Episode 96: Cultivating Client Experience and Disrupting Norms—with Noah Fleming

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I brought on a guest today for us to hit two absolutely essential topics in order for you to win more clients but also delight your clients more so that they want to continue to work with you. And know when it's time to actually disrupt the norms within your industry or the norms within your business, so that you can, again, get more clients and add more value when you're doing work. And what we're going to talk about is things that you can apply to your consulting business. Things you can also help your clients with. And I brought on a fantastic guest, Noah Fleming, who is a management consultant. He also sometimes helps other consultants figure out how to build their business too. But he just offers this fantastic advice about how he does this, both in his business and with clients. And the fantastic results he gets because of it. So let's get started.

I want to welcome to my show today, Noah Fleming. Noah, welcome to the show.

Noah Fleming: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

Deb Zahn: So let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

Noah Fleming: So I am a management consultant. I work primarily with mid-market privately-held companies, but a number of my clients have been larger. The local organizations. Publicly traded firms. And I also work with consultants. I was trained and coached by Alan Weiss. I'm sure many of your listeners know who that is. So I worked with Alan directly for probably about 10 years. I'm also one of only 40 people that's certified as a master mentor for people that are coming into his world. Looking for somebody to work with. So I consult day-to-day. I speak. I write books. But I also do a little bit of that as well, which is great.

Deb Zahn: That's great. So we're actually in this podcast going to look through and talk through two lenses. One is sort of what consultants can do for their consulting business. But also what they can do to help their clients because everything we're going to talk about relates to both sides of that equation.

I found you because you do these absolutely wonderful videos that I saw on Instagram. And one of the things that jumped out at me was something related to a client or customer experience, which I think makes or breaks a consulting business for sure. And makes or breaks the business of a lot of the folks that I work with. So let's delve into that. You have this fantastic MMP principle that applies to consultants. Say a little bit about what that is and why that matters so much.

Noah Fleming: Sure. And first of all, I'm thrilled you found me on Instagram. So that was a...I've had a personal profile on Instagram for years. But I decided to create more of a business-related profile where I could share some of this. So that's really great. Yeah, I think it takes me back to where my work started, which was really when I was starting out as a consultant. To me that meant anybody and everybody that would write me a check to help them with something. And so I didn't even really understand what it meant to be a consultant at that point. I just knew that there were people that needed help, and I believed I could help them. I was a marketing graduate, and I always wanted to work on my own. And so that led me to a number of small businesses. And what I realized very early on was that everyone is focused on getting the new customer. We all are. I mean, new customers and customers in general are the lifeblood of any business and you need them. But hardly anybody is focused on keeping them.

And so that became kind of the core of my work. I've written three books on that specific topic. My first book was called Evergreen. But the MMP principle that you mentioned is really a simple concept. It's that everything you do should be meaningful, memorable, and personal. And if you want to stand out in today's world, if you can remember that, any time you're communicating. Any time you're creating an advertisement. Any time you're doing anything, really. Even a simple email. How is this going to be meaningful to the recipient? Is there something in here that's memorable? How can I make this more personal? So again, apply that to any message. Any email. Any copy. Whatever it is. That's truly a great key. And it's something that I use with my own business, but also with my clients and helping them rethink how they market and speak to their customers. How they engage them after the sale and keep them is remembering those three simple things. Is this meaningful? Is it memorable? And is it personal? And if you can do that, you're going to win.

Deb Zahn: And give an example of the best-case scenario. What would that look like?

Noah Fleming: Well, when I have clients that I'm working with in my consulting practice...let's say it's a $75 million company. I'm working with the president of the organization and he's the CEO. He's a third-generation family owner. So I get to know that person during the buying process. We have a relationship. There's trust there. And so over time I get to know things that are important and valuable to that person. And so it's very simple for me to have a touch point after the fact. By sending that person something of value. I mean, really simple, right? Just you can literally think about: What do my clients like? What are their interests? How could I in a while do something that's meaningful, memorable and personal? Personal might be a simple handwritten note or a simple postcard mailed to your client to let them know that you're enjoying working with them.

It might be...I used to work with a client in the funeral industry and...

