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Episode 18: Build Your Client Base and Get Paid for Your Talent—with Libby Post

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to Episode 18 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. My guest today is Libby Post. She is the President of Communications Services, which is a boutique political communications firm, and they specialize in everything from advocacy and electoral politics to healthcare to libraries.

She has decades worth of experience that she's going to share with us, including how to build up a regular and repeating client base, how to make sure that you actually get paid for everything that you do, particularly when folks might be tugging at you to give your talent away for free, which happens to a lot of consultants.

She also talks about how to know what's important to you so that you can say yes or no to an engagement or to a client with confidence. Stay tuned at the end. There's actually kind of a wild thing that happened in the middle of our podcast, which I edited out but it is an interesting little thing that involves a turkey. Wait until the end and I'll tell you what that was all about. Thanks for listening. Let's get started.

All right. I want to welcome my guest Libby Post. Libby, thank you so much for joining the podcast.

Libby Post: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

Deb Zahn: Start off, let's tell the listeners what type of consulting you do.

Libby Post: I do political consulting. I do advocacy consulting. I'm a lobbyist. I do branding and marketing consulting as well. My political consulting runs the gamut from...It always includes message and direct mail and social media. Sometimes I will run a campaign as well.

Then lobbying I run an organization called the New York State Animal Protection Federation, which represents all the animal shelters in the state of New York. I do a fair amount of consulting and campaign management for libraries where I get the good people like all of you who are listening to raise your taxes to support your local public libraries.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. I have to thank you for that actually you did that locally in my community and we have an absolutely stunning library that's really the heart of the community so thank you for that.

Libby Post: My pleasure.

Deb Zahn: How and when did you become a consultant?

Libby Post: Well, I had my business, which is called Communication Services for over 30 years. About 6 years ago or so I decided that I was done with making a payroll, done with having a lot of overhead. I had made a commitment to myself to see one of my employees through to her kids' getting out of high school because I provided health insurance and all of those kinds of benefits.

I did that and I decided that it was time to just go out on my own. I slowly transitioned my staff into other jobs and went out on my own. I ended up having an office within another firm, a public affairs firm, and I was there for about five and a half, six years. I think closer to six.

I just moved to a new space on December 1st called the Bull Moose Club, which is a public policy/public affairs coworking space right down the block from the capitol.

Deb Zahn: That's great. That's great. What was that transition like in terms of how many clients you had before, how many you had afterwards? How did that go?

Libby Post: You know, I never really counted. I just made sure that there was money in the bank. You know, when I left having staff and went out on my own as it were I did very, very well. I was able to make more money. I have a designer, but it's freelance.

I don't have to pay any of that overhead. I just pay for the work she does. I have other freelancers that do work for me on different projects like photographers or somebody to do some web work or to build an app or that sort of thing. It's all fee-for-service and I know what they're going to charge and I know how to charge the client.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I know whenever I coach professionals that are becoming consultants one of their biggest fears is always, "Well, how do you build up a base of business?" Because that's really the goal so you're not spending all of your time marketing yourself but that you build up a base of folks that come back. I know you're really good at that. How did you do that?

Libby Post: Well, you know, I think it's about the quality of the work that you do and the relationships that you have with your clients and their ability to speak on your behalf and when they're asked somebody who can do X they recommend you.

I also do a lot of speaking. One of the ways that I get my library jobs is to speak at library conferences. Every time I would speak I would get a client or two out of that. I have a very good reputation in the library community across the country. People know who I am.

Deb Zahn: Now one thing I know, I saw in an interview with you that you talked about how you developed personal relationships with a lot of your clients in part because you work with them for a long time. I definitely do too but that can be tricky.

One of the things I saw that you had talked about is being careful not to give your talent away for free. I know for a lot of new consultants, in fact, some I was working with recently, who aren't used to their lives being dictated by transactional relationships that that's a tough transition. Can you talk about how you manage that?

Libby Post: Well, you know, it's about the value of your time. If you give it away for free you're not going to be able to pay your bills. It's about valuing the work that you do and recognizing that people are coming to you and asking you to do something because there's value to what you know how to do, whatever your talent is, whether it's writing or producing something or whatever it is that you're doing and so it's important to say, "Yes, I will help you, but I need to be paid because this is how I make a living."

