The 5 Self-Sabotaging Behaviours Limiting The Success of Your Consulting Business

I work with many consulting business owners across the globe, and I’ve worked as an employed consultant selling and delivering consulting engagements across the UK, Europe, North America, the Far East and the Middle East. 

No matter where, I see the same self-sabotaging mistakes preventing consulting business owners from succeeding.

Before I explain what they are, let’s start with a definition of self-sabotage:

When part of your personality acts in conflict with another part of your personality.

Or, in layman’s terms, when you do stupid things that reduce your chances of future success.

So here are what I see as the top 5 self-sabotaging mistakes repeatedly made by consulting business owners (in reverse order):

05 Buying things that you just don’t need!

When you start your consulting business, especially if you’ve come from a much larger consultancy, there’s a temptation to create a kind of replica. To be and act like the business that you want to become. 

That’s a noble intent, and it makes sense in many aspects. For example, there’s no reason why as a solopreneur or micro-business, that you can’t compete with the biggest of firms.

For instance, as a solopreneur I’ve won consulting engagements against former employers who were much bigger, and when working in mid-tier firms, I've been able to steal work away from the biggest players such as Deloitte’s and PWC. 

There’s a David and Goliath aspect to being a nimble solopreneur or micro consulting business. 

However, when starting out we often replicate the far less important aspects. 

When I started my consulting business I was working with some of the world’s largest firms in their respective sectors. Therefore, I had this view that the quality of everything I did needed to at least match my clients.

And whilst I still believe this to be true, I applied that level of quality to unimportant things. I spent over £1,000 getting some really nice folders created in which to present my consulting reports. I spent over £700 getting flyers printed. And I paid graphic designers to create my logo, letter heads, comp. slips, etc. 

I also spent many thousands on my first website (which didn’t even have the company name on it, and at the time I had no idea that it needed to be part of a much more conjoined marketing effort! - you can read more about that disaster here).

You see that picture below?

All those green and white bits are the folders and flyers that I had printed. I took this picture when I’d just tossed the lot into the local waste recycling plant!

Of the thousand folders I got printed, I think I used about 50!

Here’s a list of other things that I see consulting business owners spending money on that they really don’t need to:

  • A fancy office - Most of your work is done at the client’s site. You really don’t need a fancy office. Save that for when you’re rolling in cash in the future, and can afford to blow a ton of it on a nice office. Instead, rent a desk in a co-working space if you can't or don't want to work from home
  • Video production equipment - There’s not a day goes by when someone doesn’t tell you that you must be doing video. But, for much the same reason that I don’t have a garage full of Snap-on tools to service my own car - because I haven’t got a clue - shooting and editing video is a skill that you shouldn't assume you have! The time cost alone means that you should just outsource it. If you need to bootstrap, find a local college with students that are prepared to help you out for little or no cost
  • Stationery - just look at the picture above - you get my point!
  • Software subscriptions and other ‘tools’ - It's tempting to think that you need to have every tool available to support your delivery, just in case. But many times there’s a one-off need for something, yet you end up roping yourself into a 12-month software subscription. Think very carefully about any tools that you might need to deliver your consulting engagements, and do the maths. Make sure there’s a return on investment! And if you can, cover the cost in your fees
  • Expensive business cards - this is not American Pyscho! In the real-world a novelty business card will not win you more work in and on of itself. As a minimum, have it conservatively designed and printed on quality card, but that’s about it. I typically spend no more than around £0.10p per card

What to do instead:

The reason why all this matters is that you need to be conserving cash!

By its very nature, the demand for consulting can be cyclical, and there will peaks and troughs. You want to ensure that you have sufficient cash reserves to ride these.

You also want to have cash available so that you can make both tactical and strategic decisions. For example, when hiring staff - if you time it wrong, or market forces dictate you need to move quick, it might take 3 months before they start generating consulting revenues. Having generous cash reserves will enable you to strategically make these decisions.

In an ideal world you'll have cash reserves of up to a year. Don't fret though, as many of the biggest firms only have reserves of around 3-6 months.

04 Trying to solve the unsolvable; and trying to solve problems that you don't actually have!

Much like the brain itself, this one is in two halves. And they both make me chuckle because, despite our intelligence, we’re all guilty of them.

Firstly, let's tackle trying to solve the unsolvable.

I guess you could say this one is a bit like keeping up with the Joneses. I'll explain through example...

Most businesses make use of what is today termed ‘social proof’, and in old money, was simply a case study or testimonial. 

If you have these things, that’s great. But if you don’t - Oh oh!

Why haven't you got testimonials?

Are you even credible?

Aren't you a little bit embarrassed?

Can you feel the panic setting in? 

Look, if you haven’t yet received any testimonials, then you haven't yet received any testimonials. That's a fact that you can't, right this second, change. 

There are things you can do to resolve this situation in future, but right this moment there's nothing that you can do. You can't magic one out of thin air, and you certainly can't make them up.

