For many people, any thoughts they might have about becoming a consultant begin and end with those two words.
I know, because that was me when I accidentally got into consulting in 2004. I had been climbing the corporate ladder in the traditional way, and then I went through a health scare. Ended up in the hospital. Had spinal cord surgery. Which has a funny way of changing your perspective on life. It changed my thinking about what I wanted for work.
Consulting was a way for me to ease back into work with more freedom, flexibility and control, but I had serious reservations about having to find work every time a project ended. I thought I’d have to be selling all the time, and I hated selling. I thought I would have to go to cocktail receptions and networking groups and get really active on social media. I thought I had to start acting like an expert.
Keys to Success
- Be methodical and consistent
- Get your story down
- Develop rules of engagement
- Build your pipeline
- Set meeting goals
- Follow up
I wanted none of it. I would tell my friends, "I'm going to try consulting. But I'll probably get a job once my consulting gig ends.” They all confirmed my thinking, which was that business development would be hard, and finding jobs would be hard, and they offered me leads for full time employment. But I decided to give it some time, because I really did love consulting and wanted to figure out a way to keep going.
Eventually, I found my own way to do business development—a way I felt comfortable with, that was effective, and that I actually came to enjoy. If you want to be a consultant, I want to reassure you that you too can do business development in your own way, which is the best way. You’re in business for yourself, so come as yourself. Either they want to hire you or they don’t, but you don’t want to work for someone who’s hiring a façade.
You do need to be focused, methodical and consistent in your efforts, but everything else is up to you. If you’re ready to stop listening to advice from people who’ve never been consultants, and to stop listening to that voice in your head that says you can’t do this, here is my five-step guide to networking your way:
1. Get your story down.
I don’t mean your life story. People are just going to want to know some relevant basics that you can cover in about a minute:
- What kind of marketer are you?
- Where have you worked?
- What kinds of work have you done?
The hardest part for a lot of people is articulating what makes them stand out. What makes you unique? What would former coworkers or peers say about you? One way to find out is to ask them, and if you want to scale that effort, ask them to give you a recommendation on LinkedIn where everyone can see it.
Once you get a handle on that, incorporate that into your positioning. In my early days as a consultant, I positioned myself as a “new product guy” with expertise in product marketing, product management and social media.
You should also be prepared to speak to why you are a consultant. If somebody's been an employee for 15 years, they may think that you’re a consultant because you’re not able to find a full time job.
Back in 2004, I would say, "I became a consultant because I coach middle school basketball and I teach algebra at a summer school program." That was true, but I also had a more intimate version: I was burned out as an employee. When I was inside companies, I got little work done from 9 to 5. To get thinking work done, it had to be after dinner, so I would get back online at 7 pm. I came to realize that time period when I didn’t have any distractions and could do some critical thinking was when I most enjoyed work. That's a big part of what led me to consulting.
You will have your own truth. The important thing is to let them know that you are a consultant because you want to be. Don't be afraid to share who you are as a person.
2. Develop your rules of engagement.
You decide whom you’re going to meet, and what the format of the meeting will be. I decided only to meet with people I had enjoyed working with in the past. There are plenty of powerful, influential people I worked with that I didn't like. I just stayed away from them.
I tried to meet with people at the director or manager level, because I’ve found that these are the people who control the budget and have a handle on exactly what they need done. This makes for a shorter sales cycle than talking to CMOs or VPs, who will often say, “Great meeting. Now I need you to talk to my people.”
I wanted to meet with people at big companies, because they had a wide range of marketing roles I could plug into, so there were a lot of different ways to get hired. I was targeting anything product related, but found that functional areas are defined differently at different companies. Focus less on the title, and more on what they need done.
I set Fridays as my networking day. It still is. My preferred method is still a 30-minute coffee meeting, but I’ve done a lot of different things, including walking and hitting golf balls at the driving range! I always go to them, to make it convenient. I like to keep it pretty informal, but there was a time when I first started doing social media, I felt like I needed a security blanket because it was new and I was new at it. So I created a framework and some slides. Sometimes I didn't even present them, but having them in my back pocket gave me a little bit more confidence. If they want you to come to the office and meet other people as well, come in a little more prepared with something like that.
3. Build your pipeline.
Once you’ve determined your focus, make a list of people you've worked with in the past who’ve appreciated your work, and who you’d love to work with again. Find them on LinkedIn and see what they’re up to now. Start reaching out and getting back in touch.
