Regain Control as a Consultant by Packaging Your Services
Business Development in Consulting, Consulting Leader’s Quality of Life, Narrow Focus in Consulting
I’ve interacted with hundreds of consultants over the years – dozens of them were my clients, with others I had in-depth conversations to better understand their pain points, goals, business models, and mindsets.
This has allowed me to take a step back and look at the macro image – the paths that different consultants take and the decisions that significantly improve their chances of success to grow their consulting business.
In one of my earlier articles, I wrote about the things my highly successful clients started doing, and today, I’d like to elaborate on one particular aspect: standardizing and productizing your consulting services.
Why tailor-made service offerings are draining for (upstream) consultants
The vast majority of consultants are highly client-oriented. And that makes sense, of course. We’re in the service business. We work with people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, and different expectations.
However, many consultants take this to mean that in order to secure and retain a client, you always have to offer highly customized services that, like window insulating foam, fill in every nook and cranny of a business process.
Unfortunately, this is draining and unsustainable in the long run to develop a consulting business. Here's why.
- It takes much longer to prepare a proposal. The higher the level of customization, the more time you need to study your potential client’s business and to prepare a proposal that matches 100% of their expectations. And you should stop developing proposals for free and start with a paid diagnosis first.
- Closing the deal also becomes a very complex process with a lot of back and forth. The more detailed your proposal, the longer it takes for your prospects to approve it. Decision-makers usually end up pulling in more and more stakeholders, which turns into an endless cycle of emails, calls, and follow-ups.
- Completing projects becomes a nightmare with some clients. If you sell yourself short, are unreasonably accommodating, and go not just the extra mile but run an entire marathon for your client, don’t be surprised when many of them take it for granted and exhaust you with an endless number of tweak, revision, and update requests.
- You fail to set clear expectations, leaving clients disappointed in the end. When there is no clear communication of the scope of the project and your level of accommodation from the very start, you are increasing the chances of your clients being disappointed at the end – there is a mismatch between their expectations and your delivery capacities.
The benefits of packaging your service offerings
My vision is rather extreme: as an authority, as a reputed domain expert I would never, ever do fully customized projects. Seriously!
Here’s why. As an expert, you’ve gathered tremendous experiences in your narrow domain all those years, leading to incredible depth and compelling pattern recognition.
It’s remarkably uncomplicated to design standardized approaches to solve prototypical pains of your clients. And if you can’t standardize it for 90-100%, you can carry-out a number of well-defined sprints and execute them in a pretty systematic way. It’s more straightforward than most consultants believe.
However, if you aren’t focused on a specific expertise domain and you haven’t established enough visible reputation (or authority) in your market yet, you will always struggle to ‘sell’ standardized approaches.
Clients will challenge you and you won’t be able to credibly respond to their objections. You aren’t just deep enough into your stuff yet. Focus, yes, please! As I explain in one of my articles, put all your eggs in one basket.
10 advantages of productizing your consulting services
- It helps you narrow down your focus and really drill into your area of expertise. In your search for commonalities, you will be forced to dig deeper into your field. Clients’ problems aren’t unique. However, they do lie on different levels and to really understand the underlying issues and notice patterns, you will need to take a deep dive into your very narrow subject.
- You are setting yourself and your clients up for success. When you offer your services via a set of straight-forward packages, you set clear expectations, deliverables, and budgets up-front. Your clients know exactly what you can deliver and, when you do indeed deliver on these expectations, everyone walks away happy.
- Pricing your services is much simpler. When you break down your products into a defined set of activities, it’s much simpler to calculate the amount of time and other resources you will need to complete each activity. You don’t need to worry about unexpected costs due to miscommunication or your clients’ expectation of a high degree of personalization of your service.
- Pitching your services becomes more efficient. Not only do you need to make only minor tweaks to your proposals for perspective clients, but it is easier for them to understand what you do and how you do it. Highly customized proposals become even more of a pain when you consider the fact that it takes 6-8 people to make a B2B purchasing decision, on average.
- It makes it easy for your clients to give you referrals and recommendations. When you establish the parameters of work from the start and set the right expectations, your clients walk away not only feeling happy with your work once you deliver on those expectations, but they also feel way more confident recommending you to their network. They know exactly what you do, how you do it, and what others can expect from you as a consultant.
- Your case studies become infinitely more relevant and impactful. When you serve your clients through packaged solutions, you can easily demonstrate to your prospects how Package #1, for example, helped other companies in the past, reinforcing your point that despite being a standardized service offering, it resolves pain points of a large number of clients.
- It saves you A LOT of time. It’s not only about being more efficient with preparing your pitches and proposals. Every aspect of your work becomes more efficient – negotiating terms, identifying the right tools or staff members for each project, planning your schedule and your pipelines, etc.
