Episode 104: Creating Craveable Consulting Client Experiences—with Deb Zahn
Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I'm going to dig into a topic today that is going to help you get more business and build a sustainable and profitable consulting business. It happens to be something that is 100% in your control. And that's really rare when you have a consulting business. A lot of times you're really dependent on things that are happening in your market, things that you're depending on your client about. But this is something 100% in your control and that if you do this right, you're going to get more business. You're going to get more repeat business. You're going to get more referred business. That's going to help you be able to build the consulting business you've always wanted and ultimately have the life that you're dreaming of. Let's dig into this because I'm super excited about this topic.
I will tell you that this is something that I do that's probably one of the main reasons that I get so much business. I don't do it perfectly, but I do it really well. I do it enough that it attracts clients to me and it keeps clients working with me.
What the heck is that? It is actually cultivating a beautiful, wonderful, pleasurable experience when you engage with prospective clients and clients. Now if you're a good person, like you're a nice person, I could see where you'd think, “Well, of course it's going to be a good experience.” But then you don't pay necessarily attention to it, and that's where you can run into problems. We're going to talk about what some of those are. We're going to talk about the basics that you absolutely have to get right. The only way you're going to get them right is if you have the systems in place and if you prepare well enough to make sure it's going to go exactly the way you want it to go and it's going to cultivate the experience that you want them to have.
We're going to talk about how you can bring your own special sauce, your own X-Factor to the mix when it comes to client experience that is going to make you even more attractive to clients. And it's going to make you more magnetic within your market. The first thing you have to understand is that for clients, when they think about value, they obviously think about whether or not you can help them achieve the results that they want to achieve, right? That's a no brainer. They have to have faith and believe you when you tell them that you can actually get them the outcomes that they want, but they also are hiring people. They're not just hiring a robot who can achieve things. They're hiring a person or they're hiring people. They want to know that they're actually going to like the experience with you. They want to know that you're the type of person that they want to have by their side while they're trying to achieve whatever it is that they want to achieve.
Here's the key principle. You've heard me say this a bunch of times and I'm going to keep saying it because it's so important, which is every encounter that a prospective client or client has with you tells them what it's going to be like to work with you. Everything you do, every touch point, every time they see something that you've put on social media, every time you reach out to them, every time you follow up with them...all of those things are signaling to them what it's like to work with you. If they like it, they're going to want to work with you. If they don't like it, they may not work with you or they may not work with you more than once. That's why this is absolutely so important. There's the basics, which I shouldn't have to say, but I have to say because I've seen poor examples too many times.
The basic is you have to be a good person. You have to be a nice person. You have to be respectful. You can't be rude. You do want to show that you know your stuff, but you don't want to come across as arrogant. You want to be someone where they're like, “Yeah, I could actually spend a bunch of time with that person, and I would actually enjoy it.” Again, I should not have to say this, but I have to because as I said, I've seen it too many times. I have been in plenty of engagements where I've gone in with a team or I've heard from clients about what their last encounter with a consultant was like, and it was cringe-worthy. It was horrible because often what you see is you'll see consultants come in who believe that they know everything. They know the right way to do it and they treat the client sometimes like they think they're idiots. Clients, as you can imagine, can't stand that.
Or they will act as if the client has never done anything right or never done anything to try and solve the problem in front of them or achieve whatever their aspiration is. And they're going to come in with all the answers and they're going to boss them around. Clients hate that. If you do that, even if they've already hired you, you're not likely going to get hired again. Or if you pull that when you're actually trying to get consulting business from them, it's not going to go well.
I've seen egregious examples of this. I'm going to give you one example. I'm not going to say who did it, but I'm going to give you an example. I was in a meeting with a client and there was another consultant in the room who didn't work with me. I didn't work with them. They worked for another firm.
