The Best Way To Grow A Consulting Firm? Educate Your Audience!
The way clients buy consulting services has changed. It’s time not just to accept it but embrace it! Forever. There is no going back.
I talk to consultancies daily. I see hundreds of websites that go on a never-ending useless bragging. I see brilliant experts refusing to share their expertise as a business strategy. I see marketing specialists trying to sign up their consultancies for every possible event in search of networking opportunities.
Most of the problems I witness consultancies struggle with stem from their failure to adapt to the new B2B buying world we live in. And, considering it didn’t happen overnight, I really don’t get how they missed it.
So before I discuss why educating your audience is the most proper business development strategy, let’s review the extent of changes in the consulting world.
The new B2B buyer archetype
In my post from earlier this year, I provided a detailed explanation of consulting trends that firms should be aware of. I strongly recommend going through it to get a more in-depth understanding.
It boils down to these three main topics:
- Buyers are looking for deep expertise
- The buying process has gotten more complex
- B2B buyers adopted the behavior of B2C buyers
Let’s quickly review each topic.
Buyers are looking for deep expertise
Gone are the days when a brand name alone was enough to impress a potential client. Gone are the days when wining and dining was how you converted a prospect into a client. Gone. Bye bye.
They no longer want to hear the long list of services that your consultancy has to offer. They don’t care that your firm was on the market since the dinosaurs walked the earth. B2B buyers are looking for real value. They want measurable results. They are looking for specialists with deep expertise that can deliver these results.
Between 2020 and 2022, the importance of sector knowledge and expertise of consultants for buyers has changed its ranking from #12 to #3. The quality of subject matter experts has risen in importance from #15 to #2.
Why is it so important? Because they are constantly under pressure to optimize their costs and maximize the ROI to stay competitive. 60% of organizations report lacking specific specialist skills. They rely on consultancies to fill in this gap.
The buying process has gotten more complex
Organizations are breaking down the silos between their various departments to be agile. There is significantly more collaboration and interdependency between different organizational actors than ever before.
As a result, the buying process got more complex. Whether purchasing a piece of software or hiring a consultancy, this decision now impacts a larger group of people and departments. Therefore, the number of people involved in purchasing decisions has also grown.
63% of buyers report that the pandemic had increased the number of people involved in an average purchasing decision.
As a consultancy, how will you pitch and follow up with everyone involved in the decision? How can you convey to a dozen stakeholders that your consultancy is the best firm for the job?
The straightforward approach of meeting people at industry events and making a pitch simply can’t accommodate the more complex buying process.
B2B buyers adopted the behavior of B2C buyers
If you want to understand the purchasing behavior of your prospects better, think of your behavior as a consumer. When you make any significant purchase, you probably spend hours researching and comparing different products. You Google the hell out of products. You read reviews. You ask your friends and family for recommendations. You make the final decision in consultation with your spouse. And so on.
That’s what B2B buyers are doing as well. They Google consultancies and individual consultants. They read their content. They ask their network for recommendations. They read case studies published by consultancies. They make their final decision in consultation with multiple stakeholders.
It’s no longer about vetting cold calls from sales executives and reviewing 100-slide sales presentations. It’s about researching and using it to determine which consultancy you can trust to deliver solid results.
B2B buyers got so settled in the omnichannel behavior spearheaded by B2C buyers that 71% of B2B buyers are willing to spend more than $50,000 in a single transaction; 27% would spend $500,000 or more. Wow!
Educating the audience should be the driver of consulting firms' business development strategy.
“Luk, it’s getting so hard to compete. New consultancies are popping up daily and buyers have more options than ever.”
I hear statements like this daily – in my Zoom conversations with large consultancies, in the emails I receive from consulting leaders, and in the conversations I have with my clients.
Yes, prospects have more choices than ever when hiring a consultancy. However, the demand for consulting services is insanely high!
According to studies, 60% of organizations report lacking specific specialist skills. Furthermore, 76% of organizations plan to increase the use of consultants in the next three years.
There is so much demand for consulting services. You need to know how to adapt your firm's business development strategy to tap into this giant pool.
Educating your audience through expertise-driven thought leadership is the only sustainable way to grow your consulting business.