Deb Zahn: This I’ve got to hear…

Noah Fleming: ...morbid industry. But one day I was reading The Wall Street Journal, and there was an article about this company that was testing new holographic technology in the funeral industry. Meaning that you could have a holograph of the person there, and they could be saying goodbye to everybody. And it took me two seconds to fire this over to my clients and say, "Hey, I was reading the paper this morning, and I saw this and I thought of you." So again, it's just a simple, personal touch point. Far too often, the companies that I'm working with, they forget about those existing customers. And just adding in these touch points, adding in these regular communications with something that's meaningful and memorable. It doesn't have to be expensive. It doesn't have to cost money. Just staying top of mind is so incredibly important.

Deb Zahn: It sounds suspiciously like you're in a relationship with a client and should value that.

Noah Fleming: Yeah. As crazy as that sounds for everything we've all learned about sales and marketing and building relationships, that's exactly right. You're in a relationship. And so treat it like one.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, that's wonderful. And I love the...I do this all the time. So if I see...and I just did this with a long term-client, which is what most of my clients are, long-term and repeat clients. And I saw something where they had an opportunity to get paid in a different way that would make their lives better. And three years ago we talked about this and were hoping something would happen. And I shot it off to her. And I said, “Did you see this?” And her answer was, "Oh, my goodness, no. I didn't see this." And she would have missed this big opportunity. Little things like that means so much when you're in a relationship with someone.

Noah Fleming: They really do. And I mean, some of these are more granular. Smaller levels, right? I'll be on an airplane—pre-pandemic—flipping through the magazine. And if I see something that I think one of my clients would value, I'll tear it out and I'll save it. And I'll send a picture over. Or I'll send it over. Now, when you have tens of thousands of clients, it becomes a little bit more difficult to scale. But you can scale it. And so I've helped my clients put in little things along the way that urge them, remind them and ping them in a way that, "Hey, I need to get in touch with this client, and I need to do something that matches that MMP principle."

Deb Zahn: Well, I think of the company Chewy. If you know them, it's where you can get pet food and whatnot. And I've heard now from about four different people that if their pet passes away and they tell Chewy that, Chewy sends them a condolence card and basically says, "Don't bother to return anything. Donate it to a local shelter." And talk about standing out in somebody's mind. And now they're telling everybody that.

Noah Fleming: It's beautiful. And it's a beautiful example. And Zappos was famous for all of these stories. The challenge becomes, again, thinking about it in ways that are the things you can actually do. You can afford them financially. It doesn't have to be expensive, right? So the Zappos way, the Chewy way might not be everybody's way. But think about a way you could do that. Do something similar that has that sort of level of impact is great. And the more that you can do the better, and again, I'm a believer that any business can do this.

I worked with a client that made these natural gas compressors. Essentially these are million-dollar plus machines. There's a huge buying cycle. Usually it was municipalities buying dozens of these things for entire towns and cities. And they asked this question, "How could we make this generic piece of machinery more meaningful?"

And what they did was they put a commemorative plaque on every one of these machines that mentioned the name of the engineer that signed off on it, the sales person that was involved. And this thing that they did eventually got back to one of the CEOs who was buying this and said, “My people are talking about this everywhere and nobody's ever done anything like this for us. What are you guys doing?” And it was like this $4 plaque that they put up. And so again, like your Chewy example. The cost. We often tend to think about the cost. What is this going to cost us upfront? But we forget to think about what is the long-term value of this, which is massive.

Deb Zahn: And I want to get back to the point that you made, which is so much emphasis on getting new clients and not enough emphasis on nurturing the relationships you already have from either existing or past clients. Talk about that in terms of the lifetime value of those clients and why that is so important, particularly when you're building a consulting business.

 

Noah Fleming: It's easier said than done, right? If I'm going to be perfectly honest here, I've had client relationships where I've dropped the ball. I've had projects that haven't gone as great as I thought they should. And probably relationships that should have been better. But these are things I try to embrace. And the thing that I like to say is we have gotten...we have all got so good at sales and marketing and lead gen. There are so many tools out there now. There are so many ways to be reaching new potential prospects. Well, anybody can get the first sale. We're all going to get that first sale once in a while. But the great businesses are thinking, how do I get that second, third and fourth sale? So, Alan Weiss, who I worked with talked about a similar concept where you said think about the fourth sale first, right?