The CEO was a woman. The other consultant was a man. This was important for what the story is. At one point during the meeting, he looked over and he said, "Oh, shhhh." He shushed her (the CEO) and then kept calling her “dear” and kept talking down to her. You could tell it was natural for him, like breathing. It was something that he did all the time. It was unbelievable. Actually, it was so bad that I took him aside when I saw him do it after the meeting. I said, “That is completely unacceptable. She is the CEO of a large corporation. She is extremely well-accomplished. But even if she wasn't, that's not how you talk to clients. It's certainly not how you talk to female clients. You're going to need to keep that in check.” I'm that person. I considered it a gift to him, and I'm like, all right, hopefully you'll become a better person. Not convinced, but hopefully you become a better person. That's an outrageous version I saw. He actually tried to, at another point, he called me “sweetie,” which was a mistake on his part because I just shot back, “All right. Thanks, pumpkin.” He never did it again.
That's the type of stuff that a client may put up with for a little bit. Hopefully they don't, but it's going to leave a really bad taste in their mouth. Unfortunately, that taste is not just going to stay in their mouth because they're going to open their mouth and they're going to tell other people about it.
Basically, just be a good person. Be a pleasant person to be around. Be respectful. That's like the lowest bar that you have to achieve. Again, if you're listening to this podcast, I'm going to assume that you care about being a really good consultant, so that probably doesn't apply to you. But you have to keep it in mind.
Beyond that, what you mainly want to do is you want to cultivate a friction- and frustration-free experience, right? You want to reduce friction, which means you want to reduce anything that makes it difficult for the client to do what you want them to do. That's big and small. If you want them to do something really important related to what you're working with them on, or you wanted them to get a contract back to you, that's sort of big stuff. But even little stuff like scheduling a meeting. You want it as easy as possible for them to do what you want them to do. Then you just want there to be no frustration on their part.
I'm going to give some examples of this, but I want to say something. I've actually heard a couple times when I was a consultant, which, of course, I still am. I was a consultant working with some new clients. Twice this has happened to me where my main point of contact said, "You're the first consultant I've ever worked with," which was surprising because one of them was certainly this really big organization and he'd never worked with a consultant before. He said, "I don't really know what it's like, but I've heard the horror stories." I said, "Look, let me tell you what my version is. My version is that the relationship you have with me should be the easiest relationship you have with anybody in your entire life." He just got this huge smile across his face. I've actually, again, said that twice to a client who'd never worked with a consultant before. He said, "Well, that just sounds great." I said, "Yeah, that's what it's supposed to be like. If it's not that way, then you're working with the wrong consultant. But when you work with me, that's what it's going to be like." As we've worked together now many times, he said, "Wow, that is actually exactly what it's like." I say, "Good because you have enough hard relationships in your life. In your personal life, you probably have some. In your work life, you may have some. I should be the easiest relationship you have."
That's what you want to head towards. No friction, no frustration. You are the best person that they're engaging with on a regular basis. That's the basis of being able to do this.
Let me give you some very concrete examples for that. First of all, everything has to be oriented to them. It's about what they want. It's about what they hope to achieve. It's about the problems that they're trying to solve. It's not about you. That's a really common mistake that a lot of consultants make, particularly when they're first engaging with a prospective client. They want to show, very reasonably, that they know their stuff and they're smart. And they have this great expertise and they have this great experience. But the problem is you go in and all you do is talk about yourself and you don't orient the majority of the conversation towards them.
In fact, all of it. Because even when you introduce yourself, you want to introduce yourself in a way that demonstrates that you understand who they are and what they care about. If you don't do that, they're going to walk out and think, "Wow, they didn't even ask me any questions. They didn't even seem to get who I am. All they did was talk about themselves." Clients, by the way, say that because I've heard them say it to me where they're like, "Well, this was refreshing. You actually cared about us." That shouldn't be refreshing. That should be common practice. That's sort of a basic thing that you want to do at every step of the process. Show them that you care about them and you are oriented towards them. If you do that, if that's all you do, you will differentiate yourself from other consultants in a huge way. Because unfortunately, some of the horror stories, and I gave some at the beginning are absolutely true, are just by neglect.
Sometimes a lot of consultants just don't do it because they don't think through, “How do I want to present myself? How do I want to engage with a client when I'm talking with them about a prospective client?” If you do that alone, you're going to be ahead of the game, right? That's 100% in your control. Those are about decisions you make and behaviors that you actually do when you're in front of a prospective client or a client.
