Don’t assume

Assumptions in business are often wrong, particularly those we make about our clients, customers, and prospects.

Assumptions can lead to our competitors doing better than us, our clients moving on, our referrals drying up, and new business inquiries not converting into new active business.

And they result in inefficiencies and expending time and energy in ways we can’t afford as small business owners.

When we break through our assumptions we may uncover opportunities for growth and refinement of our business models. And in solo consulting those improvements directly result in improvements to our financial and personal lives.

What assumptions are you making about why your clients do business with you?

  • Is it because you’re the only game in town?
  • Is it because you’re an expert in a narrow niche?
  • Is it because you’re one of the cheapest?
  • Is it because of your reputation?
  • Is it because of your sales approach?
  • Is it because of your contracts?
  • Is it because of your availability?
  • Is it because they couldn’t find anyone else on such short notice?
  • Is it because others that could have done it just as well aren’t known to your client (but do exist)?
  • Is it because they know you?
  • Is it because they liked you before even conversing with you? Or maybe after conversing with you?
  • Something else?

Don’t assume you know why.

Don’t assume you’re going to like the answers.

But there is actually one safe assumption you can make: going through this exercise will be educational.

Scary questions can be helpful

Scary questions can open you and the person you’re talking to up to some big collective insights.

Or at least that’s been my experience in my own consulting activities (and life generally really), when I’ve been bold enough to speak up.

I encourage you to ask your clients and prospects the scary questions. Ask them things that seem counterintuitive to getting the project.

Don’t assume anything. e.g.

  • Why is this project important to the organization?
  • Are you sure you have budget to pull this off?
  • Will anyone else be involved in the decision?
  • How will you know success?
  • What will you do instead if this is too costly?
  • Is there a reason you haven’t done this already?
  • Why do you think you need me?
  • How did you arrive at that budget figure?
  • If this were to fail or be impossible, what’s your ‘Plan B’s?
  • Are you married to this particular path for achieving your underlying goals?
  • Which of the discussed objectives are ‘soft goals’ and which are ‘hard (firm) goals’?
  • What resources do you have internally to dedicate to this project?
  • Of your top ten priorities, where does this project rank over the next quarter or two?
  • What are your top three priorities right now and if this project isn’t one of them why are we talking right now?
  • What is the real basis for that timetable?

The scarier the better. It’ll improve your consulting work. The answers may surprise you. And they may surprise the person giving them as well. You’ll gain better insights. You’ll be able to be more helpful.

And, counterintuitively, the scarier the early questions are … The easier and more productive you’ll be when it comes time to get to work on the project.

A business is a ship at sail

My business is a ship at sail in the water. It needs to be constantly navigated against the currents, the winds, and other elements around me. And as my goals evolve it needs to be turned in the appropriate direction. And sometimes I need to do whatever is necessarily simply to be able to live through and fight another day.

Things I’ve done to get through challenging times in my consulting business:

  • Contacted repeat clients that were inactive to check in with them
  • Contacted reliable referral sources to check in with them
  • Offered special prepaid or recurring retainer arrangements
  • Set aside cash reserves (both inside and outside my business)
  • Arranged for borrowing capacity (both inside and outside my business)
  • Borrowed capital (both inside and outside my business) to remain liquid during highly unusual times
  • Written and then shared useful things with my mailing list
  • Checked in with other consultants and freelancers to compare notes, share ideas with, and learn from
  • Temporarily accepted smaller engagements than normal
  • Temporarily accepted larger/ lengthier engagements than preferred
  • Gotten more disciplined about including optional, value enhancing upgrades in proposals
  • Temporarily offered unusually high discounts for 100% prepayment
  • Taken a regular job, gained new experience, bought time to reflect & regroup, and added new people to my network
  • Updated my mailing list / contact database with new folks since the last time I did maintenance on it
  • Written and shared something else useful with my mailing list in a different format than the previous mailing
  • Done something “on spec” for a long time client
  • Switched to invoicing biweekly rather than monthly
  • Made requiring payment upfront customary for doing business with me
  • Invested personal savings in myself: in my business, in my consulting business education
  • Cut unnecessary overhead
  • Deferred necessary overhead temporarily
  • Dove deeper into things my mentors had been repeating over and over, but that I’d not yet fully attempted or grasped
  • Gathered more testimonials from inactive clients and past colleagues
  • Repeated any of the above

The funny thing is that everything noted above is useful not just during the tough times, but also when things are going well.

