Relying On Your Network Is A High-Risk Consulting Growth Strategy

"Luk, growing my consulting business is all about my network and my relationships.” 

I’ve heard variations of this statement more times than I can count.

However, in my experience, heavily relying on your network and relationships to grow your consulting business, might result in an unreliable pipeline and unpredictable future.

In an overcrowded consulting market, digital is how new business is won. 

The traditional marketing model in the professional services industry is in trouble. Client loyalty, satisfaction and referrals are in a slow downward spiral. The old strategies and techniques won't cut it anymore. A modern, digital-fueled content marketing approach, however, hits all the right notes. (Hinge Research Institute)

The 8 disadvantages of a relationship-only approach to grow your consulting business

There is nothing wrong with nurturing and growing your network and relationships. Hell, I’m a big network guy myself. Don’t get me wrong!

As a keynote speaker at 100+ conferences, I never missed the opportunity to meet prospects and add them to my network.

Back in my people analytics days, I used to have access to an incredible amount of CHRO’s and people analytics leaders in my markets and it has helped me tremendously growing my consulting business. 


I've explained my commercial approach from the past decade, including my 'collateral visibility' strategy at conferences, in this blog

However, I was never reliant on my network ONLY to grow my consulting business. Building relationships was never my ultimate goal but rather the result of my expertise, my visibility and reputation on the market. 

By heavily skewing your growth efforts towards relationship-building, you place numerous limitations on your consulting business growth.

growing your consulting business - The Visible Authority - Luk Smeyers

Figure 1: The consulting growth quadrant. Too much focus on Relationships only is risky! 

1. You have very low control over your network

Activating a network is not easy. Sure, you’ve been keeping your contacts warm, commenting on their LinkedIn posts, engaging with them on- and offline, but when it comes to actually getting your network to 'deliver', problems begin. 

Turns out that there is a budgetary issue with one, a lack of expertise fit with another, a timing problem with the third one. You get the idea.

The 'call to arms' is weak, unpredictable, inconsistent and not scalable. 

2. There is inherent churn risk

You may have solid relationships, but people switch jobs all the time.

Putting all your eggs in the ‘building relationships’ basket means that when your contact moves out of a certain position, you have to start all over again with the new person.

3. Your network's demographics can get out of sync

Ever thought about this? Research confirms there's a strong correlation between our demographics and the demographics of our clients. As David Burkus in HBR (see below) states, we seem to connect with people similar to us. 

Guess what happens overtime? Yes, you will get out of sync with the new/younger generation and with people not-so-similar to you.

Your network will grow old. Step by step you will get more disconnected without even knowing it. 

Most of us, when put into a situation where the only goal is to meet new people, default to staying inside of our comfort zones. That means talking to people we already know. Or at the very least people who are similar to us. That means most networking is doomed from the start, by its very design. (David Burkus in HBR)

4. Your network most likely has too much noise

Just how many contacts in your network are your ideal clients? 1%? 5%? 10% (if you are lucky)? Keeping your network 100% relevant is impossible. The more you build it up, the more noise will slip in. 

You end up reaching out to people who are not necessarily relevant and the chance they will connect you with your ideal client is small.

A lot of time wasting you should invest in strengthening the other components of the consulting growth quadrant. 

Don’t network. It’s too much business card slinging. (Ted Bauer)

Cutting through the noise takes time, and time is the one thing most consultants do not have.

5. You waste too much time trying to impress your contacts

Oh the endless wining-and-dining sessions. While in the age of coronavirus this is not as popular of a method, but we all know just how much time can get wasted schmoozing potential clients. 

Too many consultants who I've met in the past, practice 'wining and dining' with sales as their end goal. Unfortunately, if selling is your goal during such network 'meetings', you’re going about it all wrong. If you quantify your network as sales targets, you'll be uncovered as sleazy sooner or later. (Luk Smeyers)

There is always someone who just wants to “pick your brain,” which turns into a two-hour lunch meeting. You end up giving away your knowledge for free with little to show for it.