The other thing is the low friction part, right? Anything you want them to know, anything you want them to do should be clear and easy. For example, if you want to show that you understand what their goals are, you understand what their problems are, you want to be able to say that back to them clearly. You want to make sure that it's in the proposal that you send to them. You want to make sure that it's in any conversation you have and you give them that you are constantly reminding them, "I get it. This is where we're heading towards. And this is what we're trying to achieve."
That's something that you can do throughout the entire process. It's not just something when you're in the first discovery meeting with them. It's not just something that you put into the proposal or you put into the contract. It's something that is an ongoing theme when you're engaging with them, and that brings them that clarity that you get it and you know where you're trying to head.
You also, if you want them to do something, you have to have a clear call to action. You have to have clear instructions. If you're engaging with a prospective client for the first time and you want to schedule with them, say that. Say, "Let's have a meeting and let's schedule a meeting." I've seen, even when I was on the other side, when I was a client and not a consultant where they'll say things like, "Well, let's catch up." That's too vague. I don't know what that means. I think it means you want to meet with me, but what I really want to know is what is it that you're asking me to do? Because I have to use my executive function as a client over and over and over again throughout the day. Just tell me what you want. If you have a website and what you really want to do is you want people to click a button and be able to schedule a call with you. That's really how you have decided you're going to get a bulk of business from people who are going to visit your website. Make it super clear. Big, bold button. It should be anywhere they look on the website so that they don't have to do any extra work to figure out that that's what you want them to do and to easily be able to do that. If you want them to sign a contract, that should be completely clear and easy. That that's what you're asking them to do.
Again, this seems like basic stuff, but this is where if you're in a hurry and you're just sending something, or you're just trying to get something off of your task list and you don't stop and think, “What makes this easy for them to do what I want them to do?” And you don't actually employ that, employ some method for doing that, then you are likely going to default to what makes it easy for you. That's where you can get into a situation where the client is like, "Why is this so hard?" Right. Easy, easy, easy, easy.
For example, I was talking with someone recently that I coach. She had reached out to people in her network and asked them to introduce her to folks that are prospective clients. They did that and it was great. By the way, she made it really easy for them. She used one of my templates, which is on my website. Click Start Here and you can get that template for free. It's the whole sequence of how you get your network to connect you with people in their network who might be clients.
They did that. She made it super easy for them. Now this next step was to try and get a meeting with the people that her folks in her network connected her with. She asked me, "What's the best way to do that?" I said, "You want to make it super clear, and you want to make it super easy." They don't need to hear again how fabulous you are. They don't need to look at any more links that demonstrate how fabulous you are. Make it super easy to schedule a meeting with you. All you do, remind them who connected you. That's going to raise it in their level of importance because they're going to think, "Oh, OK, it's that person, and I care about that person." Then say, "Thank you so much for agreeing to have a meeting with me. Here's a link to schedule the meeting." That's it.
Super sweet and short. It's easy for them to take the follow-up action that you want them to take. Scheduling by the way is one of the easiest things that you can do to make it easy for someone to take the follow-up action. We have all lived through, right, the back and forth of, "Oh, can you do next Tuesday?" "Oh, that doesn't work. OK. How about Thursday? And I can do it after 2:00 PM but not before this time." It's all of that back and forth. It drives everybody crazy. I mean, let's admit it, nobody likes that. What you often will have happen is you will have lost a follow-up, which is basically, maybe they're going to respond once. Maybe they're going to respond three times, but if it hasn't been sorted out by that time, or they don't have a scheduler they can send you to, they may not respond. Not because they don't care and not because they don't want to meet with you, but simply because it is too difficult to bring that to conclusion and they are busy, busy people. They have other things that they have to focus on.
