For Independent Consultants, Business Development = Relationship Development

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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.

Realtors realize that name recognition and timing generate opportunities. Independent consulting is no different.

When I ask independent consultants how they found their two most recent projects, 80% of the time they credit personal referrals. About 20% of the time work came through an agency or professional network.

Finding a good consultant is like finding a good dentist—most people ask someone they know for a recommendation. This is why being known for something is so important, as is keeping your name top of mind.

My #1 business development tip: nourish your network

Instead of thinking of business development as some strange and overwhelming task, think of it as taking little actions all the time to build and sustain relationships. Be human. Be thoughtful. 

It sounds easy but life gets hectic. Some of us just aren’t thoughtful by nature. Here are my favorite tricks:

  • Schedule time in your calendar. For example, set an “appointment” for every Monday at 9 a.m. to reach out to people, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.
  • Think of colleagues from past projects and identify a topic area that interests them, such as innovation or virtual team effectiveness, then find a recently published article to share with them. “Hi Joe, I saw this and thought of you. I hope all is well. Let me know if I can help with anything.” LinkedIn makes this very easy.
  • When skimming information sources like your LinkedIn or Twitter feeds and an article catches your eye, try to think of who else it might interest. Then forward it and simply say, “I saw this and thought of you.
  • Schedule reminders of work anniversaries in your calendar. For example, years ago I worked on a system implementation for a company where our mantra was, “We will go live on April five.” Rather than forget the anniversary amid the predictable distractions of work and home, I set an annual reminder in my Outlook calendar. When it pops up on April 5, I’ll send a quick note to some former clients and colleagues. “Hey, it was nine years ago today we had our go-live at XYZ Corp. Time flies! I hope all is well with you. I’m still doing the same kind of work; let me know if you hear of any good projects. :-)” Of course, making it more personal is better. For example, “Time flies—my ‘baby’ is working on college applications! I hope all is well with you…
  • Have breakfast, coffee, or lunch with someone at least once a week, no matter what. Even if it’s someone on your current project, take time to get to know someone better or reconnect with someone on a personal level. It’s easier for clients and colleagues to remember you if they know more about you.
  • Use a birthday list. Whenever I hear about someone’s birthday or see it at the bottom of their LinkedIn profile, I add it to my list. At the beginning of every month, I print it and put it on the bulletin board near my desk. As I go through the month I send quick emails or notes on LinkedIn, e-cards, or even traditional birthday cards in the mail. I send about three a week.

Some people may think birthday greetings are too personal. Not so. I just sent one to a former colleague via LinkedIn. The subject was “Happy Birthday!” Here’s the text: “Hi Susan, I had a hectic week so this note is a little late but I've been thinking about you. It seems like a lifetime ago we worked together on the travel card rollout at NetApp. I hope all is well with you.”

  • Leverage LinkedIn and make it personal. A box in the top right corner of your LinkedIn homepage suggests ways to keep in touch with your network.  Instead of just clicking “Like”, take 30 seconds to enter a message. I don’t think the person is notified if you “like” the LinkedIn update, but they are notified about messages. Note: If you do this, don’t just use the default text that says, “Congrats on the work anniversary!” Any bot can do that. Take 60 seconds and make it personal. “Hey Joe. Four years already? I hope you're still enjoying it! Let me know when you want to get together again for lunch. – Liz.”

Whenever you think about business development, change the words to “relationship development.” This makes the task much less daunting. Keep it simple. Make it personal. Do it often. Don't become one of "those people" who only reach out when they need help or are looking for business. (I know a couple of them; it’s annoying to the point that it does them more harm than good!)

It's as easy as "saw this, thought of you.” Remembering to do it is the hard part.

Do you have any tips or tricks that work for you? Let’s create a comprehensive list, especially since not all tips appeal to all people.