top of page


Episode 203: Keeping Relationships Primary in Your Consulting Business—with Deb Zahn

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. In this podcast, I'm going to talk about relationships. And in particular, I'm going to talk about a way to apply a really important principle related to relationships that is going to create a solid, magnetic foundation upon which to build a really thriving consulting business.

And I've been thinking a lot about this recently because a phrase keeps coming to mind that I heard, I don't know, it could easily...It must be 20 years ago. So, that's a long time. But a long time ago, I led a big project, and we had a national funder. And one of the program officers used to say this one phrase over and over again. And I don't think she made it up, but she talked about it quite a bit, which is, “Relationships are primary; all else is derivative."

And I remember the first time I heard her say that. I thought, well, that's interesting. And then I thought back on all of my past successes. And in reality, I realized that a lot of those successes were simply because I paid attention to relationships in the way that I should. And so I really took that to heart as really understanding that if you treat relationships as primary, then good things are going to flow from that. Everything isn't necessarily going to be perfect, but it is the first place to start, and then everything that falls from that is going to be built on that foundation.

And I embraced that concept when I led projects. So, I did things where I was trying to change policy and talk policymakers into things, or I was working with an organization to embed some new ways of working into their daily operations. And relationships made all the difference in achieving…there was a result because, at the end of the day, it's about people. So, people are going to say, "If something's a go, they're going to enable it to work. They're going to enable it to work well." And on the flip side, if you don't get the people part right, then it gums up the works, and it makes it hard to achieve what you're trying to achieve or even get a yes to move forward.

And this absolutely applies to consulting. And one thing I get asked quite a bit is, if I had to pick the top things that I would attribute my success as a consultant easily, probably in the top two, maybe three, but definitely I think in the top two is, I've said, it's relationships. So, my ability to form them and my ability to nurture them. And in particular, it's not just, oh, can I talk to people and get them to like me?

I don't mean that. I mean real relationships, not fake ones, but where I actually care about the other person, and they actually care about me. And the ability to do that is absolutely one of the top reasons that I've been successful. And certainly one of the reasons that I am often picked to work on a project with a client is because they want me by their side, and they want me by their side. And I've seen that absolutely true for so many other consultants who just have amazing, amazing businesses and practices.

So, I'm going to dig into some examples of how to apply the principle of "Relationships are primary; all else is derivative" throughout your consulting business and practice because it's not just at the front end. It should be imbued throughout everything that you do as a consultant and the decisions you make.

So, let's start with the obvious one, which is you got to get business. That's one thing you have to do as a consultant. Otherwise, you're not a volunteer. So, you got to get business. And if you're new, or even if you've been doing this a while, your network remains one of the best places you can get business, right? Because it's a network of relationships.

And even to this day, I'm heading into my 13th year of consulting. I still get a lot of business through my relationships. And I remember hearing early on, "Oh, well that'll dry up." Like you'll tap into everybody you can possibly tap into, and that'll dry up, and so you really need to spend a whole lot of money on marketing. And I do think marketing's important. I do think it's important to expand your relationships and not just rely on who you know today. But your network is an endless source of possibility because the people in it don't just have one need in their lifetime or in the lifetime of their company or organization and then, boom, you helped them with it, and now you're done.

They're going to have ongoing needs. They're going to have new needs that arise. They're going to have new demands that they need help with. And so they're going to refer you to other people, and they're going to brag about you to other people. So, your network is absolutely critical. And so when you think of your network, I want you to think of it very specifically as a network of relationships.

And so then the question is, and I get this question a whole lot because interestingly, I have found a lot of particularly new consultants have a discomfort in reaching out to their network because they feel like they're just going to then take those relationships and turn them into stale transactions. So, the question is, how do you reach out within your network of relationships, and you get hired to do the work that you're uniquely suited to do, and you get hired to help folks with the things that you can do really well? And at the same time, how do you do it in a way that honors the relationship with the people in your network?