What I suggest for all consultants is that you use a scheduling system and that scheduling system means that all you have to do is provide them with a link and they can find a time that works for them and they can easily schedule it. I will tell you, when I implemented that system because I didn't do that for most of the, probably the first, what was it? Nine years that I was a consultant, I didn't do that. It was actually recently that I put that in place and my clients like it so much. My prospective clients like it so much that they comment on it all the time. They'll say, "Well, that was easy. Well, that was quick." What they actually will experience, it's almost like you've given them back time in their day because they know what it typically is. What it typically is, is it takes far more time to do it. They will automatically feel good things about you because it was so easy. That's kind of a no brainer.
That's an easy thing that you can do to make them have a really good experience and to show them that working with you is all value and no fuss. That's really the mantra you want. All value, no fuss. The other thing that you can do, and this is a basic thing is you want to signal to the client that when they work with you, you are so oriented on them and you are so eager to help them that you're going to do everything quickly. I don't mean like rush through things, but what I mean is that if you're going to get them a proposal, one, tell them when you're going to get them a proposal and then absolutely get it to them by that time. That should actually be pretty quickly.
When I first started consulting, there was just a really, really smart consultant that I knew. I mean, he was great and he was great at what he did. He was doing some outreach to some prospects and they basically blew him off. He was so upset because he was perfect for what they needed. I said, "What happened?" He said, "Well, they asked for a proposal." I said, "Did you send them one?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "How quickly did you send it?" He said, "Two weeks later." I'm like, "That would be what happened." Because unless you tell them, "Oh, I'm going to be on vacation. Can I get it to you by this date?" and they've agreed to it, most people will think that you've blown them off if it's taken that long, or they will completely forget that they had a conversation with you because too much has happened in that period of time. Getting it to them preferably within a couple of days. I would say no more than four days is the best way to do it. Same thing with a contract. If they're waiting for a contract, if they're waiting for anything, tell them when they're going to get it. Get it to them in that timeframe, and do it as quickly as you can. That gives you enough time to be thoughtful and give you enough time to do it correctly but doesn't have them wait because the longer you have them wait, the more their time and their brain is going to fill up with other things.
I'm going to admit to you, this is an area where I have not been perfect. I'm like, "Oh, that guy waited two weeks." Yeah, I've actually done this. I've actually done this where I waited too long. I don't give it to them when I say I'm going to give it to them. What I've had to learn how to do is to be really realistic about when I can get them something. What I used to do is to not think about that ahead of time. Then I'm in front of a prospective client or I'm in front of a client that's seeking some more assistance from me, and I try and think of it in the moment. Well, the problem is, is if I'm trying to think of it in the moment, I'm not looking at my calendar. I'm not thinking of what else I have on my plate, so I'll say something that's not realistic.
What I now do instead is before I have that conversation, I look at my calendar and I say, if all goes well (and I'm well-prepared for it all to go well) and they ask me for a proposal or they asked me for a contract, when reasonably can I get it back to them? I figure that out ahead of time so then in the moment I don't say something that's not going to happen. Anybody who knows me knows I'm not great at math. I'm not great at timing if I have to think of it on the fly. I have to prepare for those things. If you're like me, prepare for it ahead of time so you can actually give them something reasonable. If you can't or it's a surprise "Hey, get me something,” you can also say, "Tell you what, let me take a look at my schedule. I'm going to shoot you back an email or a text. I'll let you know when I can get this proposal to you." You don't actually promise anything that you can't deliver. That's part of that really frustration-free experience that you want to give them.
Now, the other thing is when you are meeting with them…I don't care if you've worked with them before, I don't care if they're a prospective client that you've never worked with before…you want the meeting that you have with them, that you have thought about ahead of time, and that you have prepared for ahead of time, you want it to be the best meeting that they can remember they've had in a while. Now the bar isn't terribly high in that regard because let's face it, a lot of meetings are really frustrating. We all know what those are like, especially all the Zoom meetings that we're still having where people are acting like it's the first time they've ever encountered Zoom. So the technology doesn't work and people are muted and all of that stuff. People have a lot of frustrating meetings.