I’m a big advocate of sharing your knowledge freely and generously. However, it should be done as part of a business development strategy, where you can measure the reach, the impact, the number of leads generated, etc. 

Remember, digital is how new business is won.


6. You don't have a systemic approach to nurturing your network

How do you measure the impact of your actions at each stage of the buying process in an accurate and systemic way? Do you have a pre-defined strategy to relationship nurturing that you can scale up? 

Treating each contact ad hoc and in a way that 'feels right in the moment' is not a reliable long-term strategy for growth success. Yes, you might end up scoring a couple of projects for the next 2-3 months, but what will come after? (Luk Smeyers)

Nurturing your network requires structurally sharing new trends, learnings, and social proof to build trust in the specific area of your expertise.

The most important goal of all: you need to bring your network 'into the system' and structurally nurture them.

For more than a decade, I've been sending regular updates to my network to keep them in the loop on the latest trends, new case studies (=social proof), my brand-new learnings, etc.

I've always done so in a structural way via mailings and via newsletters sent out to my subscribers (read: to my 'in-the-system' network and relationships). 

In my training programs, I teach consultants to strive to move the network/relationships from a 70-80% non-systemized audience to a 70-80% systemized audience. A big shift, a new mindset. 

Utilize a DELIBERATE strategy to do so. That’s what I’ve done all those years: 90% of people in my network got ‘systemized’.

I've always been obsessed with 'getting them into the system' in order to be able to nurture them in a scalable way.

This is how every consultant should treat networks & relationships!

7. You can't collect data and make data-driven decisions

“Data is king!” – an overused but 100% true saying.

A network can’t be systematically assessed from a data point. What are the metrics that you would even use to evaluate the effectiveness of your business development within the relationships-only framework? 

For example, when I share my content, I measure:

  • how many people consume my content?
  • where they come from (source, e.g. social media, organic,...)?
  • what exactly they read (most important topics)?
  • how long they read (staying on my pages, helps me to rank better in Google and to assess the quality of my content)?
  • which promotional channels attract which kind of audience(s)?
  • how many people (and who) click on my CTA (call to action) button(s) (e.g. subscribe, book a call,...)?
  • how many people convert into subscribers or to clients?
  • ...and a dozen other metrics. 

I do an in-dept weekly review to continuously improve my content and its distribution. So I ask you, how do you translate this type of data-empowered strategy to relationships-first tactics? Difficult. Close to impossible. 

8. You fail to build credentials and social proof in a methodical way

Last but not least is the challenge of setting up a methodized credential building and social proof process. If your reputation is based on word-of-mouth only, it will make it extremely difficult to grow your consulting business.

When all of your (scarce) marketing time is spent on 'wining and dining', very little of it is left to create a scalable system of consistently adding project work, visibility credentials (e.g. speaking at events, getting interviewed, etc.) and social proof (e.g. case studies, problem-resolution referrals, recommendations for your expertise, etc.) to your portfolio. 

This is what I did the past decade. I collected credentials and social proof like there is no tomorrow.

A low-risk business growth approach that will give consultants a more reliable pipeline

A relationships-only approach to growing your consulting business is a losing game. It’s unreliable and comes with too many long-term risks. 

What IS a winning growth strategy, on the other hand, is expanding your approach. 

expand your circle when growing your business - The Visible Authority - Luk Smeyers

Figure 2: The consulting growth quadrant. Widen the green circle, an integrated approach.

1. Positioning should come first

Find a way to differentiate yourself from your competitors.

Narrow your focus and establish your expertise in a highly specialized area. Be the go-to person for a narrow group of people. Yes, you are shrinking the pool of potential clients, but you are drastically improving your own appeal to the right audience. 

The more specialized you are, the fewer competitors you have. The more of an expert you are on a subject, the more people will come to you (as opposed to you having to chase after prospects). 

