Negotiation Tips for Independent Consultants

Negotiation Tips for Independent Consultants

Negotiating is typically hard for everyone, but it’s especially tough for consultants. It’s our nature to make the client happy, so negotiating for a higher rate feels awkward. But when you’re self-employed, even the smallest increase in your rate can translate to big bucks, particularly if the rate is for a long project, or if you’re working with an ongoing client.

I recently discovered a series of practical tips on Instagram, of all places, by following Johanna Voss, owner of a boutique talent agency for female influencers and keynote speakers. With her permission, here are her three essential negotiation tips that every consultant should know.

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Consulting's Secret Club

Consulting's Secret Club

Last August I wrote a blog post about how labels matter, specifically that you should make more money by calling yourself a consultant instead of a contractor. But it’s not just about labels and language. It’s not enough to simply replace contractor with consultant on your résumé and LinkedIn profile.

I’ve been studying the LinkedIn profiles of various contractors and consultants I know and reflecting on how they usually get their work. What differentiates the well-paid rock stars of consulting from the plug-n-play contractors? Several variables affect the person’s brand. They include prior work experience (internal with a company vs an external consultant with a firm), their consulting niche, and how they market themselves, but the real difference is how they find and frame their work. 

Contractors find work through agencies or staffing firms while consultants are more likely to find work on their own, usually as a result of their professional network.

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How Diligent Biz Dev Led to a Six-Figure Consulting Project

How Diligent Biz Dev Led to a Six-Figure Consulting Project

Recently I helped a consultant land a $420,000 consulting contract. That’s not a typo. It’s an 11-month project for one consultant: $320k in consulting fees and another $100k for travel expenses. I’ve excluded my company’s agency fee in these numbers; the actual budget was a bit larger.

Clearly this was a big win for the consultant. The client was pleased too since a global consulting firm working with his company quoted $660,000 for the same project. (See my related article, “Quote Your Rate with Confidence.”)

A project this big doesn’t just fall out of the sky. Why did the client contact me for help? The short answer: business development. The long answer: diligent business development that built a relationship over time. Rather than any one particular thing I did, it was simple actions over the course of five years. Those actions cultivated a trusting relationship with the client and, as a result, he was comfortable reaching out to me for help.

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Using Online Platforms to Boost Your Billings

Using Online Platforms to Boost Your Billings

Independent consultants face the constant challenge of finding their next project. My last article discussed working with consulting agencies to supplement your business development efforts. This article offers tips for finding work through online platforms or marketplaces like Catalant, SpareHire, and TalMix. 

Consulting agencies and online platforms are similar in that they exist to bring consultants and clients together, but they go about it in different ways and charge different fees. Agencies involve people in the matching process and, typically, to oversee projects and “manage the client relationship.” (I roll my eyes at the last phrase because good consultants can do this on their own.) Agencies usually charge about 30-35%, which nearly always comes out of your pay. Online platforms, on the other hand, charge 20-25%, which may or may not come out of your pay, and they don’t involve people as middlemen. Instead they rely on their technology to match consultants to client projects. 

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Supplementing Your Pipeline with Consulting Agencies

Supplementing Your Pipeline with Consulting Agencies

Perhaps the hardest thing for an independent consultant is not knowing where your next project is coming from, or when. While nurturing your own network is usually the best way to find work (see tips in my article), many consultants also supplement their business development efforts by affiliating with agencies and, increasingly, online platforms or marketplaces. This article summarizes the pros and cons of these options, gives you questions for starting your research, and introduces you to some of the better-known consulting agencies. 

First, let’s clarify what I mean by “consulting agency.”  

By “agency” I mean a company that matches independent consultants with client projects, like a talent agency. An agency is different than a consulting firm because agencies usually place one person at a time, and they assume consultants are bringing their own methodology and tools. Agencies don’t dictate the approach or oversee the work like a consulting firm does, although sometimes they require status reports or check-ins. To me, consulting agencies and consulting firms are both different than staffing agencies that provide tactical staff augmentation services, not consultants who diagnose and solve problems. This article is about affiliating with consulting agencies, not consulting firms or staffing agencies. 

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Shift Your Perspective to Make Business Development Easier

Shift Your Perspective to Make Business Development Easier

Most consultants I know struggle with business development, and it’s a top concern among those thinking about going independent. “I don’t know how to build a pipeline of leads” or “I’m not good at sales” are common refrains.

Most of us never had sales training so this concern is understandable, but reframing how we think about business development can turn concern into action. Read any definition of business development and you won’t find the word sales.

A shift in perspective can make a significant difference in how you approach something. For example, before you go parasailing the first time you might think, “I’m excited to try this!” or “Oh my god, I’m going to die!” You’ll have a lot more fun if you approach it with an “I’m excited” attitude instead of “I’m scared.”

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Use Work Samples to Seal the Deal

Use Work Samples to Seal the Deal

Let’s face it, consulting often gets a bad rap. It’s perceived as nebulous, too theoretical, too touchy-feely. Plus, it's expensive. To combat this bias, use work samples and deliverables to show prospective clients how you do what you do. Demystify your process. This goes a long way toward removing uncertainty and skepticism. 

For 10 years as an independent change strategy consultant, I used this tactic to win several projects. Many clients don’t understand the difference between change management work and the more complex change strategy work. Most know that communications and training are involved but don’t understand how to achieve the buy-in of cross-functional stakeholders in a way tailored to their situation. 

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For Independent Consultants, Business Development = Relationship Development

For Independent Consultants, Business Development = Relationship Development

The biggest stressor for self-employed management consultants is business development: how to cultivate meaningful regular work. It’s vexing for a variety of reasons. First, consultants are good at helping clients solve problems but usually aren’t trained in sales or marketing. Second, when knee-deep in projects and facing deadlines, consultants are hard-pressed to find time to publish thought-leadership articles or create, launch, and manage marketing campaigns.

To meet the challenge I recommend changing your frame of reference. Instead of thinking of how companies or consulting firms typically handle business development, use an approach more like how we work as individuals and soloprenuers. Take for example real estate agents, who are experts at keeping their names fresh in people’s minds:

  • At least once a week I get a postcard listing recent home sales in my neighborhood.
  • Once a week I get an email with an interactive map showing which homes in the city closed escrow and at what price.
  • Once a month I get a memo pad with the realtor’s name, photo, and area of expertise.
  • Once a quarter I get a postcard of upcoming social and sporting events in the city.
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