Advertising Doesn’t Equal Marketing

I’ve touched on this numerous times in the past, but it’s worth repeating over and over: grasping marketing is critical to building the professional practice you really want. But marketing also is not what many think it is – advertising – as C.J. Hayden points out:

It’s a common mistake for professional service providers to make. You don’t have a background in sales and marketing, so when you try to figure out how to get clients for your business, you copy what you see. You look around at what other businesses are doing and you see ads everywhere, so you think you’d better have some, too. But what you’re seeing is not the whole story.


Most successful professionals in fields like consulting, coaching, training, design, business and financial services, accounting, law, real estate, and healing professions report that they get more clients — and better clients — from activities at the opposite pole of the marketing iceberg from advertising. The focus of their marketing is on building relationships, following up personally with contacts, nurturing referral sources, and serving as a resource in their area of expertise.

Advertising Doesn’t Equal Marketing | Get Clients Now!

Would a consultant by any other name smell so sweet?

Brian L. Hill for AEC Forensics writes:

If you want to be a true consultant, make sure that the efforts of your client work produce measurable results, and ideally, implement value-based fees as opposed to billing based on increments of time.

But ultimately, perhaps the real test for who is and who is not a consultant comes down to their relationship with their client. A real consultant is a peer of their client, engaged in a collaborative process.

Would a consultant by any other name smell so sweet? – AEC Forensics

The Uncertainty Arbitrage

Victor Cheng writes on the blog:

In short, many clients have a (relatively speaking) poor ability to either absorb or reduce uncertainty in making big, high stakes decisions.


The greater the uncertainty and the greater the consequence of a wrong decision, the greater the anxiety the client feels. When a consulting firm comes and can legitimately reduce the uncertainty the client faces, the consulting firm charges a fee that on a relative basis is a small portion of the anxiety to be relieved — even though on an absolute basis might seem like a very high fee to you and me.


The reasonableness or outrageousness of the fee you charge has nothing to do with the fee itself. It has to do with the magnitude and severity of the problem that disappears once the fee has been paid.

The Uncertainty Arbitrage

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.

A Real Example of Getting a New Client (With Step-by-step Actions)

Generating leads and turning them into clients isn’t rocket science. But it does require focus, empathy, and patience. Dustin Lien has a solid write-up on his blog of a real-world organic client acquisition that occurred in his service business:

For most people, the most frustrating part of starting a client service business is cracking the elusive code of getting new clients. While it can feel difficult to understand, and at times even unpredictable, there are tried and true steps to follow that just plain work.

It’s filled with practical reminders like:

During an initial exploration call, it’s important to make sure you let them talk about their business and their current needs before pitching anything. I like to use this phrase: “I’d love to learn about your business, and any unique challenges you’re facing.”

A Real Example of Getting a New Client (With Step-by-step Actions)

Again, not rocket science, but attracting leads and turning (some of ) them into clients does entail a different skill-set than many otherwise highly capable experts in there field have already. There’s no shame in learning the basics, ever. And since it’s not rocket science you’ll still get to dedicate a lot of time to your true area of expertise.

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 (and if you’re really stuck check out How to Find, Reconnect With, and Revive Your Professional Network). In fact, check out 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.

Why to ask clients for a deposit

Sean Hull writes on his blog:

A common refrain when discussing terms of a project, and reviewing statement of work – “when shall we get started?”. The answer should be, “I’m ready to get started anytime you like. Would you like to use paypal or ACH for deposit?”.

Why I ask clients for a deposit – Scalable Startups

I really wish more consultants understood this. I used to get excited after getting off of a positive “Sounds good, let’s do it” call with a prospect. In time I learned to be more measured: Nothing is real until the check comes (and clears). And sometimes it never does – despite that enthusiastic response you received to your proposal.

Tapping Into Ubiquitous Video Calling to Gather Testimonials

David A. Fields writes:

Your consulting firm’s prospects and clients are settling into the video call format. Other than the relationship-building advantages of video, has this newly-accepted communication medium ushered in any valuable opportunities for your consulting firm? You betcha. Video testimonials are where it’s at.

5 Pro Tips for Transforming a Lockdown into Killer Testimonials – David A. Fields

I must admit, I’ve never tried to get any video-based testimonials. In the past it would have been more awkward to ask for, but today’s climate changes all that.

Recognizing Client Anniversaries

One of my favorite things to do in my consulting business has been to annually recognize “client anniversaries.” I send out enough cake or fancy chocolates (complete with disposable plates and silverware if appropriate) for the buyer within the client organization as well as their entire team to enjoy. And then every year thereafter I try to do something similar at about the same time for that same client.

I like doing this because it shows appreciation for our relationship and past work together in a fun way, reminds clients I exist regardless of whether we’ve done work together in the past year, and feeds goodwill with both the buyer and their staff. It’s also highly unusual, which means it’s even more appreciated.

This a highly effective client relationship tool and I urge you to steal it from me.

Bonus tip: Have the delivery person (or ask your client) to take a photo with their cake. I use these photos sometimes in newsletters plus it’s nice to see them smiling eating cake when you can’t be there yourself.