I’ve also learned that while it’s key to always be tweaking and optimizing the business, it’s also just as critical to be pragmatic and in the moment. There is theory, there is long-term stuff, and there is “oh crap, my house is burning down right now so what can I do about that immediately?” Then after that – when the embers are cold and I’m asleep in a hotel room – I can get back to thinking about those long-term adjustments again.

This business is not rocket science, but has required discipline, persistence, faith in my own abilities, and openness to experimentation. And because I primarily work alone, it’s also required being even more strategic about how I spend my time and energy (far more so than when working as part of even a small team: because there is literally no one else to pick up the slack).

Don’t ever feel ashamed about doing whatever needs to be done (ethically) to get through and fight another day.

Pragmatic margin management and labor intensity for micro-businesses

Large businesses can afford to extract profits from high labor intensity yet low margin activities. Small businesses cannot IMO.

And certainly not solo operators like independent consultants/ freelancers!

Here’s my thinking (& best advice) on how I manage and take advantage of this in my own consulting activities…

The choices we make about our consulting/ freelancing business models impact how many leads & clients we need per year to meet our income needs. These choices directly determine how hard we have to work on a whole host of activities …

… at marketing (lead generation, lead screening, non-billable interactions), at sales (how many proposals we have to write annually, how many deals we have to close), & at getting up to speed with each new client/ situation.

That’s a lot of stuff for a solo operator!

I try to keep my transaction sizes – or per client annual revenue at the very least – ($$$$+) on the higher side.

I much prefer generating 3 to 5 really good inquiries from focused outreach efforts versus, say, 30 to 50 mixed bag inquiries with smaller annual needs.

I’m a solo operator: I don’t have the kind of time needed to screen these folks and to go through the sales process … simply to make a smaller margin on the project!

These are very labor intensive non-billable outreach efforts after all!

This is also, in part, why I prefer new business from existing clients over new ones. There is less sales uncertainty as well as lower “getting to know each other” overhead.

What will work best for you? I think it depends on where you’re starting from / what you’re working with. I’ve certainly made numerous exceptions over the years, both for practical reasons – i.e. I needed the cash flow – & for personal reasons – i.e. I really like the client.

My point is this: the labor intensity of your marketing, selling, & production matters A LOT when you’re a small business or solo operator. And these are directly driven by …

… your marketing strategy & strategic decisions about which markets, clients, & projects to emphasize & accept. My best recommendation?

Be conscious of this ongoing trade-off, choose wisely, & adjust as you can, but remain pragmatic. Keep the future in mind – not just immediate cash needs – or you’ll always be STUCK focused on immediate cash needs.

If you enjoyed this, and you haven’t already subscribed, you may be interested in my newsletter, which is ~80% focused on sharing the business strategies used in my solo technology consulting practice & highlighting high caliber viewpoints on these same topics from other independent professionals and small business operators. It has a couple hundred subscribers and gets sent out once a week.

Hope you got something valuable out of this post. You don’t have to do things the same way I have, but maybe the sharing of my experiences & thinking trigger something in your own thinking … that’ll get you closer to where you want to be. Good luck in your ventures!

Bend business networking to your will

When you’re just starting out (and even when you aren’t) you’ll probably hear a lot of generic business advice. One bromide is the suggestion that you should “network with people.”

Here’s the thing: networking can mean a lot of things, many of which aren’t all that productive or may simply not be your strength.

Personally, I don’t like to “network” in the traditional sense of going out to business events, mixers, and – if I’m being entirely forthright – coffees or lunches with strangers.

I’m an introvert. It’s nerve-wracking and exhausting for me. But I do like to connect and to find ways to be helpful and supportive to those I encounter.

I’ve had to find ways that work for me as well as are effective for my business goals and activities.

Fortunately, along the way I’ve also discovered strengths and capacity that I didn’t realize I had in me. This has come from experimenting and pushing myself outside my comfort zone.

Here are some ways that have worked for me to network – that that worked better for my hermit-y preferences – but still served by business and professional goals:

  • Publishing a hardcopy newsletter of interesting resources, commentary, and other thought provoking materials. This has kept me in front of my audience (to maintain a referral and lead inquiry pipeline for my various businesses), not required me to figure out how to convince my network to subscribe to yet another email newsletter, encouraged folks to reach out to me with comments of their own, provided a channel to highlight clients and client work, and sometimes even created some conversation starters for those situations where I can’t simply be a hermit.
  • Recognizing special dates like client anniversaries and fun holidays with greeting cards, unexpected cake deliveries, and the like. I used to get my wife to deliver cakes from a fantastic local bakery, complete with plates and utensils to clients and their teams around the one year mark after our first project together.
  • Drop shipping handpicked books to folks that I think they’ll find interesting based on our past interactions, our work together, something I learned about them in passing, or just my gut. I’ve sent out everything from technical books to investing books to personal development books to lifestyle books. I try to include a personal note / explanation.
  • Finding more than one way to recognize whenever someone sent me a referral. Sure, I shoot them an email or thank them on a phone call (or in person), but sending them over a tasty box of See’s Candy after that initial thank you really makes it clear I appreciate their support of my business

