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Episode 205: Developing the Habit of Getting Consulting Clients—with Deb Zahn

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So, on this podcast, we're going to be talking about developing the habit of getting consulting clients. And I recognize that that seems like a really strange topic because of—Deb, of course I know I need to go get consulting clients. But we're going to talk about sort of the habitual actions that you need to take in order to keep your pipeline of business full and flowing and keep you out of that dreaded feast and famine cycle by doing things on a regular basis until it becomes a normal part of the way that you're operating your business. But before I get into that, I want to share with you that on March 30th, 2023, in case you're listening to this later, I'm going to be on LinkedIn giving a free live training on the top five things you must do to get consulting clients.

So, everything I'm going to talk about today is really important for getting clients, but what I've done in this particular masterclass is I picked out the five most essential things. So, these are the, if you do nothing else, do these things because this'll make or break your ability to be able to get clients and be able to get them reliably. So, I'm going to be on live, it's at noon eastern time, it's LinkedIn. You do have to register ahead of time. So, you can go to my website, or you can go to LinkedIn, and you can sign up and it's going to be chock full of great information and it will be live, so I'll be answering questions as we go along, and we always get such great questions in this masterclass, and I do update it every time.

So, if you've been to one before and you want to refresh your skills, you want to refresh your knowledge, jump on, and you'll probably find some great new content, but if you've never been on it, this is really an essential one, particularly if you're new to consulting and you really don't have any or a lot of clients right now, or you're finding yourself not being able to regularly get clients in at the clip that you want them, so it makes you a little nervous about your business. This is a perfect masterclass for that.

Today I want to hit on something that's not in the top five, but still really important. And that's about forming the habit of getting consulting clients. So, these are doing consistent business development activities that are directed at being able to secure clients, get contracts, and do the good work that you ultimately want to do. And so the overall concept, and then I'm going to break down a few of the aspects of it, but the overall concept is we are what we do. So, when it comes to your consulting business, think of it as your business becomes what you do. So, if you do certain things, you dramatically increase the likelihood that you're going to have the thriving business that you want and not just you're doing the great consulting work that you want to do and you're showing up for clients, but this is really on the business side of it to make sure that you're taking those consistent actions that you need to.

Now doing wonderful consulting work, like the work itself, yes, you have to be stellar, making sure that your clients have an amazing experience. Yes, that also has to be in place in order for you to build a thriving business, but this is about getting in the habit of doing the things you need to do to be able to get the business. And again, recognize that that might sound weird because you might be hearing that going well, Deb, I feel like I do stuff all the time to get business.

And what I'm going to be talking about today is not about quantity, it's about consistency. And so that's what I want to dive in today. And it's really about the routine actions that you take to get the business you need and to proactively go out and secure it. And the routine actions is really the key part of it because what I see happen is a lot of consultants who end up falling into that feast or famine cycle that we all hate, and I know very few consultants who've never been in it, but I know a lot of consultants who aren't in it very often.

But if you find yourself in that, it's often because you haven't necessarily normalized a set of actions that you take routinely to be able to generate business. So, it might be that you do certain business development activities and you do them, but you don't do them on a regular basis. Or you wait until there's an impending crisis or an actual crisis and then it's like, “Oh my gosh. I’ve got no work lined up next month, or I got no work lined up next quarter. I need to do something. Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” And then generally what sets in is what I call panic activity, which is the, oh my gosh, something's got to get done. I got to get something in the door. And so there's a whole lot of frantic activity to try and fill holes in your pipeline.

And so I generally don't think that's a good idea. Now, sometimes things happen that you really can't anticipate and yeah, you need to step it up and you need to do some things to sort of get that sort of rapid business in the door. But for the most part, if you practice sort of this routine consistent action, this sort of the habit of doing business development, that should happen rarely, just rarely. And wouldn't that be nice to not find yourself there? So, I'm going to touch upon a few key ways to be able to create that habit. And as I talk about these things, you'll get a deeper understanding of what I mean. But let me dive into a few of the aspects. Now, I'm not going to hit everything, but I'm going to hit some of the highlights that I think are really critical. And if you want to go deeper now, and I'm lucky I'm married to a behavior change expert.