Here are just a few of the benefits of this approach:
- Establishing trust. You establish your firm as an expert by creating and sharing relevant content with your audience and helping them better understand their pain points or put them in a larger context. You don’t need to say, “We are great at what we do.” Your prospects will come to that conclusion on their own by learning new information and approaches from your content.
- Increasing visibility. Do you know what content gets shared, reshared, and referred to? The truly informative one. Creating educational LinkedIn posts, blog articles, case studies, webinars, podcast episodes, etc. makes it really easy for your audience to want to engage with that content. That engagement can be by sending a link to the post to a colleague (often, someone who will also be contributing to the decision on whether or not to hire your consultancy). It can be by reaching out to you with questions and inquiries. It can be in the form of commenting on your social media post, which, in turn, expands the visibility of your post to their network. And so on.
- Generating and qualifying leads. This is the ultimate lead generation and qualification method. When you regularly educate your audience, the people who engage the most with it are the ones that find it relevant. You don’t need 1 million people to engage with your content. You need 1,000 most relevant ones. And producing content that revolves around a particular topic is how you filter out the noise and attract your ideal clients.
- Charging premium fees. 60% of buyers say that a consulting firm’s expertise is the factor that’s most likely to substantially impact the price they are willing to pay for the services. Educating your audience is the most powerful and convincing way to showcase your firm's deep expertise.
- Attracting top talent. The pandemic has made one thing clear: in the majority of cases. You don’t have to tie your talent pool options to those who can be physically in the office. This has opened up consultancies to the world of talent. How do you compete against other organizations in attracting top talent? Research shows that it’s not easy. 31% of consultancies report finding talent as their biggest challenge right now. When your consultancy is known for its level of expertise due to the educational approach your business development takes, you, as an employer, will stand out. When your consultants share their voice and the depth of their expertise in an authentic, authoritative way, top talent is likelier to want to be a part of this type of organization.
Why audience education is the ultimate business development driver
There are many ways to grow your business. You can purchase ads. You can hire a salesperson to cold-call prospects and bombard them with emails and follow-ups. You can sponsor events.
And I’m not saying you shouldn’t do any of these ever. Well, maybe with cold calls and mind-numbing follow-ups, I am. But, by all means, put some advertising dollars behind that case study that you are particularly proud of. Boost up your visibility by sponsoring an event here and there. Treat your prospects to a fancy dinner now and then.
However, make all of these strategies secondary. Please do not rely on them.
None of these strategies will convince your target audience that your consultancy has the level of expertise that prospects are looking for. They can’t convince your prospects to trust your firm.
Do you know what it does? Showcasing your expertise over and over again. Sharing content that’s of value, that addresses the heart of your target audience’s problems. Everything else can only temporarily amplify that.
Brand recognition is no longer the primary criterion for your prospects. The level of expertise and the ability to deliver tangible results are the factors at the top of their list.
Educating your audience is how you align your consultancy's business development strategy to your prospects’ purchasing behavior.
How successful consultancies go about educating their audience
Of course, not all educational content will have the same impact. You can’t willy-nilly your way into business growth – you need a strategy, an overarching approach. I’ve noticed similarities between successful educational approaches by consultancies over the years and boiled them down to these three strategies you can pick from and get started with today:
- Shift the potential client’s thinking: By sharing your firm's expertise on a niche subject, you help bring hidden problems and patterns to the surface, inspiring your audience to shift the way they think about their fundamental or underlying challenges. The bottom line of this approach is that you give your audience something new – you don’t repeat what they already know about their problems.
- Paint the transformational picture: Create a bold vision about the transformational potential of switching to a new, different approach. Translate your firm's expertise into the confidence you give your audience about the positive possibility of a transformation. Your vision should be contagious.
- Explain the cost of inaction: Help your prospects see beyond the immediate problem and understand the long-term implications of not taking action. As experts, your consultants should be able to identify an immediate problem and place it in a larger context. Share content that takes the audience on that journey and helps them see the more significant issue that must be addressed to avoid the cost of inaction.
Mistakes consultancies should avoid when educating their audience
Educating your audience will only work if…
… it’s done consistently. You can’t produce two pieces of educational content per year and expect a miracle. You need consistency in your efforts. Do it on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. For example, I share my newsletter every two weeks. I post tips and advice on LinkedIn almost daily. I prepare blog articles weekly. This is how you build your consultancy's reputational footprint.