You want the meeting that they have with you to be the best one that they can remember. That's going to leave an impression on them because what it's going to tell them is, "Wow, gosh, that'd be nice. That'd be nice to have worked with this person if this is what my meetings are going to be like." I actually recently worked with a client where at the end of it, we were doing the follow-up. We were doing the wrap up. It was a group of clients. One of them said, "Deb, can you just run all of our meetings?" He sort of meant it in jest. I think part of him meant it seriously. That's because I really deliberately thought about what all of my meetings were going to be like and how I was going to cultivate a good experience and what I would do and say in order for that to actually happen.
Then anything that you do that's after the engagement…so after a contract ends, you want to make sure that you know that it's still important for you to cultivate a good experience with them. It's an experience in that regard that shows that you care about them and you care about them even if they are not paying you. You want to think about them. You want to look for opportunities for them. You want to look for threats for them. You want to be able to send them things that are valuable even when you're not trying to seek business from them. If you do that, you are going to really stand out among other consultants. These are things that are just the basics, right? These are things that everybody should be doing, but a lot of folks aren't. If you do it, like I said, you're really going to stand out. But then you want to think beyond the basics and you want to think about what your values are and what your brand is as a consultant.
Then how does that translate into the experience that you want them to have? I'm going to give an example from my branding and from my world, which is I personally think it's really important for me to always show integrity as a consultant. Part of having integrity to me means that I am not trying to just get money from my clients. I'm truly trying to help them, and I'm not trying to create any dependencies. I'm not trying to take money from them to do things that they should be doing. If there's things that they have to do on a regular basis, I don't want them to become dependent on me to do that. I want to help them develop the capacity. I want to help them develop the capabilities so that they can do it. They can bring me in when it's truly me they need, they need my expertise, they need to do something that they don't have the bandwidth to do, whatever it is. I very deliberately don't do that.
I show my clients that. I say it and I show it. I will tell you, that has created some of the best relationships that I have with clients. It is one of the reasons that they come back to me over and over again, including when they want to depend on me. They want to say, "Deb, I don't want to deal with this. Just do this. Can you just do this?" I will say, "Look, I will do this now, but ultimately, you know, and we're going to talk about it, that it is in your best interest to not continually pay for this. But I'll help you figure out what that's going to look like." They love it. They absolutely love it. I did this recently where I was talking with a client, a client that I just adore, that I've worked with for a long time. We're going to be doing some strategic planning.
Myself and another colleague had come up with this idea for essentially stress testing some of the objectives you're trying to achieve in a strategic plan, and to make sure that ultimately it gets implemented because implementation is often where strategic plans fail. I don't want to be part of delivering something that doesn't get implemented and ultimately fails. We came up with some ideas. By looking at the research and coming up with ideas that we garnered from other areas to say, OK, how can we solve that? Now, what I could do is I could just say, all right, I'm just going to sell it for this amount every single time. What I said to her is that, "Look, you've got somebody who's in charge of project management and in charge of this area within your organization. Let's have him work with us. By working with us, he's going to learn how to do this. He's going to be able to think about it and adapt it so that it works best for you folks. Then you don't have to pay for it every time because really, you should do this anytime you're trying to achieve something major within your organization. This should be a normal thing that you're doing, and you don't want to have to pay a consultant to do it every time." This in no way surprised her because I've done it many times with her, but she got this huge smile on her face. She's like, "Deb, this is why I love you because you're not just trying to take money out of our pocket. You really care about us." That is core to my values. It's core to my values as a person, so it translates into my consulting work. It's absolutely essential to my brand. I make sure that I cultivate that as an essential part of the experience that I want my clients to have. That's an example.
You're going to have your own version of that but show your clients that you always care more about them than you do about putting money in your pocket. However, you choose to show them that will be a huge differentiator. Here's the kicker. It will actually put money in your pocket, not because you're being manipulative, and you don't mean it. You have to mean it. You have to not fake it. They are going to look at you in a different way than they look at other consultants. It is going to make them want to work with you because that's such a great experience.
These are just some examples of things that you can do to cultivate a fabulous experience when you're engaging with prospective clients for the first time, or you're working with clients over time. This is going to be critical to you building the business you ultimately want to build. Hopefully that was helpful. I'll have a great guest on next week.
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