Don't be thinking about getting that first sale. Think about the fourth sale from the get-go. Ask yourselves, "What can I do right now to set myself up for success that's going to get me there?" When somebody takes that initiative to say, "I want to work with you. I'm going to pay you. Here's your check. Let's go.” We need to treat that like gold and do what we can to keep that going. And that was how I approached the early days of my business. So when I said anybody that writes me a check, the second component to that was now that I've got somebody writing me a check, I never want that to stop. Right? And so what can I do to make sure that doesn't stop? And like I said, not every project has been perfect. But sometimes you have to go over the top.

So during the pandemic, I completely stopped looking for new clients and just didn't even bother, right. Stuff that came in the door was great. But I said, “I'm going to double down and purely focus on everybody that has already committed to me. I'm going to give them more than I've ever given them before. I'm going to give them undivided attention. I'm going to be there more than I should be.” And it's paid off because I didn't lose a client through the pandemic. We're still working together.

And now as things start to rebound, there's referrals. There are testimonials. There are all kinds of great value that comes from that. So a long-winded way of answering your question, but customer value to me is not just the dollars that you get from a client. There's so much other value there. Like I said, there are case studies. There are testimonials. There are referrals. There's word of mouth. So how can you maximize that? That's really what you want to be thinking about.

Deb Zahn: That's right. One of the reasons I love this principle so much is, and I've made all the same mistakes that you have. I've looked back and thought, "Wow, I didn't handle that the way I wanted to.” And again, you learn from it. But I love that you can make the experience of working with you also meaningful. Memorable. Personal. And often that is by doing things like if something shifts or changes or you see that the scope that you originally talked about is not going to get them to their outcome that they care most about. There are some consultants who will stick to the letter of whatever they put into the proposal or contract and that's it because the purpose is just getting that money for what you agreed to. As opposed to what it sounds like you did during the pandemic, which is how can I be most helpful to them in whatever condition and circumstance they're currently in?

Noah Fleming: Yeah. Well, again, everything I learned about consulting, I learned from my business coach. And Alan taught me about scope creep, which is where the client continues to creep, but then there's also scope seep. And so scope seep is when you are giving too much, more than was bargained for, and continuing to believe you need to over-deliver in some ways. So there is a fine balance there. And I think you need to...you know this, and I know this...you need to balance that for what it is.

An example of that. I had a client that paid me a hefty six figures for a project. And we spent six months spinning in circles. Not making any progress. And so there became a point where I said, "Look. I got to go." Right? “This project was supposed to be done." And I said, "Either we move now, or I have to go." Even though I had been paid this full amount and they didn't move.

So I left and for about three or four years, I beat myself up over that thinking, "Gosh, did I rip them off? Did I take their money? They didn't do anything." Well, then one day my phone rings and there they are again. It's the same person. And they said, "OK. Now we're ready to move." And I said, "Well, that ship has sailed." They said, "No, no, no. We want to pay you again. We want to start over." And so they paid me again and they became one of my best, most successful clients that I've ever worked with. And they recognized that they needed a mindset shift as well. They needed somebody that didn't just stick around and allow them to enable that behavior. Right? I said, "Look, I'm out of here." And it was really hard for me because again, I blamed myself for a long time. But I realized after the fact. I actually gave them the right advice. They needed that sort of wake-up call to move. And so, like I said, they became a great client and I love the story.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. It's a great story because sometimes the power of shock is actually really helpful to get movement to happen where it hasn't happened before.

Well, there's one other topic that you did a great video about that I wanted to talk about, which is how either in your own consulting business or when you're working with clients. Not just to stagnate within industry norms, but that, routinely, you have to take a look at those norms and make decisions about how you want to behave relative to them. So talk a little bit about your break things strategy.

Noah Fleming: It's one of my most favorite things. So rather than all the advice that everybody listening to this has already heard before, which is you need to take chances. You need to take risks. You need to not be afraid of failure. We've all heard that a million times. There's a systematic approach that I'll go through and I'll take my clients through. And with my clients, we'll probably do it every six to nine months. And I'll ask them to make a list of everything that's considered an industry norm in their industry. So manufacturers of conveyor belts, for example. That industry. There's a lot of industry norms, meaning the way that quotes are handled. The way that people request...People often send in a request for something. There's this engineering process. And then they got to do CAD drawings.

So they'll make a list of all these things that everyone else typically does, including them. And then we'll just pick one or two and we'll say, "OK. Now how can we break this? How can we flip it on its head? How can we try something new?" And so again, I'll do the same in my business. I'll look for things that I'm doing. Look for things that everyone else is doing. And ask, "How can we break this?"