So, we talk about this stuff all the time, like the nerds that we are, but if you really want to go deeper into it, I really did like Atomic Habits, which is James Clear's book. I think he breaks down how to form habits and sustained habits really, really well. So, it's a great source if you want to think about, hey, I'm not really in the habit of doing some of the things that he's talking about, or I need to work on some of the other elements that contribute to it. Let me dive deeper into it. I think that's a great place to go. But one of the places I want to start is with identity. So, if you want to form a habit of regularly, routinely doing business development activities, which again is critical to having a sustainable and profitable consulting business, then how you conceive of yourself relative to that is absolutely essential.

Here's the thing. Identity is all about what you believe about yourself. So, it's who you believe you are or who you think you actually aren't, has everything to do with what you will actually do or what you actually won't do or won't let yourself do. So, do you consider yourself primarily a consultant? Sometimes you have to go get work and there's that whole business side of it, whatever, but really I'm just a consultant and I just want to focus on the work itself, or do you also see yourself as the CEO of a consulting business? So, yes, you're a consultant. You provide value in all kinds of fabulous ways to the clients you're going to work with, or you want to if you could just get the business. But if you see yourself as the CEO of a consulting business and you embrace that you are the head of a business, you're much more likely to embrace business development and you're much more likely to embrace that it is a normal part of what you need to do.

And so it won't feel like that thing that is sometimes necessary but is, I don't really like it. It's kind of over here. It's just a normal part of having a business. So, there's nothing weird and wrong about it. It should be something that you do on a regular basis because that's what people who run businesses do. So, the identity part of it I think is so critical to both forming the habit but also sustaining it because if you look a year down the road and you've embraced your identity as the CEO of your consulting business or your practice, then you're much more likely going to be able to look back and say, yeah, and I did business development on a routine basis. And the more you do it, the more it actually becomes a habit, which is kind of the next point I want to make, which is about repetition.

Now, this is absolutely one of my favorite ones because this is who you are is what you do routinely. And what I like about it is it often lets you kind of trick your brain because if you focus on the repetition, if you focus on getting the routine in place, the habit is actually easier to form. And so it doesn't let you ignore all the mindset stuff and the other stuff that comes with it, doesn't let you ignore identity and things like that, but it's sort of wiring your brain to do what you want it to do. And I'll give an example that's not consulting, although it helps me a ton in my consulting business, but something for my personal life. So, many, many, many moons ago when I was in undergraduate school, I was very not assertive. Now, nobody who's met me even for two seconds would ever believe that there was a time that I was not assertive. That is nothing that anybody would look at me and say, “Yeah, wish she'd come out of her shell and be a little more assertive.” Those words don't get said about me.

But there was a time when I was extraordinarily, to a point where I didn't like the discomfort of returning things to stores. That's the level that I'm talking about. And so I remember, I think I was 21, maybe 22, something like that. And this is before I knew anything about the science behind it, but I thought, I wonder if I just sort of force myself to be assertive and just do that over and over again, I wonder if I'll eventually get used to it. And this was sort of the hypothesis I had in my young 20 something brain, which I got to give myself credit for because I was right. I wasn't right about a lot of things when I was in my twenties, but I sure was right about that.

And so I would just keep doing things that an assertive person would do, and then eventually it got very easy, and then eventually it became part of who I am, and I adopted the identity of an assertive person, and I now take much pride in the fact that I'm an assertive person. So, this was sort of an example in my personal life, but it applies to consulting as well because in consulting, if you just keep repeating activities that are targeted towards getting business, then it's going to get easier to get business and it's going to become more of a habit to actually do those activities. And what I mean specifically is to do them because you've decided this is a thing I'm going to do and I'm going to keep doing it without deciding whether or not you actually want to do it or whether or not you feel like doing it.

And so this is where, and again, there's neuroscience behind this, which I'm not an expert in. But I know enough about to be dangerous, but what you're trying to do is to deliberately try to not use your executive function. So, your executive functions just sort of roughly put the decision making part of your brain, but what I'm saying here is to avoid weighing and deciding whether or not you're going to do something because what I have found, and I've certainly seen this in others, is that if you do that, and if you're like, should I do this? Should I do that? Should I do it today? I know last week I said I was going to do it, but should I really? And you start spending time on that, then what often happens is that doubts and fears and analysis paralysis or whatever sort of your versions are can easily sneak in and try and take the wheel, and then they will steer you towards not doing those business development activities, particularly if you're not yet comfortable doing them, particularly if they frighten you, particularly if your sense of self takes a hit.