Create pieces that:
(1) sound like an actual person wrote them – someone with a unique style, point of view, preferences, likes, and dislikes, etc.;
(2) communicate value, be it presenting old information from a fresh angle or presenting new information in the form of analysis, prediction of trends, approaches, etc..…it’s authentic and genuinely informative.
If you’re sharing general-type of content that barely scratches the surface of a subject, don’t even bother. It’s a waste of your time. Thousands of articles like that get published daily by consulting firms' marketers. Your prospects are drowning in this type of content.
…it caters to a very niche audience. Focus, focus, focus. That’s what it comes down to. And I’m not talking about every article being overly in-depth. I’m referring to consistently educating your audience on a minimal range of themes that fall into a niche subject. If your consultancy addresses too many expertise domains, your audience becomes unclear. You fail to establish your firm as a specialist. You fail to build visibility in a specific niche.
…it shares knowledge generously. I’ve seen many case studies where a consultancy provides details on the client’s problem, then goes on and on about their results. The middle part – the HOW – gets mentioned very briefly. Yet it’s the HOW that your prospects want to know. Here’s the thing, though. The more generous you are with your knowledge, the more trust you build with your audience, and the more willing they will be to hire your firm and pay premium fees. “If this consultancy shares this much knowledge freely, imagine what they can do if I hire them” – this is what you want your prospects to think.
Recommended reading: The Biggest Consulting Misconception Is Holding You Back From Limitless Growth
I did not have to sell a single day of my life to grow my business
I never had to sell my services. Not ever. I started and successfully grew two companies, selling one of them to one of the largest consultancies in the world – Deloitte. While running a boutique consultancy, I got projects that large consultancies were competing against each other to get.
Why? Was it because I am the one and only true expert? I’m sure there were plenty of brilliant people I was competing against. But I put the time and effort into building my reputational footprint. I didn’t put together fancy slide decks. I focused on proving my expertise by sharing my knowledge.
It wasn’t always easy to produce valuable content. Not every swing was a hit. But it never felt like an uphill battle to me, and sharing my expertise has enabled me to create opportunities I would not have had otherwise.
Instead of developing short-lived content to tell potential clients how great we were (which would have been a darn uphill battle), I always focused on sharing deep experience and knowledge. The teacher in me kept asking:
- What did I learn in the project trenches about the biggest client pains that others could learn from?
- Which experiences did I acquire that could be valuable for others?
- What were the unique client stories (with successes and struggles) that could inspire others to pursue better outcomes?
This resulted in prestigious conferences inviting me as their keynote speaker. This resulted in Google’s algorithm picking up my content as it ranked highly for authoritativeness and trust. It resulted in prospects reading my case studies, learning exactly how I approach projects, and reaching out to me. The list of benefits goes on.
I was able to exponentially grow my business and charge premium fees on the back of my content. The expertise it conveyed allowed me to position myself in the advisory/diagnostic role. I didn’t need to take on tedious implementation projects. I worked directly with C-level executives, offering upstream services.
Although I never started developing content for monetization purposes, I could quickly draw a correlation line between the content volume available, my visibility improvement, and the growth of the consulting business.
The content gave access to more clients and a consistent flow of new client leads. I never had to chase new clients. Clients came to my consultancy instead of us having to convince and sell. Inbound instead of outbound. And, by the way, aggressive revenue growth targets (especially after the Deloitte acquisition) were always achieved with zero marketing!
I wrote quite a bit about B2B buying behavior changes, the importance of educating your audience, and my personal experience.
If there is one thing I want you to take away, it’s this: aggressively pursuing prospects with outdated sales strategies is a recipe for a business disaster.
The only way to drive business growth is to align your firm's business development strategy to your prospects’ behavior and needs. This is not a new business rule that I invented. This principle has been around for decades. So stop to think about whether your consultancy’s business development approach matches the market's reality.
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Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers, and I’m guiding consulting firms through the journey of growing their business by helping them transform into go-to experts in their market. I have been in consulting businesses for almost 20 years, in very different roles: as European CHRO in a global consultancy, as a startup founder in an analytics consultancy, and as a leader in a 'Big 4' consultancy, post-acquisition of the startup. I had the privilege of achieving global visibility as a consultant 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 growing that visibility in the past years.