Consulting businesses are different to many other business types. One reason why is that they’re often small and kept that way deliberately.
The pursuit of continuous growth in order to increase company value is the obsession of big publicly owned companies. Whereas the micro-consulting business, or even the solopreneur, often doesn’t have those same growth aspirations.
The reasons to remain small can include:
- Providing a very high profit service in a line of work that simply doesn’t have the required client base to warrant scaling
- Seeing their size as their biggest asset, able to deploy a focused, agile micro team
- Being a lifestyle business, achieving a desired amount of profit and being happy with that – and I see no reason why that’s a bad thing
In this article I’m going to look at the reasons why you might want to scale your consulting business, and the different ways in which to do so. And just to prepare you, simply getting more clients is not the solution!
Why scaling a consulting business is so much more than simply getting more clients
What does it actually mean to scale a consulting business, and why do people think that it’s a good thing?
Scaling obviously means growth, but there are different types of growth. A consulting business will seek to grow typically because it needs or wants more profits. I say profits and not revenue because revenue in and of itself is irrelevant. As the old saying goes:
Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity, cash is king!
Big companies with lots of external investment – think Amazon (took 4 years to turn a profit), Tesla (still not profitable after 8 years), Ocado (the online grocer in the UK that took 15 years to make a profit!) – are able to survive without making a profit because they have investor’s money.
The solopreneur or micro consulting business typically has no such luxury. Even if the founder(s) have invested in the business, cash can be burnt through pretty damn quick when you run a business!
So a consulting business will seek to generate greater profits in order to either extract more for the owner(s), or to be able to reinvest in the business to maintain current revenues and profits, or to achieve greater future profits.
When seeking to grow a consulting business, the natural inclination is to just do more of the same. That’s why most consulting business owners (49% according to our survey) say that getting more clients is their number one challenge.
But there are many different things that you can do to scale a consulting business. The core areas to focus on are:
- Marketing – Increasing awareness of your business and its services to drive more sales opportunities
- Sales – Increasing either the volume of sales that you make, or increasing the average value of each sale
- Delivery – Increasing your project delivery capabilities in order to take on more projects, or to deliver higher value projects with the same or lower cost resources
So when looking at scaling your consulting business, you need to determine whether your focus is on more profits or more revenue, or even both!
To increase profits means to earn a greater amount of money for your existing capacity (capacity = billable time available in your team). There are two ways in which you can increase your profits:
- Charge more for what you do
- Do something else that clients will pay more for
To increase revenue means to win more projects. And there are also two ways in which you can do this:
- Seek to get more clients, which means investing more in marketing
- Seek to do more for your existing clients
It’s much easier to do more work for your existing clients, and your cost of sale will be much lower as your marketing and sales efforts won’t need to increase quite so much. But for whatever reason, consulting businesses seldom celebrate winning more work with existing clients, instead preferring to celebrate winning entirely new clients – even if further sales with existing clients generate much more revenue.
The beauty of a consulting business is that there are only four core things to focus on. These are:
You must decide how each of these things, or pillars, need to be adapted to increase your revenue and/or profits. We can use the Consulting Compass – a model I created based on decades of experience starting, running and growing consulting teams and businesses – as the framework around which to do this.
Here’s what it looks like:
Now let’s take a look through the lens of the Consulting Compass to see how you might scale your consulting business to achieve more revenue and more profits.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll just focus on 3 of the four core pillars – Market, Sell and Deliver.
Marketing is the first pillar to a successful consulting business. We break marketing down into the following 3 domains:
The problems that your ideal client is facing is where every consulting business must start. And remember that a problem can be a positive thing too – such as growth – as well as a negative thing. You need to become an expert in resolving the problems that your ideal clients face.
Whether you’re a solopreneur or micro-business you need to have a niche. This is crucial to be able to affordably market your services. Conversely, being a generalist not only restricts the profits that you can generate, but it also makes marketing prohibitively expensive. This can result in you becoming over-reliant on referrals as a source of new business.
The problems that you solve for your ideal clients need to be sufficiently important that they’ll be willing to invest in outside help to overcome them.
