3 Pains All Consultancies Suffer From
This article was last updated on 9 November 2022.
Late 2019 I invested in independent research to help me dig deeper into the biggest challenges facing consultancies today.
I commissioned a series of in-depth interviews with leaders of consultancies – small, medium and large firms – to give me a rich and detailed picture of the consultant’s’ world.
I did this because I believe it’s essential to have a clear and unbiased understanding of your client’s challenges, and it’s easier to get that perspective with some external support.
As a consultant it’s hard to listen without stepping in to solve the problem, and it can be tricky for a client to open up about their working relationship with you. It is much easier for them to talk to an experienced third party.
Over the next few years, I continuously witnessed consultancies experience these pains.
I can empathize. They’re the headaches that I’ve had to deal with throughout my long consultancy career, and the ones that faced me even more starkly as I stepped out to start my new Visible Authority business.
Consultancies' three biggest pains are:
- Time: ‘We don’t have (or make) enough time to develop our firm's visibility and build our business’.
- FOMO (fear of missing out): ‘We are afraid to narrow our focus and turn down opportunities in case we don’t have enough money/revenue at the end of the month.’
- Marketing: ‘We have no idea how to do our marketing or to do social media in an effective way to grow our pipeline’.
Throughout the interviews and the many talks that I had with consulting leaders, we heard the same story again and again. The three pains are experienced as great frustrations and seen as blockers to success to consulting firms everywhere.
The biggest obstacle of all to growing a consultancy business is time. Everybody that we spoke to said something along the lines of We just don’t have time for marketing.
Here’s what the research uncovered:
Pain #1. No time to grow visibility and authority
‘No time for marketing’ is the cry of consultancies the world over. When the going is good, they are too busy servicing clients and or too busy deep in project work to devote time to lead generation. If the work dries up, they still don’t feel they have time to devote to marketing, or they don’t know how best to use time to their advantage.
Quotes from the consulting leaders we interviewed
“We don’t have much time for marketing; you know how it is. We went into business and then you’re running for the clients and then it’s, ‘oh, marketing! Tomorrow, maybe?"
“We don’t have the time to dive deep into it, because our business is another business. Marketing comes far down on the list.”
“In most firms, we never have time. We have to make time for things like this”
“Sometimes I look at people and I wonder how they find the time to write and post all that stuff.”
“Time constraints make it difficult for me, specifically juggling the demands of family alongside work. When I’m working I must focus on the business as usual and the project I have. Networking and business development is something that comes on top of that.”
“Time is the biggest enemy of a consultant who really wants to invest in authority.”
“I also realised today that I’m not even focusing on business development because I don't have the time, my days are filled with clients, you know? On the one hand, it’s great, on the other it creates a lot of anxiety because what if it stops for whatever reason? I don’t have a business development engine behind me.”
Overcoming the time barrier
Solving the time pain is not difficult in itself. It doesn’t require any special skills or investment.
It’s a question of mindset more than anything. It is imperative that consulting leaders make time for marketing, and to find the time they need to commit to a new approach to business development.
The time that consultancies want to develop their visible authority will be found once they reengineer their way of working. It means redefining their consulting approach: finding their niche, clarifying their positioning, staying upstream with their offering, and repackaging their service so that they are no longer doing all the operational work for their clients.
The 5 biggest TIME challenges in consulting
- Not enough focus, keeping the options open, saying yes to too many things.
- No marketing automation, too much manual work, a poor outsourcing approach.
- Struggling with packaging or productized consulting services to achieve higher productivity and less operational work.
- No disciplined content management, not developing 'pain-resolution content'.
- No 'time strategy' and poor 'time mindset'.
Here's how I improved these TIME pains
- Focus: I focused, narrowed, focused more and narrowed even more. Saying NO is not difficult with the right narrow niche and focus. Every 6 months, I sat down and re-assessed the narrowness of my work
- Automation: I studied marketing automation to death and I have a marketing automation (growth hacking) coach for many years. Most of my processes have been automated and I outsource a whole lot of work.
- Productizing: I focused (and still focus) a lot on developing the best possible productized consulting approaches. By packaging my services, I also clearly showcase my area of expertise in a way that's easy to understand.
- Content management: I am working with a detailed content calendar to plan and organize the next 6-12 months of my content, and I am working with top-notch experts and writers from around the world to support me.
- Productivity: I am obsessed with organizing my work to free up time for business development, and I am on a ruthless search for mindset improvement, productivity gains, systems and processes.