And again, a lot of that I learned through my own business. For example, if everybody's emailing over proposals and everybody's sending proposals in that way, I'm going to FedEx them. I'm going to FedEx them on a beautiful letterhead. They're going to be FedExed overnight. And it's going to cost me $120 to do this. But I'm going to do that because it's different. It's not the way that everybody's doing it. And in that, I'm going to include a couple of copies of my books and a couple of copies of this workbook. And so it's just looking for things that you can break. And when you do that with your clients, it's really eye-opening. Not everything's going to work, right? But you tell them. This is the point. This is a process of innovation. It's looking at what's everyone else doing in our industry and how can we break it? And the key there, I think, is pick one thing at a time and test it. But find that one big thing that everybody else is doing and see how you can do it differently. It's really that simple.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And I love the notion of doing that in your own consulting business. Including, and it was funny…I think I was partly inspired because I knew I was talking to you today. Lots of consultants do strategic planning. Even though the majority of strategic plans fail. And yet we keep doing it. If there was a product that had a defect rate, that was essentially the same as strategic planning, it would be pulled off the market and it would be unprofitable. And yet it's quite profitable for consultants. That's a perfect thing to break.

Noah Fleming: It's a perfect example. And it's a perfect opportunity for you. For not you specifically, for people listening to this to stop doing it. Right? So just because the money's easy and just because everybody else is doing it, that's the perfect example to say to your client, "No. I can't do that because it doesn't work." Right? And "Well, why doesn't it work? This is what everybody does." “Well, because anybody can plan a strategy, right? A strategy is going to fail in our implementation of it. A strategy is going to fail once I've left and you don't do what you need to do.” And so we can always push back on those things. And in a way that adds value. We don't have to be combative. And it's easy to sound combative when you're doing…

 

Deb Zahn: ...Right. Right. Right. Or arrogant.

Noah Fleming: But there's a way to do it that truly adds value. And again, these are the things. The little tricks that I've learned over the years. So the best question that I've always learned is, "Well, why?" Right? So when somebody calls and says, "Noah, we really want you to come in and do this sales strategy session over three days in wherever, Mexico.” The question is, "Well, why is it three days?" Right? Why do you need me for three days? What we really want to know is what are their objectives and what are they trying to accomplish? And then it's our job as experts to guide them to that result. Not to let them dictate what they believe is the solution. What they leave as the answer. And that, again, learning that in my business was so, so critical.

So now I do a thing called a one day sales process. And the reason I offered this was because I kept working with clients and companies and trying to help them build a sales process. Trying to help them build these accountabilities. I started trying to do it with training because training seemed easy. And then I started doing it as more of a consulting thing. I'd come along and they were already involved in this process. I'd try and help them along. But, again, only having so much, I guess, skin in the game and the willingness and ability to help them. I'd see them stumble. Or they wouldn't make progress. They wouldn't make progress.

So, I said to myself, "What could I do? What could I do differently and help them get this result quickly?" I can do it in a day. Right? That's all I need is a day. And so I put a $25,000 price tag on this day, and it just launched before the pandemic. And I had done three of them between December and March of last year. And then of course the pandemic hit. And so now we're in the process of making this more of a virtual offering. But it's the same thing. It's looking at what your clients are doing. Looking at the things that they want to improve in. And just asking yourself, what's a more unique, better way that I can help them get to this result? Quicker. Faster. With a far better return on their investment. So that sounds like a lot of money at first. But if a company has spent six to eight months trying to do this and they haven't made any progress, they're willing to pay for it.

 

Deb Zahn: Absolutely. Well, and you're thinking about value in a more expansive way because the value is also their experience of doing it. So spending six to eight months doing something that has probably been torturous. And you don't believe that the outcome is actually going to be achieved is one of the things you can disrupt. And if you disrupt that, it's worth it to them.

Noah Fleming: Yeah. And I think that's why your strategic planning example is so valuable to your listeners and your audience. It's that, again, we tend to chase or accept the easy things. But I think there's so much more value to be given by us saying, "Well, hold on a minute here. Let me explain perhaps a better way of doing this." That, to me, signifies to a client or a prospective client, "Hey, wait a minute. There's something different about this person here. There's something different about their approach than everybody else that instantly shot us over a slide deck. That instantly had a proposal for us. This person actually wants to take the time and learn about our objectives and learn what we're really trying to accomplish. Not only that they're helping us define those objectives.” Right? And so that's where we can add so much more value. And again, the more value we offer the higher fees can be, which is great. And in some cases, we can have far less labor intensity as well, which is fabulous.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Maximum value without endless labor. Well, wish me luck because I'm actually putting in the first paragraph that most strategic planning efforts fail.

