Thursday, September 11, 2008

Consulting - Tips For The Greenhorn

I received this email from a good friend:

What advice would you give a "greenhorn" about the 80/20 of consulting? What, in your experience, delivers the most results/satisfaction to your clients with the least amount of effort from your part? What should I focus on, as a beginner?

My response:

You know, 'consulting' is such a loose term, often misunderstood, sometimes misrepresented. At the heart of it any good 'consultant' provides three things:

1. Knowledge
2. Understanding
3. Advice

Let's take a look:

Knowledge - this is usually the starting point for consulting work. Your claim (as the consultant) is that you know as much (or more) than your client about how to market and promote his/her business. And although it's important that you do know about the subject, it's rarely the most important factor in success. Knowledge can only come from two places - LEARNING and EXPERIENCE. If you are not constantly learning and improving your knowledge you are doomed, Equally if you do not regularly use the knowledge you have gained you will quickly become out of date. In the traditional marketing world written material can lag by several years behind current thinking. Even internet marketing courses can become out of date in a matter of months. So putting ideas into practice to confirm that they do, indeed, do what the author suggests, is crucial.

Understanding - this is the key to gaining client confidence and respect. The ability to appraise and understand what your client is trying to achieve and to 'see' the potential strategies and tactics to achieve those goals, is what will cement the relationship and put you in control.
And where does this ability come from? Well, that would be KNOWLEDGE!

Advice - this is the bit you actually get paid for! There's a long standing joke about consultants that they charge a great deal of money to tell you what you already know. In some instances this is true. I have been in a situation where I've worked with a client for several weeks, simply to confirm that his original plan was the right one. However, as a general rule client's want to hear original, innovative ideas. They come to a consultant because they want to develop something 'new'. However, the key to being a trully successful consultant is not delivering what they want to hear, but delivering what you BELIEVE is in their best interests. Giving the best possible advice can only come from the UNDERSTANDING of their business goals and their market.

To answer the question asked, I can only offer my own personal experiences, and hope that one or more of these points will be useful you:

Work with businesses you are passionate about. Getting excited about the industry you are trying to help will be a huge benefit in your consulting work. If you are passionate about sport then you probably read a lot of sports news and reports. You probably watch a lot of sport on TV. Consequently you'll have lots of KNOWLEDGE and UNDERSTANDING. So when you meet with a sports centre manager or a sportswear store owner or a tennis coach, you have the key ingredients PLUS the enthusiasm to convince them to work with you. You'll also ENJOY finding out about their business and helping them make marketing projects successful.

Be systematic. Develop and follow a plan that works from first contact right through to working with each client. For example; establish an appraisal process that you undertake with all new clients; use a USP development process to evaluate potential strategies, or create a checklist of activities and actions that you can follow as you develop the initial proposal and then create campaigns for your client. Noone can give you an off-the-shelf plan - you need to develop your own. Something that works the way you work and fits with your target industry.

Teach and then coach. One of the realisations that constantly astonishes me is that VERY FEW people in business really understand what marketing is all about. I have met and worked with some incredibly successful people, all over the world. And yet many hadn't the faintest idea of the differences between 'direct response' and 'brand awareness' campaigning. They had minimal understanding of response mechanisms and how to maximise them. They couldn't even quote a USP for their business other than the usual lame remarks like 'we do it better' or 'we put our customers first'. And yet some of these people were running companies turning over $millions! Just about everyone in business has somethng to learn, and if you teach people, they will respect and admire you. And then they will LISTEN to your ideas. One successful and lucrative tactic with new clients is to suggest that they attend a seminar before you start work on their business needs. A one or two day seminar run by you which covers the basics of marketing will create rapport, bring the customer up to speed, and give you the chance to demonstrate your KNOWLEDGE. And you can charge them for attending!

Be ruthless. It is very easy to 'give in' to clients who suggest that 'their approach' may be better than your ideas. Or they don't like the sound of that piece of copy you just wrote. Or they're not keen on the magazine you have proposed for advertising because they never got on with the editor. Compromising your proposals and pandering to the client will mostly lead to failure. And when the campaign fails - it's inevitably YOUR fault. Even when the campaign is successful, it'll will be his changes that made it so. You lose either way! Be faithful to your beliefs and honest with your client. Back up your proposals with reasoning and evidence and if the client doesn't like it be ruthless about convincing him or her that the reason you are their consultant is to provide solid advice based on knowledge and understanding. As a last resort suggest a 'split test' in which the company tries both approaches and measures the results. If you're as good as you claim you'll demonstrate your ability with positive results. And although I would never go as far as telling a client I think he's a complete tosser, I HAVE told a client that I think he clearly has strong views about how to proceed and I'm willing to step aside. I'd rather walk away from a project I don't believe in than get paid to watch it crash and burn.

Document everything! I really can't stress this enough. Take minutes at every meeting. Send a 'contact report' the following day. Measure everything about each project - costs, responses, results, sales. Report back in detail the outcome of every project. Where results do not go to plan, you can provide reasons and further advice based on facts. Where things go well you can 'rinse and repeat' the exercise or learn from it to create even better result next time. And when things go REALLY WELL, you can justify that increase in your charges based on the massive increase in turnover and profits that YOU created for that client!

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