Pain #2: FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out
Learning to say ‘no’ to the wrong kind of work opens up valuable business development time, although saying ‘no’ is another one of the biggest pains that our research uncovered. A fear of narrowing focus is shared by many consulting companies.
They often feel that if they specialize, they will miss out on work. "If we say no to this, we’ll disappoint our clients" or "If we say no to this, the phone might not ring again, and then where will we be?" But to succeed, consultancies need to learn to say ‘no’ to the wrong opportunities in order to attract the right ones.
'No' feels like I'm saying: 'I will never succeed'. I am scared to say it. To say 'No' means: maybe hurting someone who will then trash me. Am I turning down opportunity? (James Altucher)
Recommended reading: How a Consultancy Can Get Crushed by the Ego of Its Owners
Quotes from the consulting leaders we interviewed
“I don’t think I have a strong personal brand out in the market. I think I have a good reputation and network of people willing to recommend me but that’s about it. The main personal challenge is every time you go out there you need to make a choice about ‘what public face?’ How do you want to go out there? What team do you want to be associated with? And that’s a bit of a personal challenge for me as I like to keep my options open to an extent! That’s a true struggle.”
“Going towards a more niche position would require me to be more clear on the story I would bring and it would be hard to manage that myself.”
“Consultancies say “we can do anything for you” to the clients. That’s the complete opposite side of working with deep expertise, I think consultancies have a tendency to devalue expertise because we basically say “we can do that as well”.
“But sometimes if you get well known for a certain topic then it’s also a handicap at a certain point in time because sometimes there’s a hype around a certain topic and that can be temporary and then it’s a case of reinventing yourself.”
“I think having a unique expertise is the most important thing, meaning other people are convinced that you bring something to the table that other consultants can’t. It makes you crucial to adding value to the client which makes it easier to get the deal or convert the lead into a project. That’s not easy to achieve though.”
“I know I want to keep my options open but I can see there's a lot of value in making a choice.”
Overcoming the FOMO barrier
Saying ‘yes’ to the wrong opportunities compromises consultancies' market credibility and their future business growth.
Fighting the FOMO means finding a niche and establishing laser-sharp positioning to attract the right clients. I urge consulting firms to deepen their expertise in one narrow area, share their knowledge generously online, and they'll build a strong reputation.
They'll be able to sidestep low-grade commoditized work, leaving time and space to pursue the expert projects that both command higher fees AND boost their visible authority still further. Win-win.
The biggest FOMO challenges in consulting
- Saying yes to keep options open, it's a vicious loop to hell!
- FOMO is a self-confidence assessment: does a consultancy have the courage and guts to focus and narrow down?
- FOMO is an ego touchstone: consultancies (with big ego's) are more in love with opportunity than with focusing and deepening their expertise.
- Many consulting firms struggle to translate their expertise into an easy-to-understand, credible message. When firms cover multiple domains, it’s impossible to establish themself as an expert in any of them.
- Most consultancies don’t understand that saying ‘No’ is the biggest force for building their business. The biggest authorities in the world relentlessly say ‘No’ to protect and maintain their narrow positioning.
Here's how I improved these FOMO pains
- Focus: I focus like crazy! I don't change my lane. Never ever.
- Planning: I have a 3-year plan of where I will go and I won't change. Saying NO became part of my consulting archetype. It took a while, though, to get there.
- Mindset: I rewired my brain: I was able to build the courage and have the guts to say NO. Not all clients like(d) it but most do, it's one of the reasons why they came (are coming) to me!
- 80/20 rule: I trimmed all the fat. I only do those things (reading, studying, conferences, writing, following,...) that contribute to improving my narrow expertise. 80/20 Principle is my mentor.
- Value-driven: I never get into commoditized consulting: selling my hours/days to make a living. Trading time for money is what most consultants do. They get ‘body-shopped’ by their clients. I focus on value-driven, exclusive, packaged services. Period.
Pain #3. Overwhelmed with marketing and social media
Fears around marketing fall into two categories. A lack of knowledge around the nuts and bolts of marketing holds consulting firms back - what to do when and how - but also a deeper reticence around marketing itself. Marketing is seen as ‘selling stuff’, and that makes some consulting leaders and their teams uncomfortable.
Quotes from the consulting leaders we interviewed
“I don’t know what to do and I guess that’s one reason why we don’t do more is because we don’t know what makes sense for us.”