I can't tell you how many times I work with a candidate or two where the treasurer gives me a hard time and I'm like, "This is how I make a living. If you don't want me to run your campaign I'll go somewhere else," because people are calling me. This cycle people are calling me out the wazoo because there's so many local races and there are judgeship races, which is one of my specialties.

This is what you do. I think it's much easier for men to say, "Hey, you got to pay me" than it is for women. Women need to get a grip around that and say, "Got to pay me." Now that doesn't mean you wouldn't do a favor for somebody or if I have a client and they need a freebie I only do freebies for my clients because I'm going to get paid for the other work that I do.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. If I have regular clients that I've had a long-term relationship with if I see an opportunity comes up that I can't help them with I pick up the phone and I call them and I say, "Look, you've got to go for this" and because they know I care but if they turned around and said, "Can you help me go for this?" We've just normalized that payment is part of how this arrangement works.

Libby Post: Right.

Deb Zahn: I think you're right. Gender does tend to play a role in this because I've coached a lot of new consultants when I worked at a big firm and it's just tough because they're used to having their job and in their job people would call them and they get to be the expert and they love talking about what they know how to do and now the same exact people are calling them and now they have to say, "Now I get paid for that. Remember how valuable you thought that was? Well, great, because now you know it's worth paying for."

Libby Post: Right.

Deb Zahn: It's a tricky transition. Were there other challenges as you figured out how to build up your business or how to operate as a consultant that you had to overcome?

Libby Post: Well, you know, I don't like getting dressed up. One of the reasons why I like working with the libraries is because you don't really have to. They respect information and expertise. These are the people that are fighting against fake news so they want people to have the right information.

You know, when I started lobbying, I had to get used to getting a little more dressed up so I have blue jeans and I have black jeans. That's it. I always look neat and clean but I'm not a fashion plate in any stretch of the imagination. You know, there was that, which is minor for most people but for me it was a little bit of a hurdle to get beyond that.

You know, in the political world getting paid. Now I don't do any campaign unless I have a personal guarantee from the client because I've been burned in the past. I won't do the work unless there's a personal guarantee so that if the campaign runs out of money, the candidate, the person, has to pay the bill.

Deb Zahn: That's great.

Libby Post: Especially when they lose. They're like, "Why should I have to pay? I didn't win." Well, I don't really care because I did the work. Many times it's direct mail and that's money out of my pocket. From the political consulting side there was that.

You know, just being clear that I am worth this money, I do a really good job, I know what I'm doing, and I've gotten a lot of people elected. I think for women more than men it's about just being confident in the work that you do and that you're worth it.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I know I've had the experience many times where I've come in after other consultants.

It's definitely called cleanup. You know, they may balk at the rates a little bit because they're not used to it and then there's that, "Oh, you really do get what you pay for" moment where they realize that the other folks who may be charging a lot less and have a heck of a lot less experience they're not going to be able to do what I can do or what some of my teams can do.

If you were coaching a professional that is now going to be a consultant, first time they've ever been a consultant, what advice would you give them?

Libby Post: Figure out your market. Figure out how to reach your market. Figure out who in that market you already know that can be helpful in helping you make connections. Figure out a way cost-effectively to get yourself in front of the market.

You know, when I speak what happens is I never charge anybody in the library world to speak...Well, I shouldn't say that.

When I go to conferences, the big conferences, I don't charge to speak but what I do ask, especially on the state level conferences, is that I get a booth for free.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Libby Post: They pay for my overnight. That's usually what happens and it's usually not an issue. I speak and I have the opportunity to do the vendor thing. The other thing is that you need to brand yourself. The other part of this is if you're going to reach out to that market that you know who it is you need to have a brand.

