Consultancies Will Always Have a Time Problem Until They Do This
This article was last updated on 19 January 2023.
In my conversations with consulting leaders, I always urge them to re-evaluate the way they think about marketing. It’s not something that consulting leaders and their teams get to eventually, once they have the time. Because let’s be honest, that day rarely comes.
Yet, when it comes to business development and business growth, marketing has to be added to the priority list. Experts within a firm have to allocate a sufficient amount of time to it on a consistent basis. Sporadic marketing will fail to yield the types of results that would fuel business growth in a real, meaningful way.
Now, my personal formula for success is allocating at least 30% of work time towards marketing.
This is what I also encourage my clients to do. So today, I’ll be breaking down the specific time strategy techniques that will help consulting leaders and their teams free up 30% of their time and allocate it towards marketing – towards strategically growing the reputational footprint of their firm as a subject matter expert and then monetizing on that visibility.
Consultancies first must shift their perspective and mindset
Here’s the deal. I only work 4 days a week. Thursday is my cycling day.
Protecting my freedom and my mental health is the foundation of my business model, and that’s what I invite consulting leaders to reflect on too.
I meditate almost every day. I got a burnout in 1998, stayed in intensive care. Totally overwhelmed. Ever since then I changed my life.
Working at a consulting firm can be an exciting and rewarding career. It was and still is for me. Unfortunately, I encounter too many firms whose consultants and senior leaders feel overwhelmed, overburdened, and overworked. Over-servicing and under-charging their clients. They struggle with a work-life balance, they are scared of missing out on opportunities, keep all the options open, love variety at the expense of depth, and don’t see consistent business growth as a result.
Consultancies that – however intentionally or unintentionally – created such culture should re-evaluate their approach to how they work with their clients and approach business development.
All major businesses in all major industries are suffering from all time complexity in combination with critical lack of the required internal expertise. We are living in times of golden opportunities in consulting for those who know how to take advantage of it.
The recipe I have been using and which I am teaching my consulting clients:
- Radical focus on a single (vertical) subject domain (but with broad contextual business understanding) and become the go-to expert firm/practice;
- Upstream consulting value proposition (strategic advisory, no downstream hamster-wheel-like client ‘activities’);
- Productized (or packaged) services at high-end pricing (because of delivering high-end value, because the firm is THE expert, because of its radical focus).
So, before consultancies start tackling any business problems – time management in this instance – I urge their leaders to adopt the right mindset.
The cause of the time problem in consulting
Here is the number one root cause of the lack of time for marketing. It’s something I had never experienced myself, but I’ve observed countless firms face:
The lack of focus!
I don’t mean lacking the attention span. I am talking about the lack of a narrowly defined positioning.
When everyone is the target market of a consultancy, its consultants and leaders will never have the time. They will continue to say yes to all incoming opportunities, which will constantly keep them in the project execution mode, which will leave them no time for marketing.
No time for marketing means no business growth, which, in turn, puts firms in the survival mode – they feel a lot of uncertainty and risk, and they say, yes, they keep saying yes to almost everything, to protect their income. These firms find themselves in a vicious loop.
So it's all about narrowing down the focus and focusing on the audience that a firm can really target for its marketing activities.
Recommended reading: To Succeed As A Consultancy, Get Rid Of The Scarcity Mindset
Why marketing to a narrow audience is the only way to maximize the ROI
A common frustration many consulting leaders share with me in our conversations is that their teams sends proposals to prospects who promise to get back to them but don’t. The consultants in their firms/practices end up sending one reminder after another, wondering if, perhaps, they should offer a discount. This is a downward spiral. These firms' positioning is not offering a highly targeted, solution-specific transformative promise, meaning their prospects don’t feel like they are missing out on anything by not hiring them.
It’s also extremely difficult to get meaningful recommendations and referrals from clients, which leads to diminishing self-confidence and increasing hesitation.
Marketing only works when applied to a specific audience, specific problem, and specific solution. And if consultancies are not offering this to their audience, then nobody really cares.
The general jack-of-all-trades approach will not work on any level of marketing:
- Google’s E-A-T algorithm will not bring up the firm's website and profile because it lacks subject authoritativeness.
- Word of mouth doesn't work because people don't know what to recommend and how to recommend this firm.
- This consultancy's website and the LinkedIn profile of its consultants will not help as both cover too many things.
- The case studies and content published by the consultancy will not work because they are not persuasive enough simply because they do not have a single problem area that they show the firm excel at solving.
Furthermore, much of marketing in consulting is about early disqualification, about filtering out the wrong audience. The earlier firms disqualify their prospects, the earlier they can save time. It's a big, big time saver and people underestimate it.
Recommended reading: Shaping Your Consultancy’s Thought Leadership To Accelerate Growth
"But Luk, we have a marketing team!"
Yes, most consultancies I work with have a marketing team – or at least one dedicated marketing person. So consulting leaders and their teams feel no obligation or need to be involved in marketing.