And my answer is kind of simple, which is be a friend. Right? Not everybody in your network is a close friend, but as an operating principal, do what a friend would do, I think works really well. I have found that that works really well. So, what do friends do? Well, friends help their friends. So, you think about the people you know in your life; you help them. And you joyfully help them because you care about them. You ask how they're doing. You ask what's going on for them. You listen very carefully to those answers so that you can respond.

You care about their struggles. You care about their aspirations. And you're not just a spectator in the relationship, so you don't just sit back and watch. If you see that you can do something to be helpful, you offer that. Even if it's difficult, you offer it.

And I think in particular, I was thinking a similar situation that's in the friendship world of having friends that are dealing with grief. And I know this extraordinarily well, sadly because there was a time several years ago when I had a lot of deaths in my family, just one right after another. It was dizzying how we would be still dealing with the grief of the last person that died, and then somebody else would die.

And it was so bad that I remember running into actually a client. And he said, "How you doing? How's your mom doing?" And I realized, I don't know who he's... He knows there was a death of family. And I said, "Who's the last person you heard died?" I actually had to ask him that. And when he said, I'm like, "Oh no, that was two people ago." That's how bad it was.

And I had friends, and I had colleagues. So, I had clients. I had people in my network who reached out to see if I was OK and to offer help. I had other consultants, including consultants at other firms, offer to help. At that time, I worked at a firm, wonderful firm, and I had amazing consultants who basically said, "Let me take stuff off your plate." It was remarkable.

And the thing is, everybody who reached out to see how he was doing, they didn't say everything right, like there's a right way to say things, which there isn't. There was definitely discomfort. And they didn't know what to do, and they didn't know what to say in a lot of instances. But it didn't matter because they showed me they cared, and they did what a friend would do.

And again, I had people in my network who I wouldn't consider a close friend, who did the same thing. And that meant the world to me. And so I used that as my model of what kind of friend do I want to be to the folks in my network. And again, recognizing that not everybody in your network is a close friend, but that doesn't mean that you should treat them any other way besides the way you would treat a friend. And so don't let them suffer. Don't let them not reach their goals because you're uncomfortable offering your help.

And I get it that it can be really uncomfortable to offer help because then it feels like I'm turning this into a transaction. But if instead you think about it as, no, I have an actual relationship. Whatever relationship I have with this person is real and legit. And if I see something that I can do to help them, by gosh, I'm going to offer it because that's what friends do.

And I know that particularly when you have relationships with folks, and interestingly, the closer those relationships are, and I've experienced this, and lots of people have talked to me about this, it feels even more awkward. And the advice that I usually give is, "Look, if it feels awkward, then just be awkward, but still offer help. Do the best you can." I usually make a joke about it. I'll usually say something like, "Well, this is the part of the conversation where I'm going to offer you something." And it's just a normal part of having a relationship, so it's OK. But you don't withhold help from a friend just because it's hard for you to do something.

And if you're worried about seeming salesy again, then just say it. Again, I make jokes about things all the time with folks I'm really close to that I know I can help. But they also know if I can't help, I don't offer. So, we have a trust built up that I can just say, "Hey, look, I'm listening to this, and I think I can really help you with this. And I'm not trying to be a salesy girl here or anything, but I think I can help you with it." And that's OK because I'm showing my sincerity. And I'm also generous with them, so I'll share them some value. Now, I'm not saying do work for free because you are a friend, but you are also a consultant and you have a consulting business. But give them something that might be helpful to them.

And often, how I find that that works is that it could be as simple as, when you're talking to them and you're in the discovery process with them, asking them questions. And by asking them questions, you're helping them understand what they're facing in a clearer way, or you're helping them think about it in a different way. I often will help with framing it like, "Is it this, or is it this? And do you experience this? Does it look like that?" And they find it extraordinarily helpful because they might know something's a problem, they might know that they aspire to something, but they don't necessarily have had the time to sit down and say, "OK, let me think deeply about this." So, you can do that for them in a way that's valuable, and it's still part of the discovery process. But even if they never buy from you, they still get something out of it.