My point is fourfold:

  • Learn from others and consider their input (if it’s informed), but don’t assume following convention is a requisite
  • Be willing to experiment. Also be on the lookout for ways to be a little unconventional (in comparison to the norms of your industry). While none of the above were outlandish, it’s surprising how rare a lot of these things actually are utilized. Also I like to find ways to put a spin on otherwise conventional things if I can – e.g. my first newsletter went out in bright day-glo colored oversized envelopes with quirky stamps that one wouldn’t expect to see in a professional / corporate environment. Also, sometimes I included reviews of my favorite restaurants even though that has nothing to do with my business activities.
  • Ultimately do what fits into your personal strengths and your business needs
  • Don’t overlook things that seem potentially attractive – but currently lie outside your comfort zone – because things change 🙂

The value of price objections

If your fees are not being objected to occasionally than you are probably under-pricing your services.

On the other hand, if you fees are being objected to frequently, you need to dig a bit deeper to troubleshoot the cause.

It could be your positioning, lead generation pipeline, sales process, proposal approach, work quality, reputation, marketplace perception, client/consultant risk assumption, or return on investment.

Whew, that’s a long list!

It could be you have ridiculous pricing, but it’s more likely to be one of the other things routinely shorthanded as “price.”

How do you handle opportunities outside your core focus?

Never accept work that is outside your core focus without disclosing that upfront to the client.

This is different from work that is within your wheelhouse, but because of constant technology changes you may know you’ll need to refresh your knowledge of (and even expand a bit throughout the engagement).

Is the line always clear? Absolutely not.

It’s up to you to decide what is within your core focus, wheelhouse, capabilities, and present capacity. And it’s also your prerogative to accept the proposed work if, after your disclosure, the client insists they’d prefer you to proceed.

Either way, be transparent and make peace with the decision: it’s entirely up to you.

We’re not always hired for the reasons we think

We consultants get hired for all sorts of reasons, not all of them initially obvious. Sometimes we’re hired …

… to solve a problem. This is probably what we’re most used to expecting.

… to confirm there is a problem. This is a weird one and there’s always more to the story. Perhaps not all the stakeholders agree there is even a problem. Or maybe they disagree on what it is.

… to validate a solution already on the table. The internal folks either aren’t confident they have the right approach or they aren’t confident they can get internal support for it without validation from a third-party.

… to INvalidate a solution already on the table. This is another weird one where there’s always more to the story, but in this case it’s usually that there’s some disagreement among the internal stakeholders and they’re looking to get it settled.

… to provide cover for a buyer … that is on their way out. As in you’re getting hired to assist with something important so they can step out without feeling like they’re completely leaving in a lurch.

… to go up against the buyer. i.e. to speak truth to power

… to implement a solution that has already been predefined (either internally or by another consultant). If we’re just the implementer, it’s generally good to try to learn why they didn’t implement it for them. Maybe the implementer doesn’t do implementation. Maybe they started but failed to complete the job. Maybe they were fired by the client. Maybe they ran away … Also not a bad idea to make sure we’re comfortable with the solution.

… to improve upon an already defined solution. This is fine, but generally wise to poke it a bit and be honest if we think the solution needs more than just some tweaks.

… to possibly provide some inadvertent gossip on the competition. This is unlikely even though we may work for competing clients at times, since we’re professionals and treat the things we learn while working with a client in confidence. But it doesn’t stop people from trying.

These different types of situations make our work a mixture of humorous and intellectually stimulating as well emotionally draining and frustrating – depending on the day, our perspective, and our original expectations. But either way, it’s important to properly assess every situation we are diving into – or have already stepped inside of – and make sure we’re looking closely at what’s below the surface.

I constantly work at making fewer assumptions about a situation and the people involved. My best countermeasure is asking more questions.

This business is probably one half problem solving and one half sizing up people. And even there I’m probably being presumptuous.

How to Get High Quality and Genuine Testimonials (Even If You Don’t Have Any Clients Yet)

Testimonials are very powerful tools when it comes to convincing a prospective client to work with you. Third party evidence of your expertise, work quality, and responsiveness is difficult to beat! And they can be used in a variety of places — web site, proposals, newsletters, social media profiles, emails signatures, etc. With a bit of upfront effort you can start to gather a collection of testimonials to draw from for different situations.