That's a big mistake.
Consulting growth is determined by the level of domain expertise and trust a firm can build. Marketers can’t achieve this without significant contributions from senior consultants. Marketers simply do not have the same level and depth of expertise as the consultants and consulting leaders to deliver the expertise-driven educational content that delivers results. And why would they? Their area of expertise lies in setting up campaigns, building automations to capture leads, creating landing pages, optimizing content for keywords, creating brand-consistent visual collaterals, running ads, repurposing content, tracking metrics and identifying strategies, etc.
In the new consulting world, you no longer have a choice: you will need to develop and share the best possible educational content consistently. If you don’t, you’ll belong to the loser's camp sooner or later. Seriously. Solo consultant, a boutique consultancy, or a big consultancy firm? There’s no difference! It’s the buyer, stupid.
In consultancies, marketers are not there to outsource marketing efforts to. They are there to support and amplify these efforts!
Embarking on the fixability journey
Not having enough time to do marketing as a consulting leader or a consultant within a practice is a fixable issue. I recommend to start with fixing the issue of focus. Once a firm makes the active decision of narrowing down its focus, it will automatically start fixing the time management problem.
I’ve witnessed this with every single consultancy I’ve worked with in the past couple of years who had the problem of being a generalist.
I call it the fixability journey.
Most consultancies start the process backward (the red arrow). They think they need to fix their productivity without fixing their business approach, so they do agenda management, read up on time management techniques, etc. However, these systems don’t last for very long, and sooner or later the chaos once again takes over.
Productivity starts with the complete re-organization of the business model. It starts with narrowing down the focus. Then, it's about shift into upstream work and packaging the services. Only then, firms can increase their productivity and free up their consultants' time on a consistent basis for their marketing needs.
But it all starts at the top, with deep commitment, which is a mindset issue. There are four underlying reasons for the fear of commitment:
- Fear of missing out (FOMO) - consulting leaders thinking they have to say yes to every opportunity
- Lack of self-confidence - believing they haven’t yet arrived at a certain level of expertise, which, in turn, makes them afraid of moving upstream and working with C-level executives within organizations
- Ego - thinking that saying no to incoming requests somehow makes them look less competent
- Fear of regret - similar in a way to FOMO - worrying that by committing to a single option they'll come to regret it down the line
Embracing the beauty of commitment
As just discussed, the failure to commit often stems from a variety of fears, of fears that things will get worse once the commitment is made. However, when it comes to business development in consulting, in reality, it’s the opposite.
Getting recognition for expertise is really an amazing thing. Show me a consulting firm that wouldn't want to get calls from people from around the world asking it to advise their senior executives, provide a quote for a transformational project, to speak at global (virtual) events?
Commitment is an opportunity to learn so many things that people in other firms never learn within a specific area of expertise, to create the level of expertise depth that others will find almost impossible to compete against.
Narrow focus in consulting is the path to repetition of work. Repetition of work is the path to deeper expertise, top-of-mind authority, and more demand for the expertise. Ultimately, it sets the revenue and margin machine in motion. A tried-and-tested concept.
Doing less to grow
It is counter-intuitive to do less to grow. And, of course, it takes time. However, reducing the amount of work that consultants and leaders do requires having criteria for evaluating tasks and incoming requests against.
I urge consultancies to start working only on projects that align 100% with their focus and positioning. This frees up the time needed to further deepen the knowledge, work on the marketing messaging, create expertise-driven educational content for a niche audience, and grow the reputational footprint.
Step by step, such firms will be able to charge more and more for their work because their contribution to their client's pain resolution increases. They don’t have to take up as much work anymore, allowing them to become even more selective - or hire more people. Either way, business development is yielding results because these firms are actively choosing to do less.
The key is in repetition and pattern recognition – the backbone of expertise. When a firm narrows down its focus and its consultants start repeatedly doing one thing all the time, they get better and better. They start noticing patterns, seeing the bigger picture. The firm's solution evolves from implementation type to advisory/diagnostic type.
Business development efforts in consulting will always fall short if senior leadership and individual consultants on the team don’t dedicate time on a regular basis to marketing the firm's expertise. And consultancies will not be able to find that time unless they re-frame their audience and approach to client work. Not only that, but their marketing message will fall on deaf ears if it’s targeting too general of an audience.
I strongly discourage consultancies from starting their productivity journey backward. Whichever system that comes out of it way will fail. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next month, but it will come down crashing.
Instead, consultancies – and that means their top leaders – need to get over the fear of commitment and realize the beautiful potential it holds.
Commitment will help consulting leaders see their priorities more clearly. They will automatically cut out the noise and become insanely protective of their time. And this mindset will inevitably trickle to the rest of the team.
Recommended reading: Positioning in Consulting Is an Exercise in Irrelevance and Here’s Why
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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.