathers. To sell consistently we need that change of perspective (...): we need to understand selling as one of the most valuable and generous things you can do with your time.
Some potential clients know they need someone with your expertise but don’t know exactly how you can address their specific situation. Others may not even realize what they need yet or how much better things could be with your help. Then there are your current clients, anchored on the services you’ve performed in the past and not even thinking about what you could do for them next. The point is, people don’t know what they don’t know. Bringing your services to the appropriate person’s attention and helping them figure out how to get the most value out of it is at the heart of business development.”
“What are your biggest challenges when it comes to winning new business?” The number one challenge mentioned - both by over and under £1m revenue consulting businesses - was not spending enough time on new business.
It is more acutely felt by smaller firms, with 53% saying it’s their number one challenge - compared to 38% of larger firms.
Source: Consultancy BenchPress 2023
Do you schedule (and attend) meetings with yourself?
If you want to bring more money and business to your consulting practice, there's something even more important than managing relationships and opportunities. It's learning how to manage yourself.
Business development is a project that never ends - you will need to practice and improve its related skills for as long as you lead your business. One of the easiest first steps to make it a habit is to pre-commit time to review what you did this week, and plan what you want to achieve in the next week.
With the right process, all you need is 15 minutes every week.
Think about a 15-minute period (at any time during your week) that you find ideal for reflection. It doesn't need to be when your energy level is at its top, but when you are feeling calm and positive.
Some people like to do it on Friday afternoon, as they wind down the week. Others use Sunday mornings to plan the week after they're fully rested. Or maybe you have a recurring meeting every Tuesday at 10:00 with your business partners and want to do this at 9:30, right before sharing it with them.
Once you pick a time, add this as a recurring meeting in your calendar. It's a meeting with yourself, and you're going to do this meeting every week, forever. Treat it just like a client engagement.
At first, you might see a never-ending project as a depressing idea. But once we create a simple system that works for you, most consultants I help actually find it quite freeing. The reason being: You will never have to hustle anymore.
Constantly shifting between client delivery and growth is tiring and stressful. You can't even bring yourself to celebrate the end of a successful project, since your mind is already worried about how and where you are winning the next one.
When you recognize that business development will always be part of your work and consistently allocate time and attention to it, you say goodbye to these bursts of activity.
Think of it like staying in shape - the better your habits, the easier it gets.