It is my belief that high impact (and genuine) testimonials are grossly underutilized in all industries. Don’t overlook one of your greatest potential competitive advantages!

But how do you go about gathering them? And what if you don’t have any clients yet? I’ve got you covered!

Today I’m going to share three tactics you can immediately apply in your consulting / freelancing practice regardless of whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been at it awhile:

  • I’ll walk you through a technique for getting testimonials (legitimately) before you have any clients. This technique is also useful even if you already have clients because it’ll give you a larger pool of testimonials to add to your business arsenal.
  • Then I’ll show you a technique for getting possible testimonials from every consulting engagement past or present.
  • Then I’ll share a technique you can use for increasing both your testimonial gathering success rate and testimonial quality at the same time.

You can see how I use a few of the testimonials I’ve gathered here and you can also see a larger collection here (that I draw from for different situations as needed). What I describe below are the same tactics I’ve used to gather my testimonials.

Here’s what you do to gather up a handful of testimonials no matter where you are at in your consulting career.

This approach will work if you have a lot of clients already. It’ll also work if you’re just starting out.

Leverage Current and Recent Professional Connections

First, make a list of your current co-workers, team members, and supervisors. If you do not currently have any of these, start with the last ones you did have.

Don’t forget to consider folks from other parts of the organization that you may have assisted and left a positive impression with too! Also, in some cases, there may be other folks you can include if you worked closely enough with them: vendor key contacts for example.

Now that you have that list of people, ask each of them to write a couple sentences about your work together. Let them know you won’t be offended if they don’t feel comfortable writing up anything at all (and make sure you mean it!). You definitely don’t want anyone to feel pressured or awkward just because they were too busy or don’t like having their name shared publicly.

Here’s a simple testimonial request email / letter you can borrow:

Subject: Feedback on our past work together?

As you may know, I work for myself now and I’m still growing my independent consulting / freelance practice. I have a favor to ask: We’ve worked together previously so you know something of my character and capabilities. I’d appreciate a couple sentences – a brief testimonial – describing your impression of me, our work together, and your satisfaction with the results.

I’d really appreciate it! And it would go a long way towards growing my business, particularly when I’m under consideration by someone who hasn’t worked with me before.

Only include what you’d be comfortable with me sharing with someone else and isn’t considered confidential or proprietary.

And if you don’t feel comfortable providing a testimonial – no matter the reason – that’s okay too! Thanks!

Leverage Former Professional Connections

Next, make a list of all of your prior job(s) or positions – even from years back – and follow the same approach as you did for your more recent co-workers, team members, and supervisors to identify a handful of folks to ask.

Once you’ve listed them, if you don’t know how to reach them you can try looking them up on LinkedIn.com (and if you’re really stuck check out How to Find, Reconnect With, and Revive Your Professional Network). In fact, check out LinkedIn.com either way because just browsing it may remind you of a few folks you forgot about on your first pass.

Here’s an approach email sample, which is just an adaptation of the prior one but for your older contacts:

Subject: Feedback on our past work together?

It’s been a while and you may or may not know, but I work for myself now. I’m still growing my independent consulting / freelance practice and I have a favor to ask: We’ve worked together previously so you know something of my character and capabilities. I’d appreciate a couple sentences – a short testimonial – describing your impression of me, our work together, and your satisfaction with the results of our shared projects.

I’d really appreciate it! And it would go a long way towards growing my business, particularly when I’m under consideration by someone who hasn’t worked with me before.

Only include what you’d be comfortable with me sharing with someone else and isn’t considered confidential or proprietary.

And if you don’t feel comfortable providing a testimonial – no matter the reason – that’s okay too! Thanks!

Leverage Each New Client

Finally – once you have a client or two – there are two places you should look at to gather testimonials from them for possible use:

  1. Review any emails they’ve sent you at various progress points in your work together (i.e. a positive line or two about the results of a project). Once you’ve found some worthy ones, strip out anything likely proprietary or confidential and request their permission to use the quotes and/or to adjust them in any way they’d prefer. Note: Absolutely do not just take their emailed comments and just start using these as a testimonial without getting permission; it’s still private correspondence … plus it’s the professional thing to do!
  2. Alternatively (or in addition) ask them to specifically write you a testimonial. Tell them exactly why. Something like:

Subject: Glad the project went well / a favor to ask

As you know I work for myself. I have a favor to ask: I’m always looking for new clients I can collaborate with just as well as you! If you’re comfortable doing so, I’d appreciate a brief testimonial.