Are there partner firms or agencies you’ve worked with? These are great people to get back in touch with, because they’re connected to so many companies.
Do you know any consultants in specialties synergistic with yours? When I was first starting, I did a lot of strategy and branding work. The natural follow on work for that is design, so I started meeting with designers, some I knew and some new ones. Eventually I developed referral partnerships with a few designers—they would bring me in for strategy when the client didn’t know exactly what they wanted, and I would bring them in to execute on the strategy.
Another idea: reach out to non-profits if you’re trying to get experience consulting, or with a new specialty. You may not make as much money, but you’re gaining experience and connections that can speak to the quality of your work. Along those same lines, you might try connecting with a friend who has a small business that you really believe in. Put them on your BD list and see what can happen there.
4. Set a goal for each meeting.
Don't go into a networking meeting with an expectation that you're going to get work right away. Sometimes that happens, but not often. Sometimes my goal is to get the opportunity to submit a proposal. Sometimes it’s just to gain intelligence about a company.
Most often, my goal is to have a productive conversation. Instead of selling, I would reframe it to think more along the lines of me building my own business and deciding who my clients will be. I let them know what I can do and that I’m available, but most importantly, I want to establish rapport. That means listening to what they’re doing, and what their challenges are. I try to talk 50 percent of the time or less. I feel like I've had a successful meeting if I come back with five pages of notes and I hardly talked at all.
No matter what your goal is, do your homework before you go into the meeting. Go on their LinkedIn and other social media profiles. Check their company out on Glassdoor or Crunchbase, so you know the history and progression, and what their marketing needs might be. Be sure to let them know in the meeting that you did a little bit of homework.
5. Have a post-meeting game plan.
Once you start doing business development your way, you’ll find that getting the meeting and being in the meeting is not that hard to do. Then, as they say in sales, “the fortune is in the follow up.”
My goal is to follow up within one business day. I send an email, which basically says, “It was great meeting you. Here are some of the things I heard,” which shows that you were listening.
If you heard a need you can fill, I will often say, “Here’s how we can work together,” and outline that for them. That's what I call doing the math. A lot of times there's discussion and ideas are floated but it’s all kind of vague. By doing the hard work of thinking about concrete ways in which you can help, you’re demonstrating your ability as a consultant. You’re showing that you’re organized, you’re responsive, and you’re doing some thinking for them, which is what consultants do.
If there isn’t anything you can do for them, or they don’t have the budget to hire you, follow-ups might be introducing them to someone of interest in your network, referring them to other consultants or agencies that can help them, or just sending them a relevant article or report. Be open to just helping make the world a better place. Good karma comes back around and some of these people at little companies with no budget turn into people with big jobs and big budgets.
The other part of the post-meeting is to make sure you’re ready for prime time. They're probably going to look at your LinkedIn. Make sure that's up to date. Some people ask for a resume. Have it ready. The same goes for referrals. If you don't know who you're going to put on your referral list, you'll send an email to those people and wait for them to reply. That could take a whole week. That signals you're not ready. When clients are asking for those things, they want to hire you now. They don't want to wait two weeks. Usually in consulting, if they need to hire you, they should have hired you a couple months ago.
I wish I had had somebody to push me to do this when I was starting out as a consultant, because my friends who were FTEs had the same misconceptions about business development that I did. Coming as I did out of consumer packaged goods and consumer software, I felt like I had to have my services all packaged up and neatly presented on a slide. But when you go out to meet with somebody, they may not need package A, B or C. And they probably don’t even think about their needs using that kind of framework.
Looking back on it, I can see that stemmed from my own preconceptions of business development as selling, when it’s actually more like planting seeds. If you put it out there often enough to enough people, and you do a good job in the meeting, people will know who you are, what you do, and that you’re available. It might not be that it's directly this person you’re meeting with that is going to hire you, but that person will remember you, and maybe talk to somebody else. And then magic starts to happen.
That's the way I found work initially. My very first client I got because I had coffee with a friend. Told her I was consulting. And she said, "Oh, I should introduce you to X" who became my first client, and that's how it started.
It’s as true today as it was in 2004 — people hate to be sold to. They’d rather have a productive conversation, and that’s something everybody can do. Just ask questions and listen. Then follow up, show you listened, offer suggestions and keep in touch. If you're authentic, listen to clients, and come up with good solutions for them, they'll want to work with you — if not today, maybe three months from now, or even three years from now.