So, in the words of Bob Marley:

As there's nothing you can do about it right this minute, stop fretting. Don't let the absence of testimonials hold you back. Everyone starts without them. Everyone!

And, even if you're an established firm, it doesn't mean that case studies and testimonials come easy. A lot of large corporates are obviously protective of their brand, and many of them prohibit you from mentioning them.

What to do instead:

Utilise anything you can. Here are some ideas:

  • Repurpose recommendations that you’ve received on Linkedin. Seek permission if you want to use people’s names, otherwise just make it generic by simply using a first name
  • Don’t have any Linkedin recommendations? Then contact past clients and colleagues and ask for one. Maybe provide one first and wait for reciprocity to do its thing
  • Or ask if past clients would be willing to provide a verbal reference so that if a prospect asks, you can line up a call

Finally, as the saying goes:

It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

What I mean by this is that sometimes you've just got to take a risk (a better way is to state in your terms & conditions that you will reference the client in marketing materials). 

Let's now consider the second aspect of this behaviour - trying to solve problems that you don't currently have!

I'll give you an example. Let's say that you have a big project opportunity which will require a team to support it, yet your business consists of just you. What do you do?

Do you: a) find resources first to give you the confidence to pitch for the project, or b) pitch for the project and worry about the resources if you win it?

For most people, they do neither! They just worry about it. They end up in indecision. 

Both options are viable solutions, but they both represent problems. Option A is expensive and time consuming, and possibly a bit unrealistic. Even if people promise you they'll be available, that doesn't mean to say they'll follow through on a verbal commitment. 

That includes the client too, who will nearly always tell you that their need is urgent. Yet if you've been selling consultancy for any period of time, you'll know that truly urgent projects don't happen all that often. 

Option B risks you winning the work, then finding yourself under a lot of pressure to build a team quickly. You might not even be able to find the people that you need.

However, unless you actually submit your proposal and win the work, it is not a problem that you actually have! 

As an old boss used to say to me:

Not having enough staff is a nice problem to have!

(Unfortunately, I never really understood what he meant at the time). 

As this one is so common, and so influenced by what we see others doing, I want to provide another example. 

You want your business to be a success, of course. And you've decided that you need a website.

However, you've also read that no-one allegedly goes past page one in a Google search, so you feel you need to be really good at Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). You start researching it online, you buy books on it, maybe you even sign-up to a course. 

But all the time you're thinking about it, and preparing to deliver 'perfection', you haven't actually got your website up. 

And when you finally do, it bombs! It bombs because you expected it to work immediately. I mean, why wouldn't it, you spent 6 months planning it! You were prepared, or so you thought.

Or were you in fact procrastinating again? Solving a problem that you didn't actually have.

The perceived problem was not being on page one of Google, but without even having your website up, you wouldn't even be on page 100 of Google. Your actual issue was focusing on a problem that you didn't have!

Now think about EVERYTHING that you're doing in your business right now. How many problems are you solving that you don't actually have right now?

I'm not saying they won't become problems in the future. It's important that we understand and predict risk. But risk management is about choosing the better option. It's not about eliminating all risk because that's not realistic. 

Worrying about what might happen is probably one of the biggest reasons your business isn't where it could and should be. You've sabotaged it by wasting time, money and effort solving problems that you just didn't have. 

The fact is, these problems are really procrastination in disguise. They're a perceived risk that, ironically, creates greater risk through indecision.

What to do instead:

This one's easy, just follow Richard Branson's advice:

03 Thinking that success is an overnight, one-off thing (and that failure is bad)

If you run a consulting business, whether you’re a solopreneur, a micro-business, or even larger, the chances are you’re smart. And you should know that success takes time. 

It doesn’t happen overnight. Even those people that say it did have often just forgotten how much effort they had to put in beforehand.

Yet when things are challenging; when there aren’t enough clients or opportunities, we start to see the world in a different light.

The yearning for success starts to transition into desperation. 

With desperation comes impatience, and often envy or jealously. In turn, that causes you to start believing the hype. To believe that your success will happen if you just do this one thing. And that one thing is normally someone’s training course or programme. 

Perhaps you read some great sales copy and determine that the one thing you need is to become an expert on LinkedIn. Or that webinars are the answer. 

Then, once you follow these courses and apply what you’re taught, the much needed breakthrough doesn’t materialise within 24hrs.

After a week of failure frustration rears its ugly head again, and rather than doubling down on your efforts, learning from those failures and making small tweaks and changes to improve upon what you've done, instead you wholesale throw everything out and pick up some other shiny object.  

Success is eluding you because of your behaviours.

And the situation you're in - not having enough clients, leads, or cash - is causing your behaviours. You’re stuck in a cycle that you need to break free from.

What to do instead: 

Have a plan. If you’re going to invest in a programme, determine how long you’re going to give it. Invariably most programmes don’t deliver results in the timescales suggested. Remember, “Results aren’t guaranteed”.