Noah Fleming: And I agree with you. So if you want me to back you up…

Deb Zahn: I'll tell them, "Trust me, give him a buzz. He'll tell you." So when you, and again, because you've helped other consultants. You've been helped yourself by Alan. What advice would you give to consultants who are starting off? Their first couple years. They're trying to build their business other than what we've talked about. Is there anything that you would say, "Look, absolutely do this."

Noah Fleming: Well, yeah. I would say there's a number of things. And I mean it's a long road to where I am right now. One, unbreakable trust in yourself. And you need to continue to build that self-esteem and build your self-confidence however you can. And a lot of the times that does require outside help. So it's a reason I've invested heavily in mastermind groups and being involved with the right colleagues and peers. Because it continues to help build that. So that's number one.

I think number two, again, is just like, we want our clients to invest in us. If you need to invest and get somebody else to help you, do that. So again, it's a reason I've had a coach and a business mentor for many years.

The next thing is continue to refine your approaches. Like I said, coming up with this one-day sales process. Looking at new things that you can do differently. You can do them in a better way. There's so many lessons and little things that I've learned there. Again, I just keep going back to your strategic planning example. It's such an easy way to set yourself apart.

And I think for the most part probably the single line, I would say, is just be yourself.

Deb Zahn: Yay!

Noah Fleming: So a lot of my clients say to me, "We love working with you because you're such a down to earth, easygoing Canadian guy.” And that's who I am. And so we're often fooled to believe we have to put out this profile or this picture of ourselves that's more salesy than it is. More glitzy and glamorous than it is. But if you can be yourself. Trust yourself. And help the client get what they want or get what they need, then you're going to be well on your way to building a great career here.

 

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. And that's also part of giving them a meaningful, memorable, and personal experience is, you're you. Nobody else can be you. That's who they want in the room with them or on the Zoom with them.

Noah Fleming: That's right. And I mean, that's the answer to the question. Look, we're talking to three or four other consultants. "Well, what makes you different?" “Well, what makes me different is that there is nobody else like me, right?” That's the answer that we should all be thinking about. There is nobody else like you, that can do what you do. And so if you can really embrace that and harness that again, that's how you carve out a career here as a consultant. And as a good one. And you're going to enjoy it. It's fun. I love what I do every day. It's just great to deal with clients. Talk to clients. And the moment that any of that changes, I'll probably do something else.

Deb Zahn: That's right. I totally agree with that.

Well, let me ask you one last question that I always ask everyone. And you have guitars hanging up. So I might know one of the answers, which is one of the other things about being a consultant and why we make choices that we make is for our overall lives. Not just what we're doing with work. So how do you bring balance to your life? Or however it is you define that so that you have the overall life that you want to have.

Noah Fleming: Well, yeah. So I don't, first of all, to me, we have a life, right? So there's life balance and work balance while I just believe we have a life. And so I do what I can to balance those accordingly. The most important thing in my life I can hear the little feet running around upstairs is those little kids that I have to feed. And then for me, again, it goes back to what I just said. If I stop having fun, it's time to do something else. And so those guitars you see hanging, I like to play. I like to tinker. But they also came from a client who's a long-term client. That manufacturer's guitars.

So it's just something cool and something fun. I love to fly fish. And so I'll do that to get some headspace. But again, I think I'm like everybody else. I'm just as addicted to this little phone and device as everybody else. And so I'm just constantly trying to find ways to find that balance. And I think as I get older, I turned 40 this year. But as I get older, I feel like I do get a little bit wiser and every project every day brings a little bit more. So that's what makes it fun.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And the 40s are wonderful. Just so you know as somebody who leapt into her 50s, you do actually get wiser. Just it's statistically probable that there's wisdom that comes along with it.

Well, Noah. Thank you so much for joining me on the show. There are so many gems flying around in this. If I were a new consultant, this would be tremendously helpful for me. So I really appreciate you sharing with us today.

Noah Fleming: Well, thank you for me. It was an absolute pleasure.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

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So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at craftofconsulting.com. Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.