And often, sometimes, and I think this in particular when you're first having a conversation with them, sometimes you just help them feel hopeful that there's actually a path, there's a way to solve that problem. There's a way to achieve what they ultimately want to achieve. And they may not know that. And so one of the things that you can do to show that you sincerely care about them and that you want the best for them is to help them feel that hope, help them feel that relief.

Now, of course, there's going to be people that aren't in your network yet. So, yes, tons of business can come from your network. I still think it's a good idea to constantly look for ways to expand your network of relationships. So, sometimes yes, you do have to introduce yourself or make a connection with someone who doesn't know you. And that is definitely a place to apply this principle. Just because you don't have a relationship with it today doesn't mean all bets are off and now you can just be transactional because it's still about relationships.

And in fact, I would say when you don't know someone, it's even more about relationships. And I will give you an example of this because I will admit, one of the reasons that I decided to do this podcast is because I'm annoyed. And that's usually a good reason for me to decide to do something. So, I've been thinking about relationships in particular because there is a daily irritation that I'm experiencing and a particular irritation that violates this principle that I care so much about.

So, there I am on LinkedIn. And as soon as I say LinkedIn, I'm sure that you might have a shiver go up your spine because you're like, "Either I don't get it, I don't use it, or there's things about it that I just don't like." And I have to admit, I'm in the same boat. But I'm on LinkedIn because that's where a lot of the folks that I want to help, and I want to work with are on LinkedIn.

So, I get it. But I get multiple requests to connect every day. And I send requests to people too. I'm deliberate about it, but I send requests. But I get multiple requests. And up until recently, my default has been to say yes. I assume good intentions, there must be a good reason that they are thinking of connecting with me, so yes. And I usually don't hesitate.

But something has changed over the last year or so that the nature of that has shifted in a way that I do not like and I do not encourage consultants to do. So, I will say yes to someone, to a connection, and unfortunately now, the majority of the time, I get immediately pitched afterwards. The next thing in my inbox, sometimes seconds after I say yes to the connection, is them making an offer to me. And I can tell that most of them are either automated or it's part of a script, and it's meant to seem conversational.

Maybe they're having a virtual assistant do it, maybe it's automated. And the thing is I'm not against automation. I think automation can be really helpful. But where I don't like it is when you're trying to build relationships. Automation, I don't think, serves you well with that. It doesn't mean not to have a process, but you don't take the human aspect out of it because that's at the core of relationships.

And it's really easy to tell when I'm just getting hit with a marketing thing. And it feels like all they're trying to do is to bait me and to do it so obviously. And I don't know actually what bugs me more is they're baiting me or it's so obvious, it's kind of embarrassing. And it feels kind of yucky because it's so inauthentic. And again, I don't mean to say don't have a deliberate process if you think that LinkedIn is where the folks that you most want to work with are, and you really want to work with them. Yeah, you should have a plan for how it is that you're going to connect with people and ultimately get business. But relationships need to be at the heart of it. And authentic relationships need to be at the heart of it.

And there's something about the immediacy of the pitch. You don't know me, and you've immediately pitched to me, and you're offering to sell me something within seconds or minutes of being connected that feels especially strange. It's like going out with someone the first time, and they ask you to marry them. It's like, "You have no idea who I am." And it's very funny because, as an aside, I've gotten several people who would be considered my competitors in this business. And I tend to assume that lots of people out there need help, so I'm fine that other people do what I do.

But they make an offer to help me build my consulting business. And on one hand, that's kind of hilarious because I wouldn't be helping people do that if I didn't know how. But it's also sad to me because it means they haven't clearly defined their buyer. And if you listen to my podcast on knowing that you have a buyer and clearly defining it, then you would not make the mistake that they're making. But if you do want to introduce yourself, and you do want to connect with people on LinkedIn and not do that salesy pitch, I'm suddenly spamming your inbox version, which again, sadly is what I'm mostly experiencing to the point where I'm now afraid to say yes to people. I said yes to someone the other day because I looked at what she did, and I thought, all right, well, clearly this is not going to be a pitch. This is somebody who's actually connecting to me in a meaningful way. And then within seconds I got to pitch, so now I'm getting all jaded about it.