You need to have a visual brand, which means you need to have a logo. It needs to look good. It needs to represent who you are. You need to use it consistently across all platforms, whether it's email, print, business cards, website, apps, whatever it is, everything has to be branded consistently so that people have the visual of who you are from your brand.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Libby Post: Your brand is not just the visual. It's also the experience that people have with you. You know, part of my brand is I'm pretty straightforward. I don't bullshit people. I tell them the way it is and I say to them, "You pay me for me to make sure that you don't make a mistake and for me to tell you the truth about what you're trying to do, what you're trying to accomplish." Especially in the political world or the advocacy world.

You have to decide what your personal brand is going to be in all of this and how you're going to present yourself. I can't present myself any differently than I do so it is what it is.

Deb Zahn: If you switch to a mousy brand it's just not going to happen.

Libby Post: Yeah. Right. You know, it's a funny story. When I was with my mother and we were cleaning out her house when she moved to Florida. She found my kindergarten report card and it said, "Doesn't play pretend very well."

Deb Zahn: Future consultant.

Libby Post: I think that's pretty much it. You know?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Libby Post: That's pretty much it.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I think that personal brand also staying consistent with that because you don't want to...If they refer you to somebody else, which is where I get a lot of my business...I have a few raving fans who like me a little less than my mom does and they tell everybody about me. I've got to make sure that whatever their next experience is an excellent experience.

Even beyond brand I've had the experience where I didn't have time so I hooked them up with someone else and it didn't go well. That is also an extension of my brand is who…

Libby Post: That's right. It reflects on you. For me, when I'm doing a project and I have to coordinate the designer and I've got to coordinate print and web and all that sort of stuff, all those various people, have to do it exactly the way I want it done because it is an extension of my brand.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's exactly how a client will experience it. They don't care that you have a subcontractor. They don't care that you got somebody off Upwork. They care what you put in front of them. Yeah.

Libby Post: Right. That's all they want.

Deb Zahn: Is there anything...If you had someone you knew who is a professional is going to switch into and be a consultant anything you'd tell them, "Flat out, do not do this. No matter what don't do this"?

Libby Post: Don't give it away for free.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Libby Post: I mean, I can't stress that enough. The other thing that you don't do and here's the why, don't sell your soul to the highest bidder because you have to be able to sleep at night.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Libby Post: You have to be able to get up in the morning. When I do political work, I have a litmus test. Candidates that I work for have to be pro-choice and pro-LGBT rights. I don't care if they're running for dogcatcher because the person who runs for dogcatcher today runs for the state Senate tomorrow and ends up being a US senator or something even higher than that.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Libby Post: You know, stay true to who you are and your values, especially if your values drive the work that you do.

Deb Zahn: Right. Yeah. I have given folks that advice before because I only do what I consider mission work and have done extremely well. I haven't had to do anything besides mission work, which actually gets me more work because my clients recognize that I am in it for exactly the same reasons that they are.

I know a lot of new consultants who are just worried about paying the bills and it's tough to say no and I always say saying no in that moment is the best thing to do and you've got to save shelf space for the things that are truly meaningful to you.

Libby Post: Right. Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: If you don't it's easy to go down a path and wake up one morning and you wonder, "Why the heck am I doing this?"

Libby Post: Right. Right.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I know that you have other things in your life besides consulting. The puppy is now much older than it used to be. What are the other things that you do besides your work that are meaningful to you? How do you achieve a balance with that?

Libby Post: Well, if you talk to my partner she would tell you that I don't have any balance whatsoever.

Deb Zahn: Fair enough.

Libby Post: I do like to work. She's retired. I'm the breadwinner of the family. To be honest with you, yeah, we have a new puppy. She's eight and a half months old now or soon to be almost nine. Having the animals in the house, we have two cats and the puppy and that's really been lovely and it really...It just feeds my soul.

I call myself an attentive Jew. I am a member of my synagogue. I was president for four years. I was very involved. Now I'm in the [inaudible 00:17:50] recovery program, which means I don't go so often.

I serve on boards. I just joined the board of the Damien Center here in Albany, which is housing for HIV+ folks and they're going to be branching out into doing more LGBT as well than just HIV.

I try to give back. When I joined the Damien Center board everyone was like, "But you're so busy" and I'm like, "I know but I need to be able to give back in some way and to serve the community, to serve the LGBT community in some way." That's what I do. I also run a PAC, which is really a lot of fun and that's a volunteer thing.