If you want to increase your profits, make sure that you’re resolving high value problems.
If you want to increase your revenues, then choose a problem that lots of people have.
Be careful though, as the more common a problem is, the more other people will recognise the opportunity, therefore the greater the risk from competition.
Products & Services
Once you’re clear on the problems that you solve, and you’re certain that there’s: a) demand, and b) people will pay sufficiently to resolve the problem, you then need to determine what your products and services will be.
Your products and services are key to both your potential revenue and your potential profits. More revenue is influenced by demand. Are your products and services in demand? Are they easily understood, making the buying decision easy for your ideal client?
Or do you provide specialist products and services which resolve a high value problem? A problem that your ideal client will willingly pay lots of money in order to get it resolved, and thus enable you to make higher profits?
Be cautious though, as the more specialist your services, the greater the potential cost of your team, which will eat into your profits.
Promotion is simply marketing, but there’s 3 mistakes consulting business owners typically make.
The first mistake is to do very little marketing at all, instead choosing to rely on referrals. This approach can work well, but unless it is well thought through and planned, it often leads to exhausting your network of opportunities at around the two year mark – be warned!
The second mistake is to try and do too many things. And because you choose too many marketing channels, you’re inconsistent, you lack persistence and you lack patience. You find yourself bouncing around from one idea to the next looking for that silver bullet.
One month you’re blogging, then you’re podcasting, then you’re networking, then you’re exhibiting, then you’re writing a book, and so on and so on. You’re simply all over the place, spread to thinly, and highly stressed!
Of course, every marketing channel can work, from cold calling to writing a book. But only if you’re consistent, persistent and patient. The secret to successful marketing is to choose the things that you enjoy.
If you like public speaking, then do that. If you like writing, the write a blog or even a book. But if you hate writing, for example, then why would you choose to write a blog?
Pick 1 to 3 marketing channels and work them hard.
The third mistake is to market all of your products and services. It’s not only unnecessary, but it’s prohibitively expensive. Pick the one thing that you want to be known for, design a signature service around it, and market that.
You can keep all of your other services behind closed doors, instead focusing on selling those to your existing clients.
So, back to our core aims of more revenue and more profits. You need to decide which marketing channels will help you to achieve your aims. If you’re targeting higher profit you’ll likely need to get in front of more elusive people, like C-level executives. You might consider investing in creating a high-end network where you invite executives to a paid-for quarterly dinner.
Or if it’s more revenue that you’re after, maybe you invest in exhibiting at a conference where lots of your ideal clients will be.
Marketing leads to sales opportunities. Again, keep your focus on whether you are seeking more revenue or more profits, or both.
The pricing of your products and services is paramount to achieving your revenue and profit goals. Anyone can make a sale, but making a profitable sale (and delivering a profitable project) is much more challenging.
If you’re looking for high-profit sales, the sales process can be a bit longer. For generating lots of sales and thus lots of revenue, try to make the sales process as frictionless as possible.
Your sales pipeline defines how you nurture your ideal client through the process from being an initial ‘suspect’, to a qualified opportunity, to a proposed opportunity, and finally to a win (or loss).
If you’re focusing on high-profit sales, you probably don’t need a particularly fat sales pipeline, whereas if you are focusing more on revenue, then you’ll want to increase the number of opportunities in your pipeline.
Measure your pipeline over time so that you can understand the ratios – how many people who enter as ‘suspects’ ultimately become clients? Knowing this will enable you to understand how much potential project value you need to have at each stage of the pipeline, and which marketing levers to pull.
Your bid qualification process is also essential to ensure that you bid for the right projects and don’t risk wasting time on proposals that you’ll never win, or worse still, end up winning projects well below your profit targets.
Proposals and Presentations
A common mistake that I see many consulting business owners make is to craft bespoke proposals for every opportunity. That is simply far too time consuming, and suggests that you don’t have a standard product and service offering.
Unless you’re selling at very high profit margins (>75%) crafting bespoke proposals every time is likely to be detrimental to your business.
