According to David A. Fields:
In typical product sales, once you capture a buyer's attention you're near the end of the buying process. But in consulting, capturing a prospects attention is the beginning of the process.
This, in my view, is the most fundamental statement in his book, The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients (ISBN: 978-1683501640).
In the book, Fields focuses on the two core areas where most consultants and consulting business struggle. They are, of course, marketing and sales.
He does through his 6-step "reliable business development process" to achieve unlimited clients and financial freedom.
Those 6 steps are:
- Think right-side up
- Maximise impact
- Build visibility
- Connect, connect, connect
- Become the obvious choice
- Propose, negotiate and close
I have to say, I really liked this book. What was clear to me throughout is that Fields comes from a perspective of real-world experience in selling high-fee consulting engagements to mid and large-sized businesses.
He has a core notion of right-side up thinking, which is essentially to espouse that most consultants are looking at things upside down. Or to put it another way, they're spending far too much time and focus thinking about themselves and not their prospects and clients.
I couldn't agree more!
The book takes the reader through the process of building visibility through various marketing channels, and through the sales process. In many ways, it's two books in one and there's a lot of value in it.
Let's take a look in closer detail...
Inside the book
The book is structured in line with the 6-step process, so I'll go through each step highlighting key points and areas where my views may differ.
Think right-side up
In thinking right-side up Fields explores the reality that many consultants actually lack confidence.
This may sound counterintuitive as consultants are often brimming with confidence almost to the point of arrogance. However, the confidence that Fields is talking about is in your ability to win substantial new business.
Confidence, Fields argues, that is lacking through fear of failure.
I have to agree because, as I always say, marketing requires the polar opposite characteristics to the delivery of a consulting engagement. In the latter, failure is not an option. In the former, frequent failure is par for the course.
The building of confidence is somewhat chicken and egg.
Confidence comes from experience, and sometimes in a consulting engagement, you're tackling things that you might have never done before.
What Fields posits is that you must focus your efforts, and thereby confidence building, by selling services that your clients actually want. That you are, "offering something clients want to buy".
I found myself saying:
Fields does here what few others have ever done. That is, he recognises that your entire business starts with the PROBLEMS that your prospective clients are facing. It took me a long time to learn this in my consulting business, and I can't think of another book that I've read that starts with this viewpoint.
In Step 2 Fields takes the concept of understanding a client's problems further. He focuses on the need for clients to recognise that they have a problem, and for that problem to be sufficiently urgent that they're willing to invest in solving it.
I always find it somewhat ironic how few consultancies actually understand the problems that they solve for people, or even the value of solving those problems. Once you do become aware, your marketing instantly becomes so much easier.
Fields sums this approach up eloquently by advocating:
Fishing where the fish are.
Another area where I am in 100% agreement with Fields is in the view that the 'client avatar' approach is meaningless to a consulting business.
Nearly all of the courses, programmes and books I've consumed over the years on marketing start by defining client avatars. The notion that you create a description of a fictitious person who represents your ideal client. For example, the level of education they've achieved, their marital status, the periodicals they might read, the blogs they visit, and so on.
I've always hated this notion because if I were to look back at the hundreds of consulting engagements I've completed, I don't think there would be enough commonality to be of relevance. The notion of client avatars also completely excludes the 'problems' that your clients are facing.
Of course, if you're going to be running ads on Facebook or even Linkedin then some of those factors are more relevant. But as stated at the beginning, consulting is not a product sale, and those methods of marketing are seldom appropriate for a consulting business.
Another myth that Fields dispels, and for which Tom McMaking and Doug Fletcher made in their book, is that the CEO is not always the best person to target.
What Fields suggests is to focus on those people with a, "Just big enough, urgent enough, and high enough" problem. I like this as it represents much more realistic, non-hyperbolic advice.
Fields goes on to discuss the importance of focus. To have a niche, and for that niche to be the problem that you help your clients to solve.
In respect to defining what that problem is, Fields has a 4-step measurement process he calls the Problemeter. It's a nice simple model for which, if you buy the book, there are links to additional bonus materials such as a Problemeter worksheet.
At this point Fields moves into exploring the right solution (or consulting service), and again he identifies one of the main differences in a consulting business over other business types. Specifically, he makes the point that breakthrough products are not the key differentiator to winning business.
In short, Fields states:
Consultants should never focus on differentiation.
In the last chapter of this section Fields talks about a new type of Elevator Pitch that he calls the Fishing Line.
In fact he probably wouldn't like me to call it a new type of elevator pitch at all. What he does say, and that I've found myself saying many times, is that your explanation of what you do needs to be so simple that someone else could tell a third party what it is that you do.
This is no easy feat, and Fields' advice is to do it with a pithy sentence of ideally no more than 15 words.
