how to market contract consulting services

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As a contract consultant for the past five years, I’ve been amazed at the common perception that I must spend 90% of my time marketing. I do have some help – the staffing firms I work with identify some clients.  But if you’ve ever thought about being a consultant, don’t assume it means hours and hours of evening work trying to land the next job.

If you are a freelancer or what I’ll call an “on-demand consultant” you need to market yourself on a constant basis.  You may have hundreds of clients.
80% may be one-time clients requiring a few hours or days of work.  10% may be longer projects that may or may not recur.  10% might be clients who request recurring work:  once every two or three weeks they drop another 20 hours of billable time in your lap.  Those percentages are just examples, but if that was your situation, you would need to spend a lot of time finding a new batch of clients every few weeks to replace those that you finish off.  You are better off concentrating on work you can perform in long stretches of time.

“Whoa, Steve!”  you may be thinking. “Aren’t you always talking about creating new streams of revenue?  How does focusing on one or two clients at a time help with that?”

For one thing, it frees up the time you’d be spending on marketing. If half of your business is work, and half is finding new work to replace completed work, you’re going to spend a lot more time generating the business that a contractor can generate with one client who gets most – or all – of your time over a period of several months.  Having long periods of time with minimal marketing activity means you can spend your spare time on life, or a side business, or studying investing – whatever you’d like.

So how does a contract consultant market?

First of all, I don’t even have a business card. I don’t spend four nights a week at Chamber of Commerce meetings, and I am a lightweight in the online promotion business.  I’ve stayed active in LinkedIn and Twitter, but other than that most of my business takes place using the ancient art of email.  I don’t have a well-developed professional website (unless you’d count my LinkedIn site).

I have only two tips for anyone who’d like to do contract consulting:

1.  Understand what your client REALLY wants

2.  Be useful

Understanding what your client REALLY wants

Early in my consulting career, I was full of ideas.
I worked for a Big 4 firm, and a large part of my time was spent “consulting”:  going into a business, finding the highest-ranked employee I could wrangle a meeting with, and proceeding to tell him what he was doing wrong and what I’d do instead.  Advising someone who works at a job eight (or more) hours a day, year after year, what you’d do after you’ve spent one or two days studying their process takes a quick, sponge-like ability to soak up huge amounts of information – but it also takes a bullish amount of arrogance and disdain for the client.  I had it.  I knew how to do ‘my stuff’ and I was convinced I knew how to do ‘your stuff’ too.

Wrong. My second contract was a small subsidiary of a Fortune 500 corporation.  I was put to work on a small project which had two feet firmly planted in the world of paper and binders.  The organization was lacking, to say the least – the files were chaotic and working with them was unpleasant.  But my client set me to work on documentation and testing and handed over the binders.

I was sure that the client would be thrilled if I could organize and streamline the process
.  All I had to do was pull everything out of the files, clean it up, make it nice and neat and clear out the fluff.  Who WOULDN’T like that?  When I handed the files back, I found out who – my client, that’s who.

After being yelled at almost non-stop by an almost incoherently angry client for a few days – with abrupt spluttering insults thrown my way after an initial trip to the corporate woodshed – I was lucky enough to be called up to the corporate headquarters for an emergency project and get away from my mistake.

What I learned was that you need to understand what your client wants. If you’re hired as a ‘real’ consultant, the client wants you to make some suggestions.  If you’re hired as a contract consultant, you’re there to be a meat robot:  do task X until it’s done.  Don’t rethink it, don’t improve it.

Be useful
Contract consultants are expensive. There’s nothing that’s quite as useless as an expensive tool that lies on the shelf.  I know that every time I go to the client, there’s a good chance that they think they need a hammer, but what they actually need is a screwdriver, or a pair of pliers.  Most clients understand that they need something, but oftentimes they think they need short term help when what they actually need is training – or they think they need training, but they actually need short-term help.  Try to identify the need, not the ‘want’.

I’ve known for years that any time I’m hired as a consultant, I’m probably going into a bad situation. Not many companies need help for a well-oiled, efficiently operating department.  Not many companies want short-term consulting help if they are confident, well-staffed and fully budgeted.  A consultant comes into a tough situation and often hopes for little other than to make it slightly less tough.

I’ll sum it up this way:  the key to good contract consulting is not to think of yourself as a ‘real’ consultant. You should apply yourself to serving a client while recognizing that they didn’t want/need/hope to lay out money on a “real” consultant – someone who would reorganize everything and reconfigure their lives.  They just wanted someone who could stick their thumbs in the dam for a few days, and give themselves a few moments to recover.  Sometimes it’s enough.

photo by lin padgham

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  • Just came across this article. What a great read. It's true that by the time a company calls in a consultant, they're in deep trouble, and they would rather not have been put in a position to have to make the call in the first place.

    The best thing we can do as consultants is produce a result in the soonest time possible that will give them more peace of mind than when they first called you. For consulting, that is the real vale we can give to our clients.

    Thanks for articulating what I've been thinking this whole time, Steve.

  • Great article Steve! Having worked in several client based industries, I can sympathize with the idea that quite often, the best thing a consultant can do is be a “meat robot”. While Consultants should offer valuable advice, clients just want a professional they can count on to “do task X until it’s done”. Thanks for the great piece, for more info on consulting you can check out consulting