Ensure your sales presentations and proposals are slick and suited to your overall aims. Higher profit sales will likely demand more bespoking of your standard templates, and a slightly longer process. This is not a hard and fast rule, simply a guide.
You’ve gotten the attention of your ideal clients; you’ve impressed them sufficiently to be invited to propose; and you’ve made it all the way to a sale. Now you’ve got to deliver on your promises. You’re now in delivery mode.
This is where you have the greatest opportunity of messing it all up! I’ve seen many a consultant claim that they’re making high profit sales, yet when you examine their delivery it’s all lost!
Here’s the 3 areas of focus for the Deliver pillar:
Process & Methodology
To become an expert not only means having deep knowledge of a topic (a niche), but also means you have a lot of experience helping your clients to resolve their problems. That means that you’ve done it many times over.
The inexperienced consulting business owner will use the efficiency they’ve gained as an opportunity to sell their services cheap. They’ll proudly say that they’re cheap because they’re quick.
The experienced consulting business owner will charge higher fees the better and faster they get. They’re an expert and they know the value of what they do.
If you’re shooting for more revenues, you’ll need to enable more people to deliver your process and methodology. In this case you should focus on simple processes, and identify the opportunities to delegate to your team.
If you’re shooting for more profits, your processes and methodology don’t necessarily have to be more complex. However, your team might be higher cost, so you’ll want to ensure there’s clarity as to where tasks can be delegated to lower cost resources. It’s the same if your team is just you! Design your processes to be able to outsource certain activities without giving away your entire process.
People & Partners
As a solopreneur your biggest challenge will always be your capacity. The more you focus on doing one thing really well, using a defined set of processes and methodology, the better you’ll make it and the quicker you’ll get at it. This means you’ll be able to sell it to more people at the same price, thereby increasing both revenues and profits.
If you’re a micro-business, or planning on becoming one by taking on staff, you need to pay attention to your process and methodology and design it with scale in mind. Find the opportunities to delegate tasks and activities around which you can build your team. Consider what level of expertise you need to recruit in order that they can hit the ground running and start generating revenue.
If you’re going for profit, you may take a little more time and consider whether there’s a sufficient volume of junior activities, or whether it makes more sense to take on a more experienced person. It will always be a tough call for your first few staff, and the considerations are broadly similar, whether you’re shooting for more revenue or more profits.
Another consideration for building your team is to avail of outsourced services, or to develop partnerships with other firms that can bring complimentary skills. I recommend staying away from contractors as they’re typically not a good fit for the small consulting business.
Consider if you can profitably outsource or subcontract to provide additional bandwidth before taking on the additional burden of staff.
Pleasing the Client
I’ve already mentioned that 80% of your opportunities come from existing clients. But so too does your opportunity to deliver higher value, higher profit services. However, that’s only so long as you do a good job on what you’ve already sold!
If your primary goal is more revenue, make sure you’re targeting clients with the potential for further projects. So many solopreneurs and micro-businesses target other SME’s and start-ups. I’ve never understood this as start-ups seldom have any money, and that often results in issues getting paid. And for SME’s, you’re typically selling to the owners who agonise over every penny spent as it’s seen as their own money.
When you’re selling to mid and large corporates, the person signing the proposal is not spending their own money, neither is there too big a risk of not getting paid. If anything, sometimes they need to spend budget to ensure it is maintained for the next year.
Remember too that you’re delivering to a real human being! They might refer you to others, or if they change organisations themselves, you might be one of the first people that they call! There’s a greater opportunity of this happening in mid and large corporates.
As you can see, getting more clients is only one part to scaling a consulting business. For most consulting businesses, having an influx of new clients would likely be the very thing that breaks the business!
To scale your consulting business successfully, first determine if it’s more revenue, more profits or both that you’re seeking.
Then evaluate your marketing. Are you resolving the right problems to be able to achieve your goals?
What about your sales – are your chasing the right opportunities with the right organisations?
And is your approach to delivery structured to make your marketing and sales efforts worthwhile, or is that where it’s all going wrong?