Go into things open-eyed. Know that if you invest time and effort in, say LinkedIn, that it might take 3 or 6 months to see a return on that investment. Certainly don’t give up too soon. 

And don't put all your eggs in one basket, yet at the same time, don't try and follow the advice of more than 2 or 3 people as the inevitable contradictions will result in your procrastinating. 

Don’t believe the hype either, and don’t compare your results to others as it’s neither helpful nor relevant. The only results to compare yourself against are your own previous results.

02 Trying to fix a marketing problem by investing in technical certifications

This is without doubt one of the most common problems I see, and it’s a very costly one. Not just in financial outlay, but in emotional pain and disappointment.

Let me put it bluntly: you can’t fix a marketing problem by becoming a better technician.

Or, if I perhaps put that in more easily understood terms: if you ran a car dealership and you were struggling to get enough customers through the door, it’s unlikely that hiring more mechanics would fix the problem. 

Sure, you’d be able to fix more cars, but you wouldn’t have enough work to go round. You’d just end up increasing your costs with zero impact on solving the actual problem, which is a marketing problem.

Yet I get asked all the time: ‘If I get certified in XYZ technical skill, will I be able to attract more clients?’

Or they say, “What I need is to get my Six Sigma Black Belt certification. Once I have that, clients will be beating down my door to work with me.”

I’ve even had someone once say, “I’m wondering what’s wrong with me as I’m quite well qualified academically and did some training in consultancy?”

Let’s explore this for a moment.

You don’t have enough leads, enough sales opportunities, or enough cash. The well is dry. 

Investing your last remaining money in a training course on a technical discipline related to your engagement delivery will not fix your marketing. Instead, you’ll just burn through your remaining cash faster!

This problem is often caused by the fact that most people start their consulting business to deliver their existing expertise. Invariably, that expertise isn’t marketing. 

They might have some experience with selling, but selling is not the core issue. It’s attracting prospects, and that means marketing.  

What to do instead: 

Don't get distracted studying something that isn't about marketing your business. Yes, you'll be busy and you'll be acting like you have a job, or a purpose, but you won't be changing your business fortunes in the right direction!

Focus all of your efforts on getting clients, and using whatever technical skills you have right now to support your delivery. 

For more advice on getting clients now, check out this article.

01 Allowing cash in the bank to let you off of your marketing responsibilities

This is, without doubt, the biggest self-sabotaging behaviour that I see consulting business owners make. And it stands to reason. 

As I said previously, consultants want to consult.

They want to consult in the thing that they’re an expert in. Most importantly, when you consult you’re doing something that you enjoy, that someone (your client) has asked you to do, and that you’ll get feedback on.

Contrast this to marketing, where you’re doing stuff that people perhaps haven’t asked for, maybe don’t want, and if you do get feedback it can be negative.

For example, a phone being put down on you when cold calling, trolls commenting on your Linkedin and Facebook posts, people walking off when you're talking at in-person networking events. 

This marketing stuff can be damn hard, and if done wrong, it's pretty unenjoyable.

It's also prone to failure. Or as department store magnate, John Wanamaker, once said:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.

Could you imagine 50% of your consulting projects failing? It just wouldn't happen. 

Consultants just aren't used to the challenges of being a marketer. 

It’s no wonder, then, that when a nice juicy project comes along, it can be seen as a reprieve from having to do all this nasty marketing stuff. 

But you don’t need a crystal ball to see what happens. 

You get so busy delivering that you basically turn your marketing off completely. You’ll justify this to yourself all the way along too. You’ll tell yourself that the project is really important because:

  • You need the revenue
  • It will build your expertise
  • You’ll get a good case study and testimonial
  • Blah, blah, blah

Yes, they’re all true; they’re all relevant. But they’re also all excuses. 

You’re sabotaging your future business success for the immediate gratification of having cash in the bank, and the ability to deliver a consulting engagement that you enjoy. 

You can of course have this freedom.

Once you’re big enough, you can build a team and/or outsource. You can employ people that love marketing; that thrive upon rejection; that have the wherewithal to go the distance. 

But you can only have that once you’ve done it first yourself. You have to earn the right to have that luxury. And that means that you have to market, market, market regardless of which marketing channels you’ve chosen for your business.  

Marketing success only happens if you are: Consistent | Persistent | Patient

In Conclusion

So to recap, the top 5 self-sabotaging mistakes that I see consulting business owners make are:

Do these resonate with you?

What other behaviours would you add to the list?

Further reading:

I recently watched a fascinating video on self-sabotage and the power of 'attachments' that cause the self-sabotage. It's well worth a watch here (it is a promotional video for services, but don't let that dissuade you from watching it as it has some valuable stuff in it without needing to purchase the subsequent programme).

Images courtesy of Unsplash and the following photographers:

Jake Ingle

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