After the president administration was installed, I don't want to insult anybody so I'll just say that, a bunch of us got together and formed a group called CapitalWomen. In two years, we've pumped close to $40,000 into local races. We just had a bunch of billboards up on 787, which is the thoroughfare going to downtown Albany that we're promoting the Reproductive Health Act and basically it said Trust Women in terms of their own healthcare choices.

It's that sort of stuff. My community work doesn't go too far afield from my consulting work but it keeps me going.

Deb Zahn: That's right. You have to...I mean, we're fortunate that we have work that is meaningful to us but, yeah, you have to do some things that are all just about feeding your soul and I agree and I know you do a lot with animals as well, which is near and dear to my heart.

Libby Post: The animal stuff I get paid for.

Deb Zahn: Oh, good. There you go.

Libby Post: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I run a group called the New York State Animal Protection Federation, I lobby for all the animal shelters in the state of New York.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful.

Libby Post: We were the people who got the $5 million in the budget for the last two years for what's called the Companion Animal Capital Fund that funds capital improvements at shelters across New York.

Deb Zahn: That's great. When you're out talking to potentially new clients you can draw upon any of that to show exactly what you said earlier, which is, "That's my value. You want to get stuff done you come to me."

Libby Post: Right. Right.

Deb Zahn: And you pay for it.

Libby Post: Right, and you pay for it. I have a colleague that I work with, who I lobby with. It's not like you're spread a little too thin. I'm now just a two-minute walk from the capitol but I'm not there every day. I couldn't. I couldn't just stand around all day because that's what lobbyists do.

You know? Stand around, they wait to see if the legislator comes out of a doorway, and I can't do that because I have my other clients. I've got somebody who likes doing that and is down at the capitol on a daily basis or whenever session is in and I go when I need to go and when we know that things are hot but I have other people that I work with collegially and in a business relationship so that we can make it work together.

Deb Zahn: I like that idea because consultants who are in firms just traditionally tend to work with other people and you have sort of a more expectation that you're going to work part of teams but even independent consultants who I've worked with before you do what you are best at doing. Do what you most want to do and then get other folks to do it.

I routinely work with other firms, I routinely work with independent consultants, I stay in my lane. I don't need to be in someone else's lane. I need my client to get the best so this is what I can do and this is what someone else can do but it makes your work life easier.

Libby Post: Yes. It does. It definitely does.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Any final words of wisdom you would impart to newbie consultants? Get paid?

Libby Post: Get paid. Work hard. Do a good job. Don't sell your soul.

Deb Zahn: And brand, brand, brand.

Libby Post: Right. Brand and stay true to your values.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful.

Libby Post: I think that's truly very important.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Values are really at the heart of this because most consultants that I know and respect are in it because they like helping and stick with that.

Libby Post: Right.

Deb Zahn: Stick with that and you can't go wrong.

Libby Post: Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Well, Libby, thank you so much. It has been delightful talking to you. I appreciate you sharing your experience with everyone out there. Have a wonderful day.

Libby Post: Thanks, Deb. You too.

Deb Zahn: Thanks. Thank you for listening to Episode 18 of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. Now if you listened to the intro I did promise to tell you what happened in the middle of the podcast. We actually had to stop what we were doing because Libby is also the head of the New York State Animal Protection Federation, which is a fantastic advocacy organization.

She got a call sadly about an animal hoarding situation, and they had all these animals and they had to figure out what they were going to do with them. She knows I'm an animal person so if there's any good reason to stop a podcast that's one.

She tried to tempt me, almost successfully, to take one of the turkeys because apparently, he likes hugging people. He sees people, he runs up to them, and he wants a hug. The thought of having a hugging turkey was really, really tempting. I did say no. He ended up in a very, very happy place but that's what happened in the middle of it, which, again, when you're doing podcasts you never know.

Thanks again for listening. Please hit subscribe. I don't want you to miss anything. I'm going to have a lot more guests that are coming on. As always, you can go to I've got tools, I've got information for every part of your consulting journey. Thanks again. I will talk with you next time. Bye-bye.

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