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I have hosted several virtual workshops for consultants in 2021 already. Each time we got into a lively discussion about - what I call - the toxic ‘Default Consultancy Model’: working crazy hours, responding to a hundred emails from your client’s team every day, (trying to) manage scope creep, chasing payments, spending hours and days preparing proposals, and so on.
Having worked with and talked to hundreds of consultants – and being one myself – I learned that most of the consulting work falls into one of the two categories:
Thank you to the awesome authors for the inspiration to name the categories: David C. Baker (upstream/downstream) and Jonathan Stark (altitude of involvement).
Today, I’d like to talk about transitioning from the former category (downstream - low altitude) into the latter (upstream - high altitude).
It’s a topic that I cover extensively in my workshops and in conversations with clients. But it’s too important to keep in a closed circle. This is something that EVERY consultant needs to internalize.
I always ask the participants of my workshops and my clients to describe their most common ‘working model’, starting from the client request. With very few exceptions, they always land with explaining to me the ‘downstream’ type of process, which involves the following prototypical pain points:
Here’s a quick illustration of this tedious process:
Figure 1: The Default, Toxic Consulting Model
I can feel your stomach turning upside down, right? I’ve been there in my early consulting years, I know how bad it feels.
And I haven’t even talked about all the other project proceedings and the hundred emails with various team members (the ultimate scope creep). This type of downstream work will eat up most of the time you’d need to develop your consulting business (big or small). It’s the Vicious Loop To Hell…
There are all sorts of things you conventionally do as a consultant that might give you a comfortable feeling. But I got to tell you, in a world where everybody is one click away, you are not safe anymore. (Seth Godin)
I encourage my clients – fellow consultants – to transition from the downstream – low-altitude consultancy model to the transformative, high-altitude model. I’ve done that and you can do it too.
Figure 2: Moving from downstream to upstream, from low impact to high impact (desktop view recommended)
Switching to an upstream ‘client transformation’ consulting approach is THE #1 pillar of success in consulting – the type of success where you are in control of your time, when you comfortably and organically grow your business, when you pick which projects you work on (and say NO to any project outside of your focus zone), where your marketing is inbound, where (in a consultancy firm or boutique) you can be the door opener (the Troyan Horse). Your team can do the revenue-building implementation work.
It’s what happened to me all those years: clients came to me and I didn’t have to sell, negotiate or persuade at all.
As a subject matter expert, you should aim to polish your skills in a narrow field to the extent where you can offer high-level advisory and diagnostic work. You are not concerned with day-to-day execution and management.
Your job, as an authority, is to look at the status quo of your client and present this client with a roadmap that will take the organization from its current pain-ridden state to the ‘promised land’.
This roadmap IS the client transformation that you are selling. That’s the transformational value that you are offering. It’s this type of work that expert consultants get paid at a premium.
It’s this kind of work that allowed me to work far fewer hours and invest time in my business development (approx. 25-30%).
I am not going to lie: switching gears is not going to be easy. Especially not within an existing client. I keep advising my consulting clients to upgrade their altitude with new clients, unless you’d feel extremely comfortable ‘selling’ a new, upstream, higher-priced service to an existing client. Not easy though.
If you are considering transforming your offering from execution/implementation, contractor-type of work to strategic/diagnostic advisory type of offering, you have a mountain to climb.
However, getting to a place where clients come to you, your consulting time is remunerated generously, and you finally manage to strike that balance between completing transformational client work and dedicating a sufficient amount of time to growing your consulting business without losing your mind – these are the things worth climbing that mountain for.
Below is an illustration that I refer to as ‘The Authority Grid’.
Figure 3: The Authority Grid (desktop view recommended)
Probably the easiest way to explain the grid is by explaining my own evolution as a consultant, starting back in 2007 as a solo consultant first, founding iNostix in 2008 and becoming a small consultancy next and ending up in 2016 being a part of large consultancy firm Deloitte, post-acquisition. So, I ‘travelled’ from the left column to the right column.
Without going into too much detail, here are the key messages I’d like to share with you:
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')
If you keep your options open as a generalist consultant or consultancy (because you are afraid of losing business) and you don’t focus your consulting work on solving a specific (expensive) problem from a specific (minimal viable) audience in a specific (packaged) way, you will most likely get stuck in the ‘default consulting model’ forever.
Think about that. Switching models may be difficult, but, in relative terms, it’s short-term pain. Getting stuck in the default model will haunt you for the rest of your consulting career.
As you devise your transition plan, think of these questions as mileposts – a way to know if you’re on the right track and how far you are from reaching your destination:
So, to keep a long story short: I got rid of my downstream, non-authoritative positioning as a consultant (low altitude of involvement) and you should stop this way of working (and thinking) too:
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Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers and I’m guiding consultants through the journey of growing their business by helping them transform into visible authorities. 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.
The Visible Authority is a brand of:
Luk Smeyers BVBA
Offices in Leuven (BE) and Munich (DE)