Fields sums up this point by suggesting that you focus on what he calls, "The 4 rights...
- The right people
- The right problem
- The right solution
- The right time
It is this last one that I feel most consultants get wrong when it comes to marketing. Their whole focus is on selling immediately, but that's like looking for a needle in haystack. Instead, you need to be able to nurture relationships for when the time is right.
As the book progresses, by this step you'll have built a good understanding of the consulting industry, what compels clients to engage consultants, and you'll have gained clarity as to what problems you help your clients with.
Fields redefines the visibility problem, which most consultancies have, as follows:
Most struggling consultants don't have a visibility problem, they have an impact problem
Ultimately, this is further driving home the point of specialising.
Another point Fields makes, and which I not only agree with but experienced myself, is the fact that many consultancies start off with a set of clients and a healthy pipeline because they're selling to people who already know them.
Eventually, the opportunities with those contacts gets exhausted and all of a sudden you come to realise you have a marketing problem. Invariably when it's too late!
Fields' advice is to commit to at least 2 of his 5 marketing 'musts'. He goes to say that you must prioritise based on the ones that you will tackle consistently.
That, to me, is the secret to making any marketing channel effective.
To be consistent, persistent and patient.
If more consultants understood this, they'd be more successful at marketing and less inclined to jump at the next shiny object before giving their chosen channels a chance!
Another topic that Fields tackles is the time it takes for marketing to be successful. He puts it at 6-9 months as a rule of thumb. This is probably one of the reasons I like this book so much - you can see that Fields isn't all about selling online courses with hyperbolic claims of immediate success. He's clearly walked the walk and knows what life is like in the real world!
When asked (frequently) by his clients as to how much time they should devote to marketing, his stock answer is:
Every free moment!
Failing that, it's at least 20% of your time if you're really busy with client work.
This is very realistic, and a great mantra to go by - every free moment!
In my opinion consultants need to learn to love marketing as much as they do delivery. So much of it is about relationship building that it can't simply be outsourced. If you spend enough time doing it, it starts to become enjoyable. Fun even!
The alternative is to only market when you have to.
Not only is that unenjoyable, but it's a fast-track ticket to the revenue roller coaster!
Fields spends the rest of this section of the book examining four different marketing channels:
- Trade associations
- Digital presence
Under writing, Fields provides this useful graph to help determine where to focus your efforts.
A great point Fields makes on writing is that:
No amount of content you reveal can chase away a big consulting gig. In fact the opposite is true.
This is so right, and in case you're in any doubt you need to better understand that we're in the information age.
If there's anything that you need to understand - whether for business or personal - the first thing you'll likely do is a Google search.
In the pre-internet, pre-Google era businesses sold secrets. They'd know how to do something, they'd keep it secret, and you'd pay them to access those secrets and for them to come and do it for you.
But since the information age, there are no secrets anymore.
Instead, as a consulting business, you publish content to demonstrate that you know how to solve specific problems. The viewers of that content will either consume it and go off and do it for themselves, or you'll have built trust in them from their consuming of your content, and so they'll be inclined to reach out.
Most consultants fear sharing information. But the fact is, if they're the type to try and do it for themselves, they were never going to be a client anyway. What they might become, however, is a fantastic referral partner.
When it comes to speaking, Fields provides some very useful and reasonably detailed advice as to how to generate leads based upon differing audience sizes. There's some good practical and actionable stuff here.
When it comes to digital, Fields breaks it down into 5 specific channels:
- Periodic content
- One-off content
- Social media
He makes the point that:
Dialling up your digital presence is an absolute must in your plan to build a bigger or more profitable consulting practice.
There's a lot of sage advice here, and as Fields points out, for those consultants that are doing digital marketing (podcast, blog, email newsletter, etc.) and are expecting the phone to ring immediately:
They're missing the point.
Connect, connect, connect
As the book moves into Fields' fourth step, you're taught that developing deep relationships is the basics of consulting sales. And the deeper the relationship, the bigger the potential project value.
Fields breaks the process of relationships down into: Create, Nurture, and Leverage.
A minor suggestion Fields makes is that:
If the output of your consulting engagement is an abstract recommendation, you can deliver it as a memorable infographic.
This struck a chord with me as that's exactly how I deliver some of my engagements - using infographics.
In making this suggestion it further demonstrated to me Fields' experience, and his creative approach to keeping clients enthused and engaged.
Now, in my experience, the vast majority of consulting firms grow their businesses by relying on repeat business and referrals. Whilst perfectly feasible to sustain a consulting business this way, it's never going to result in stellar growth.
Worse still is the fact that many firms don't even have a standardised way to encourage referrals.
Fields recognises this, and he provides some great guidance to gaining referrals without making it awkward for you or the client. The value provided here would more than justify the tiny fee for the book!