It only has to be a couple sentences describing our work together, your impression of me, and your satisfaction with the results of our engagement. Only include what you’d be comfortable with me sharing with another prospective client – there’s no need to include anything proprietary confidential.

I’d really appreciate it! And it will go a long way towards keeping my business sustainable. And when I encounter a prospective client who hasn’t worked with me before, they’ll be better informed.

If you don’t feel comfortable providing a testimonial – no matter the reason – that’s okay too! Thanks!

You can send the above email to your buyer (the decision maker that hired you) or anyone else involved in the project that worked with you in any way. (I suggest you do both).

Pro tip: The best time to ask for a testimonial is right at the moment the project has been substantially completed. This is when everything is fresh in their mind and everyone is happy. People get busy and new projects and problems come up so later is generally not better in business. But don’t stress if you forgot to ask right at the project wrap-up or end up needing to follow-up later on to get the testimonial (or to get them to sign-off on using a quote pulled from your prior correspondence together).

Final Thoughts

I’ve almost always gotten a “yes” when I’ve asked to use a quote from an email. And I’ve had a sufficient enough success rate asking for testimonials that it doesn’t matter if some folks end up being too busy, uncomfortable endorsing you, or unable to provide a testimonial due to their organization’s policy … or whatever the reason.

You can use the process outlined above as a one-off activity and it’ll help your future sales, proposal acceptance rate, and lead generation but…. (see next tip).

Pro tip: Once you complete this activity, add a calendar item to repeat it in a few months. (Ultimately, you should add the client testimonial gathering steps into your post-engagement checklist too).

Bonus mental health tip: Whenever you catch yourself being doubtful of your value as a consultant (such as just as you’re finishing up the final draft of a proposal and are debating as to what fees to include or whether you’re even good enough for the proposed project): review the authentic testimonials people have written about you. It can help with the dreaded impostor syndrome. If they weren’t real this would be a really bad idea, but your collected testimonials are from real people that have worked with you. They’ve genuinely appreciated your contribution to the shared work you’ve been involved in together. So all past evidence suggests … You got this.

The ‘Inner Work’ of Dealing With Clients

Alan Weiss writes:

If you find patterns in your dealings with clients—requests for a “deal,” chronic lateness, insistence on extra work to be done, etc.—the common element is you, not them. You’re giving off “deal vibes” or allowing bad habits which are then continued. Before you complain about lousy clients (or relationships) check to see if the cause isn’t your own behavior and language. That’s easy to correct once you realize it.

We Have Found the Enemy…. – Alan Weiss, PhD

Having a client is a little like dating: it’s easy to attract potential partners that have the same dysfunctions you do … or to attract those that benefit from your dysfunctions.

My own mental health (and happiness with my business) improved dramatically when I realized I had agency, did not need anyone else to empower me, and was on equal footing with my clients, prospective clients, and business partners.

Some examples of adjustments I made involving clients over the years, each of which felt scary to execute on, but amazing upon completion:

  • Making it customary to collect a significant portion of my engagement fee upfront before I even schedule a new project.
  • Eliminating hourly fees.
  • Committing to offering a strong, clear, and compelling guarantee within every one of my proposals.
  • Telling a client flat-out that the work they wish to hire me for is not something I’m particularly qualified for.
  • Nodding and smiling politely while being told my fees are higher than expected and far higher than “other consultants even in more expensive markets” … then leaving my fees entirely alone.
  • Refusing to negotiate fees.
  • Committing to my first substantial retainer arrangement.
  • Explaining for the first time how certain things I was being asked to do weren’t covered under our retainer arrangement, but I’d be happy to assist with outside of it.
  • Being willing to accept projects with select clients that were just vague enough that I normally would not accept them, but where I trusted my judgement regarding my relationship with the buyer that we could make adjustments along the way if need be and had sufficiently clear and trustworthy lines of communication with each other that I was being realistic in my judgement.
  • Pausing a large prepaid engagement indefinitely because of continuous waiting and bottlenecks within the client’s organization that were not being addressed.
  • Telling a prospective client that we simply aren’t a good match.
  • Refusing to talk any further with someone (within an otherwise attractive organization for me to work with) that was not in a position make the decision to hire me, but kept insisting I draw up a proposal.
  • Raising my fees a little.
  • Raising my fees a LOT.
  • Stating politely – but firmly – that “I’d be happy to discuss how I might assist you with that matter, but only after we wrap up this one.”
  • Refusing projects that no longer interested me, even if I had done similar ones in the past and was pretty good in that problem area.

There are many more, but you get the gist.

Certainly do it for the health of your business. But, perhaps more importantly, do it for your mental health.