There are certain similarities between consulting companies and Freelancers. The firms work on a project basis, as we do. They submit proposals and compete for clients, as we do. Like us, the firm’s consultant comes to the client’s organization as a hired gun, takes on the assignment, produces the deliverables and gets paid. The similarities seem to end there, however.
The fact is, consulting companies get a lot more respect and a lot more money than Freelancers. The consulting company’s value-added is perceived as more valuable than the Freelancer’s value-added. Most clients have a great deal of trust and confidence in consulting companies (well, at least the person who hired them does). As a result, consulting companies are awarded the most lucrative projects. Their calls and emails are always returned.
Likewise, Freelancers who have worked for consulting companies are held in higher regard by clients and prospects. Anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that they receive more lucrative contracts, billing more hours and commanding a higher rate. Freelancers with a consulting company background appear to know a secret code, know all the right moves. I came to realize my knowledge gap through a series of casual meetings with an acquaintance of mine named Erika.
Erika once worked for a mid-size consulting company, first in their LA office, then in NYC. Like me, she facilitates strategy meetings in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, but we cannot call each other competitors. Erika stands head and shoulders above me in terms of consulting savoir-faire and client list. Next to her, I am the country cousin! Erika is a very cool girl and over time she took pity on my poor, untutored self and shared a few consulting company secrets.
Primarily, the advantage gained from consulting company experience is that one learns how to build value into all client interactions. The perception of adding value starts with the very first client meeting. A consultant’s job is to deliver comprehensive, data driven analysis, insights and answers that produce the desired results. Those analyses, answers and insights form the basis of the strategies that the client will be advised to implement, so that key goals and objectives will be reached.
Erika lets it be known that she will deliver the goods. In the client meeting, she asks questions that reveal what the client wants and help her discover what the client needs–that information forms the essence of Erika’s value-added. Next, she confirms with the client that she’s accurately grasped the project scope and understands all priorities and timetables. She follows up in writing and in fact boasts that she does not so much submit proposals as send confirmation letters.
Erika isn’t awarded every assignment she’s invited to discuss, but her track record is very good. Before she starts work on a project, she also takes a few important actions to keep her value-added rolling:
I. Recognize, and if possible meet, the organization’s senior management team: the CEO, ED and other key staff. Their names and sometimes also photos are probably listed on the company website.
II. Learn the thought process that led to the project’s initiation and approval. If possible, read the project proposal and review any preliminary work that may have been done. Find out who supports the project and who opposes it if you are able, to learn who your friends and detractors will be.
III. Know the organizations’ basic financial data. Read the most recent annual report and examine the P & L to learn the annual operating budget, total annual revenue, gross profits, profit margin and operating margin.
IV. Know your client’s top five competitors: key products and services, annual operating budget, total annual revenue and gross profits. Know what differentiates each main competitor from your client and know each main competitor’s strengths and weaknesses.
V. For nonprofit organization clients, know which agencies within a 10-20 mile radius deliver similar services or compete for a similar constituency. Know where and how those agencies offer services that complement or compete with your client’s mission.
VI. Cultivate good relationships with your project sponsor and other key project supporters. Identify a couple of good restaurants near your client’s geography and invite your sponsor and/or those with whom you work most closely out for coffee or lunch, as applicable.
VII. Become a resource for useful information to your client. Sign up for Google Alerts and stay current with industry news and competitor’s activities. If an item looks particularly intriguing or urgent, send the link to the right people. This practice can continue after project completion, as can the above strategy, to extend relationship building and value-added. Your objective is to entice the client to engage you for repeat business and to refer you to others.
Thanks for reading,