“We don’t know the specific marketing tools that are running today or which are possible for us.”
“I really don’t have the approach to the marketing for this kind of business we’re doing because it’s so specialized.”
“I need help knowing how to leverage the marketing and build a brand around myself.”
“We’re doing more or less no marketing at the moment. We’re just networking. Most of our clients are people I already know.”
Overcoming the marketing barrier
The solution to consultancies' marketing pain is two-fold:1. It’s a mindset shift
Consultancies should reframe ‘marketing and selling’ as ‘educating and helping’.
They should forget creating pushy sales messages, no one reads them anyway. Instead, I urge consulting firms to package their expertise in content that’s designed to help their prospects with their challenges, and share it widely on the web.
That’s the way their ideal clients will get to find, like and trust them.
Content marketing is building a relationship between you and your client. (Eva Guttierrez)
This new definition of marketing - using consulting expertise and experience to help clients overcome their challenges - is the natural extension of what firms are already doing as consultancies.
Consulting IS marketing: marketing is not separate from consulting leaders or their team members. A good consultant is a good marketer of his/her expertise.
2. It’s a matter of efficiency
Consultancies won't have a choice in the long run of making use of marketing automation tools so that they can share this helpful expert content as efficiently as possible.
Systems will make firms' life easier, and getting used to tools that will allow them to schedule all the expert content that you create will free up time for them. I am/was able to find 20-30% of my time by using/leveraging smart systems. Even big consulting firms can do that.
Recommended reading: The Single Biggest Mistake Consultancies Make: Talking About Themselves
The biggest FOMO challenges in consulting
- Contrary to popular belief, marketing is not merely about 'selling stuff'. Marketing in consulting is all about building long-term visibility and trust.
- The visibility challenge: many consulting leaders and consultants are uncomfortable talking about themselves. The truth though, is that visibility is the only thing that is going to make these firms stand out in a crowded and very competitive consulting world.
- The trust challenge: professional services are 'credence goods'. Credence goods are sold very differently. Clients do not buy credence goods based on features or attributes. Unlike other products, credence goods are sold on trust!
- Consultancies often believe that marketing is a sleazy thing and is beneath them. However, marketing is about sharing consulting knowledge and providing something of authentic value to clients.
Here's how I improved these marketing pains
- Total openness: I show who I am, what I do and how I solve client pains. I always keep this in the back of my mind: let my clients learn from what I learned. I really don't mind sharing my struggles, pains, mistakes, failures. I even share my business data from behind the scenes!
- Helping: I rewired my head: I replaced the word 'selling' with 'helping'.
- Top content: It's my obsession always to produce the best possible educational content. Have you ever heard of 'Education-based marketing' (EBM)? That's what I do.
- Patience: I never settle for short-term gains. I am 'in the game' for the long term. Fulfillment over achievement.
- Sharing: I will always openly share my expertise! Sharing is caring. Clients know that.
You don't lose what you know when you share your knowledge. Unlike physical goods, knowledge is non-rival, meaning its value doesn't decrease when it's shared. (From the great book: 'Peak' by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool)
Consulting firms can purchase marketing automation tools and systems to streamline their business development activity, but the biggest pains can only be solved by changing the way they think.
The ultimate aim of all this activity is to grow their consulting business. Becoming a visible authority is a means to an end - the end being to get more clients. If firms are unclear where to start, they could follow my lead and invest in client research to start from.
The client research will help consulting companies (re)define/improve/narrow their niche. A strong niche will banish FOMO. Banishing FOMO will allow firms to happily saying ‘no’ to the wrong kind of projects, freeing up more time for marketing. It's 'The Consulting Glorious Loop To Heaven'.
And the research will have taught them a lot more about their client challenges, so they'll have a clear steer on the kind of educational, value-driven, expert content that they can create to help their ideal clients with their challenges.
And that content, shared generously online, will be what signals these firms' visible authority to the world, pulling the clients they want towards them.
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Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers, and I’m helping mid-sized consultancies become high-performing consulting firms. I have been in the consulting businesses for more than 20 years, in very different roles: as European CHRO in a global consultancy, as a founder of a mid-sized analytics consultancy, and as a leader in a 'Big 4' consultancy, post-acquisition of my consultancy. I had the privilege of achieving global visibility as a consulting leader, and I never had to sell, persuade, or negotiate as a result. I have now bundled all those experiences, expertise, know-how, research, reading, successes, struggles, and failures from managing and advising consultancies in the past years.