Recommended reading: You Will Always Have a Time Problem as a Consultant Until You Do This
- It makes your marketing more efficient. Packaging your consulting services forces you to do two things: (1) drill down into your area of expertise; (2) narrow down your audience. Marketing only delivers strong results when it is personalized and targeted. By packaging your services, you will be able to focus on a very limited number of ‚products‘ that you pitch to a very narrow audience, maximizing the ROI of your efforts.
- It allows you to be more data-driven. We all strive to make data-driven decisions, however, how do you do that when you offer highly personalized services? How do you measure which specific item in your 100-bullet-point proposal tipped the scale in your favor? How do you measure the ROI of your content? By packaging your services, you are far more likely to get a clear picture of which product delivers higher ROI, which one takes up more of your time for smaller returns, and which product doesn’t speak to your target audience.
- It’s easier to grow/scale your consulting business. By standardizing your services, you also standardize the types of resources you use. This, of course, includes the types of skills required to complete a project. This means hiring becomes that much simpler. You know exactly the types of skills you need in potential hires to deliver on client requests and what you should focus on in your L&D programs.
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Packaging your services doesn’t mean eliminating personalization
“But Luk, I can’t just standardize my services. Each client is different and they hire consultants for a personalized approach to address their unique needs.”
I hear that a lot. “My clients are not going to be interested in a one-size-fits-all offering.”
As I mentioned earlier in this article, if you are a true expert in a narrow domain, you realize that your clients’ problems are not unique. They all stem from a very limited number of pain points. If you don’t know what these pain points are, your level of expertise is still superficial.
Furthermore, packaging solutions doesn’t mean offering the same exact thing to every client. It means setting up the parameters of your work – what you can do, how you can help, and, most importantly, what problems you can resolve for your clients.
You still deliver a personalized service because you address your client’s specific problem but with very clear expectations of what you will and will not do, what end result clients can expect, what tools you use, what your process is like, etc.
How to switch to a packaged service model
I need to be honest with you. If you have been working in a customized way with certain clients, it won’t be easy to – out of the blue – suggest a new way of (standardized) working. Your existing clients will have difficulties to accept, to understand the change.
But you don’t have to jump off a cliff – there’s a way to do it gradually. And for new clients, there’s no problem of course.
Here are a few suggestions on how you can start delivering a more standardized approach:
- Step 1: Narrow down your focus - there’s no way around it. If you’re a generalist (keeping your options open for all kinds of stuff), your packages will not be seen as having any real value, you won’t be credible enough (because you don’t know the prototypical patterns) and you will have difficulties to reply to objections.
The more irrelevant you become to non-ideal prospects by turning your positioning away from them, the more relevant you become to your chosen target clients”.
- David C. Baker
- Step 2: Start noticing and writing down patterns in your client work - what types of projects you get the most requests for, what commonalities exist between different projects in terms of the amount of work they require, the tools you use, the turnaround time, the typical pains and gains of the clients, etc.
- Step 3: Start offering packaged services alongside your regular business strategy - gradually introducing your packages to the market – to past, existing (be careful), and potential new clients. See what the feedback is. Test, try, pilot and iterate. That’s what I do with all my clients: testing & validating (gaining time to results, reducing the uncertainty of acceptance).
- Step 4: Start with offering a high-level diagnosis of your client’s current problem situation. That’s the easiest way to start your standardized journey. It can become your Trojan Horse, a low entry-level approach to enter a new client and avoid big (and unpaid) proposal writing time. Tell your client you don’t write big proposals without first diagnosing the problem with your audit tool/approach. And the outcome of such an audit is your proposal for further collaboration, you explain to them the status quo and how they can improve from there. Your suggested roadmap to improvement pictures their ‘Promised Land’ and automatically becomes your new proposal.
Recommended reading: There Are Two Ways Of Doing Consulting, One Is Toxic
- Step 5: Polish up your package’s value proposition based on feedback and make them the central point of your sales and marketing efforts. And keep iterating, improving, iterating, improving. Lean, fast, validated.
Being a consultant can be an exciting and rewarding career. I know it is for me. Unfortunately, I encounter too many consultants who feel overwhelmed, overburdened, and overworked. They struggle with a work-life balance, they are scared of missing out on opportunities, and they don’t see consistent business growth.
If you know what this feels like on a personal level, it’s time to re-evaluate your approach to consulting. The prospect of working in this chaotic, unpredictable, overburdening manner should scare you more than the prospect of changing your business model.
Start doing less. It will force you to prioritize what you do and how you do it. Choose quality over quantity. Strive to maximize the value you deliver for each client as opposed to maximizing the number of clients.
Give people an abundance of confidence in your expertise by creating an abundance of value and share it again and again. - Seth Godin
Standardizing your services is an important element of the consulting business approach that I advocate, but it will only work if you change your mindset about: (1) the importance of narrowing down your focus; (2) designing a client-pain-centered unique value proposition; (3) allocating time on a consistent basis to marketing; (4) learning to say no to incoming opportunities outside of your narrow area of expertise.
Recommended reading: Looking to Package Your Consulting Services? This Productization Model Is for You
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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.