We must simply choose to take control, first by specializing and shifting the power back from the client toward us, and then we can begin to shape our future as consultants. (Blair Enns in his book: 'Win without pitching', read my summary here)

Related article: Want To Be a Furiously Successful Consultant? Put All Your Eggs in One Basket.


2. Becoming a Visible Authority should come second

Once you’ve clearly defined your positioning on the market, you can start building your visibility as an ultimate authority on a subject matter.

This is where I started putting out relevant content that provided unique insights in a consistent and authentic way – blog articles, interviews, training and workshops, case studies, presentations at conferences, guest posts, etc.

I promoted that content like hell, sharing it with my network and encouraging others to share it by making it irresistible. I spoke at events, hosted roundtables and training, gave interviews to industry publications, etc.. 

That’s how I increased my own profile and my deep expertise. Again, this is when clients started coming to me. 

Amplifying visibility as a consultant is more than a feel-good marketing technique. A deliberate and systematic approach to thought leadership and expert visibility is a compelling business development strategy. Consistently and openly sharing all your experiences and learnings as a consultant, in an authentic and passionate way, will always lead to a strong and loyal client and follower base. (Yves van Durme, partner at Deloitte)

In my previous role as a CEO of iNostix, my team and I were constantly invited by large companies to apply for their projects, and almost always, we were the ones to get the job. 

Why? Because the application was a mere formality. With the risk of coming across as arrogant: my subject matter expertise and reputation already sold them on my candidacy. Prospects were coming to me, not the other way around.

Related article: I never had to sell, persuade or  negotiate

3. Social proof comes third

The claims that you make about your own expertise should always be backed up. The most efficient way to do so is via case studies and transformational recommendations.

As soon as I've completed a project, I always do two things (and I recommend you to do the same):

  1. Case Study: Write up a case study, focusing on a specific pain that I, as a consultant, resolved for my client (anonymous, of course)
  2. Reco: Ask for a recommendation, describing the client transformation (instead of 'being a nice person to work with') achieved during the project journey

Once you have your case studies and transformational recommendations, put a spotlight on them. Add them to your content, to your website, and your LinkedIn profile. Share, share, share. 

The buzz you are generating around your content as a Visible Authority will convert into leads and clients much more efficiently when you have solid social proof.

4. Relationships- and network-building comes last

Yes, this business growth strategy should come last. It should not be your ultimate goal but a natural result of a clearly defined (narrow) positioning, growing your visible authority and gathering transformational social proof. 

If you do the first three things right, you will barely have to spend any time on this because clients will be coming to you.

That’s exactly what happened in my case. There was no need for wining and dining (was an exception!), free brain-picking, sleazy outbound communication, but rather screening and qualifying organically incoming leads. Consistently. 

Related article: Why Marketing In Consulting Is All About Building Visibility And Trust

Conclusion: 8 Reasons why it's a high risk to solely rely on relationships to grow your consulting business

  1. You have very low control over your network
  2. There is inherent churn risk
  3. Your network’s demographics can get out of sync
  4. Your network most likely has too much noise
  5. You waste too much time trying to impress your contacts
  6. You don’t have a systemic approach to nurturing your leads
  7. You can’t collect data and make data-driven decisions
  8. You fail to build credentials and social proof in a methodical way

As a consultant, relying on relationships and networks to grow your business will result in a high-risk future in a world dominated by online marketing. Remember, your competitor is only one click away! 

Widening the green circle (see figure 2), gives you pillars that you can comfortably rely on, which will reinforce each other, provide you with a more constant stream of work and consultancy growth opportunities, and will automatically strengthen your network and relationships. 

Ordinary consultants do networking (and wine & dine).
Authorities earn their network (and share their expertise).

Related article: You Risk To Fail As A Consultant Saying Yes To Every New Opportunity

Interested in receiving all my learnings to become a better consultant? No spam, no BS. Pure teaching! Subscribe to my newsletter.


Interested in learning the behind-the-scenes strategies and powerful tactics that I've used to launch and grow my own consulting business? Have a look at my workshops page!


Share this article on