But if you, again, truly believe that LinkedIn is a way, as it is for me to connect with people that ultimately you want to help, then yeah, do it. But you engage with people in a way that you would be doing if you were trying to build a real relationship. So, just like the way that you would make friends. You see what they're up to, you know stay curious about them. You pay attention to what matters to them. You lift them up and celebrate them when they have an accomplishment or when they're talking about something that's really meaningful to them. You respond in a really good, human way. And you offer to help, and you offer them value when you can actually do that.

But it doesn't mean that you never make an offer. But in a sense, you think about it as you want to qualify them, and you want to qualify yourself first. You want to know, are we right for each other? And again, that just takes us right back to dating analogies. But do we make sense together? And if not, and then that's cool, maybe I continue to engage because I still find you interesting. I engage with people all the time on LinkedIn who I would be hard-pressed to think that we would ever find a way to work together in any capacity, but I think they're cool, and I think the stuff that they're doing is great, and so I want to celebrate them, and I want to stay engaged with them in some way.

But that doesn't mean that that's everybody. You certainly want to engage with folks that you think you might have something that could be helpful to them. But you qualify the relationship first. Would having a business relationship with them actually make sense? Is there some way that you can help them with a demand that they already have? Is there some way that you can deliver value to them that makes sense for the type of stuff that is going to be meaningful to them? And you can also look for, what if I shared a little value with them, whether it's offering them an article that you think that they might find interesting? Which my friends and I, my mom and I share articles all the time. My friends and I share things all the time. Something that you think is interesting and valuable. And make an offer certainly when you think that, yeah, I think I could be really helpful here.

And if you do it that way, it's going to be harder to sound salesy because it's really coming from an authentic place of wanting to help someone. I actually did with someone I do work with now, reached out on LinkedIn because I was watching and engaging with someone, and I thought, I can actually be really helpful here. And it was born out of a desire to be helpful. It was not born out of a desire to rake in a bunch of cash. And so did I think about business interest? A hundred percent. Did I lead with that, and was that my primary motivator? No, it actually wasn't. And then fast-forward, and we're actually working together because it was the right thing for both of us to be doing.

Now, the other thing is, again, if you follow them a while and there's nothing you think you can help them with, then don't make an offer. And what I see is a lot of people making me offers where it makes no sense. Now, again, that could be because they haven't clearly defined who their buyer is, but it could also be that they're just doing a scattershot approach, trying to get big enough numbers that they hope something hits. And again, it doesn't feel personal. It doesn't feel authentic.

So, no matter what you're doing, and including when you're trying to get business, whether it's on LinkedIn or anywhere else, always keep it personable. And personal actually, I mean because no one experiences their problems in aspirations as generic. They experience them as deeply personal. And that's true for us too. When you think about the problems you have in your life or the things that you're aspiring to, if you're trying to make your consulting business fly and you're having some problems with it, you don't think of yourself as generic consultant with these generic concerns and trying to find generic solutions. It is deeply personal to you. And that holds true for the people on the other side who could potentially be your clients. And so treat it as something that's personal to them and matters to them.

And I had one guest on, this great guy, Zach Pike, who talked about how he does outreach on LinkedIn. And if you haven't listened to that podcast, it's definitely worth listening to 'cause he talks about it a bit. And he truly engages with people on LinkedIn. And if he can be helpful, he's helpful. And when he reaches out to people, it's personal. He doesn't send everybody the same thing. He sends personal outreach to them based on what he knows about them. And I think that that is a fabulous way to do that.

Now, the other place is there's lots of other places to honor and build relationships. So, if you're thinking about your discovery calls, you're thinking about your proposals, your contracts, those should all adhere to the principle. So, when I did my podcast on embracing the fact that you have buyers, you heard me talk about, you want to show that you get them. Right? You're curious about them. You care and are curious about their unique situations; you're going to ask questions about it. Even if you've seen similar situations before, you are treating it as unique to them and their situation. And you're going to apply things that you've seen other places. You're going to ask questions maybe you've asked other places. But you are deeply listening to them and caring about them.