As Fields moves into how to nurture relationships. he makes the following point:
Earlier in my career, I thought that once you established a connection with a prospect, you were supposed to overwhelm him with so much value that he couldn't help but work with you.
This resonated with me as this was exactly what I used to think. For me, this was made worse through the fact that the firm I worked in had a dedicated sales team. They would wheel me in as subject matter expert, which meant I felt I had to have something to say!
I remember in my early days as a technology consultant I would research the latest news from the likes of Microsoft before going to see a client.
As my skills and experience in sales and client nurturing grew, I would instead go the prospect's website and download their annual report before meeting them.
No longer did I focus on trying to impress prospects with what I knew about the things that they didn't. Instead, I focused on demonstrating that I understood them and their industry.
It took a while longer still before I realised that I didn't actually have to have much to say at all. Most of all, I learned simply to shut up and listen!
It was only once I started running my own firm did I learn that you don't need a reason to go and see a client or prospect. Just reach out for a catch up over coffee and go and have a chat. A chat that mostly comprises of you listening!
This is something Fields clearly understands, and again, he provides some great practical and actionable advice.
Fields continues on in this section of the book to discuss important topics like efficient and effective client outreach, and how to leverage relationships.
Become the obvious choice
Moving into the final third of Fields 6-step approach and he talks about the sales process.
Consulting isn't about offering fixed, pre-packaged solutions. Consulting is about delivering situational tailored, client-specific advice and outcomes.
I've always advocated that you slow down the sales process. That you take time to understand the client, their problem, how you can help, and most importantly what outcomes you can help the client to achieve.
Fields' approach seems very much to align with my own. And again, you can see his learning through experience when he says,
Never, ever finish a conversation with an active prospect without agreeing to the date and time for the next conversation.
I wrote a blog article about this very topic a while back. You must always be in control of the next steps in the sales process.
Fields goes on to include a really interesting perspective on ROI and what the client is really buying. I like what he has to say here, and there's a lot both the seasoned and new consultant can learn on this topic.
Another interesting point of discussion is Fields' view that:
Few executives want to pay for an obsequious consultant; they have plenty of sycophants walking around the office already
This is absolutely spot on. Your role as a consultant is to be the trusted advisor.
This is why I like the concept McMakin and Fletcher make in their book, which is that a consultant needs to be Known, Respected and Trusted. It's a subtle difference over known, liked and trusted, but one that makes a lot of sense.
The remainder of this step in Fields' process is focused on a two-step discovery process. Again, there's a lot of sage advice in here and Fields lays out a good structure for your discovery:
- Desired outcomes
- Indicators of success
- Perceived risks and concerns
This is very similar to my own approach and I agree with the model presented.
There's some specific points about deliverables, and how most clients and consultants focus on the wrong thing - the tangible deliverable rather than the outcomes that you will deliver.
Another element of the discovery process that Fields addresses is client objections. In his view they need to be exposed and tabled for discussion, not simply skirted around in the rush for the close.
I've no doubt that in following Fields' advice you'll be in a position to more readily close value-based fee deals at higher fees and profit margins.
In fact, there's a great section near the end of this step where Fields provides a scenario and explains how to derive a value-based fee. It's very clearly laid out, and it's great to see someone brave enough to go beyond the theory and provide a real-world calculation. Too many 'gurus' simply state you should use value-based fees, but yet provide no explanation of how to derive them!
Propose, negotiate and close
In the final step of Fields' model is focusing on closing the deal, aiming for a win-win scenario. To achieve a win-win is, in my mind, the ethos of consulting. Especially for solopreneurs and boutique firms where it's not all about winning land-and-expand opportunities, and squeezing the most out of the client as possible.
It's about having a long-term vision where you develop deep client relationships by providing highly value outcomes for them.
In terms of those outcomes, Fields has the confidence to recognise that those outcomes are not just for the client's organisation, but personal outcomes for the client themself. Whether that's a promotion opportunity, or a financial bonus, etc.
It relates to my view of always wanting to find out from your client:
How do they get paid?
Because once you know that, then you can better understand the decisions they are making, and how to ensure your recommendations are successful.
When it comes to your proposal, Fields quotes 'The one sentence persuasion course'. He provides a great way of contextualising it for a consultant too.
Fields' book I'd add as a must read to anyone with responsibility for marketing and selling consulting services (arguably that's anyone who works in a consulting firm!).
There's a lot crammed into this book, and I agreed with pretty much all of it.
There are some topics where Fields goes into deep detail, and that I particularly liked. There were also as a couple of areas where he only scratches the surface yet still manages to deliver impactful advice. Value-based fees being one example.
So in conclusion, buy the book - The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients! It's really well structured, there's a ton of useful information in it, it will help you to identify the weaknesses in your marketing and sales approach, and it will ensure that you are 'right-side up!'.