And you will show them that you understand them. You show them that you really, truly get it, and you get them. You heard them clearly. You heard what they're trying to achieve, and you're going to be there to help them. You're going to help them get what it is that they ultimately want to get. You're going to help them feel relief and hope. And again, all of this, you do exactly as you would do in any type of a real relationship because at the heart of this is a real relationship. So, when you're on discovery calls, when people are reading your proposals and contract, they should feel everything that I just talked about. And that's in your control. That's something that you can make sure, again, is imbued throughout all that you do so that people really feel like, this person actually is trying to develop a real relationship with me.

And then there's the work itself. So, this is the last one I'm going to hit on. This is where relationships are truly going to make or break your ability to get the client result that they ultimately want to get. One aspect I want to touch on of this because you can imagine, yeah, you got to work with people, you got to help people achieve things, and there's all that kind of relationship stuff. But I want to touch on one aspect that I actually, I have a bit of a reputation for, and it's really served me in my consulting business, which is I don't shy away from having difficult conversations with my clients.

I'm going to apply this to my closest friends. So, when I think about who my closest friends are, one of the characteristics of who I choose to be my closest friends is that they have a willingness to have difficult conversations with me. They don't let me off the hook. They're telling me when I'm doing something wrong, they tell me when they think I'm harming myself or others, or I'm getting in my own way. Because ultimately, they want the best for me, and they want me to be my best self.

And if I'm doing something that gets in the way of that, then they're going to say it, just as I would for them. That's what I do for my friends. And that's exactly what I also do for my clients. So, if I see something, I say something. Because I'm in New York, I get to say that. And that really at the heart of that is because, if I truly understand that I have a real relationship with them, then I'm going to put their best interests ahead of my comfort. Right? Because the easiest thing to do is to sit back and say, "Well, we have the signed contract. Here's what the signed contract says I'm supposed to do. I'm not responsible for anything that they do. I'm just going to get my stuff done, get paid, and that's it." And can you get away with that? Yeah, probably with some engagements.

But then you'll start to get a reputation for it if folks ultimately don't get the results that they want. So, this is something that I do routinely if I have to, which is if I see something that is going to lead them to not getting the results that they said they wanted, or if I see something that I think is actually going to cause harm, I say it to them. And I have a really clear, straightforward conversation with them. And I have done this in the last few weeks. I was talking with a client, and they were talking about a choice that they were considering that could easily, easily, easily take them off course, and they wouldn't end up achieving what they told me was so important to them. So, I said something. And I had an honest conversation about it and said, "I think that I understand why you might want to make this choice, but let's talk about the trade-offs. And I just want to tell you what I'm concerned about, and here's why."

And I'd thought it through, and I had rationale behind what I was saying. Did I enjoy it? No. No, I did not. But it was the right thing to do because it truly honored the relationships. And so these are the types of examples. And there's tons more examples that I could give, but these are the types of examples that explain what it means to apply the "Relationships are primary" as a key principle. And what that ultimately does is if you're applying that principle, then it activates the second part of the principle, which is "All else is derivative."

As you put relationships first in your consulting business, and that's how you approach them, and it makes you willing to act when it's the right thing to act, it makes you willing to make the right choices when it's the right choice to make in the name of the relationship, you will do more to boost your consulting business than most things that you will do.

So, I don't care if you got a fancy pants website. I don't care if you got some cool marketing. Putting relationships first will do more for your consulting business than anything else. And it should be obvious why that is. It's because it creates trust. And trust has to be at the beating heart of any thriving consulting business. That is what my success is based on. That is what most successful consultants I know is based on, is they take trust seriously, and they take trust seriously in the context of having real relationships.

I'm hoping that this is helpful. Again, I was prompted by this by a long ago memory and also out of annoyance. But it doesn't matter. I still wanted to share it with you because, again, it's just one of the most important things you can do. And I want you to be successful. And if you're good at this, and if you nurture this part of your business and this part of yourself, then you're going to be successful.

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 you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up in 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. And then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it. Share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up.

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

bottom of page