So, that's what you kind of want to voice. So, you want to take it out of your executive function. And your executive function is who decides this is a reasonable business development activity. I'm going to do this and I'm going to do it repeatedly. And then you just let the repetition do what repetition does, which is if you do something over and over again, then you just get used to doing it till it feels like it's normal. And if you wanted to stop doing it, you would actually have to exert effort to stop yourself from doing it.

Now, this is not to say that you're just turning your brain off and you're not paying attention. So, getting clients because it's not a simple formula that it's like, oh, do X, Y, Z, and then you'll get clients and boom, that's all you have to do. It's not as straightforward and as simple as that. I wish it was, but it isn't, mainly because you're dealing with human beings on the other side, so there's always variation that you have to contend with.

So, you have to pay attention. But what I would suggest is pay attention to the outcomes and then if you need to adjust something, adjust what the specific action is, but don't adjust taking action. And this is a really critical sort of nuance thing here, which is a lot of times I've seen, and I've certainly done this myself, is if I'm doing something over and over again and I'm not getting the results that I want, it is really easy to just say, “OK, well, then I'm just not going to do it.” So, social media is a great example of it, or any type of marketing or outreach.

It could be anything in consulting where you do it, you try and it's just not working, and so you're like, “OK, well, social media is dumb. I'm not going to do it or doing outreach to my network is dumb. I'm just not going to do it because it's not helping me.” As opposed to you're in the habit of taking action. You're in the habit of setting assigned time to do these business development activities. Keep that but make adjustments so that you're more likely to get the outcome you want. So, that's where you want to turn your brain on and pay attention and make sure that it's taking you where you want to go, but you don't want to just cross the taking action off the list. And so that's the really important, you want to make sure that you hold a place for I take action and I take action consistently and repeatedly, and I might tweak that action.

I may make some changes to what that action is, but I take action. That's what I do, and that's how it's also feeds then in more into your identity.

And then there's my other favorite part, which is the processes in the system. So, I'm a systems person. I love me some systems, and I remember years and years ago, actually my husband and I worked at Kaiser Permanente in northern California. That's where we met. That's where I got into healthcare. That was my first healthcare job and led me to this path of consulting that I'm still doing. And we would always end up doing trainings back to back. And one of his slides would always say culture, culture, culture. And mine would say system, system, systems. And in a sense, some of the identity stuff and some of the other things related to forming and sustaining habits is about your own internal culture and the culture you set up around you, but the systems piece or the piece that actually supports that.

So, if you think about it kind of creates the scaffolding which supports the habits that you actually want to form and the habits that you want to sustain. So, in this case, if you want to have sort of regular business development activities you do, it'll be easier to do it and it will be easier to sustain them if you've got processes and systems in place to do it. And once that take the burden off of you so that you're really only doing the piece that you truly have to do. I'll give an example. So, this I think is absolutely critical for anybody who does not have a full pipeline or has a pipeline that routinely has gaps in it, which is putting regular dedicated time, book it in your calendar market as busy for revenue generating activities. Now this, you can have time that is specifically for business development activities, and then there's a subset of those where you do this thing or this thing or this thing.

But this is where you're saying, all right, I need to be able to generate some revenue for my business, what are the things that I need to do to be able to do that? But you do it regularly. So, it's in your calendar, it's in your books, and it's not you're merrily going along the way and you're doing the good consulting work that you're doing. And then, ooh, my goodness, I totally forgot. I don't have any clients coming up or I'm looking at next quarter and I've got nothing coming up. This is to avoid things like that and give you the consistency. So, you just book it in your calendar. So, that's when you do it. And so these are revenue generating activities are for things like reaching out to people in your network and not just to say, hey, not just to nurture and cultivate your network, which is also by the way, a routine that that should definitely be part of a business development habit, but specifically reaching out to people to get business.

This could be asking for referrals, checking in on past clients and seeing if they need some additional assistance, requesting or getting on discovery calls or sales calls or calls with potential clients where the purpose is to actually try and get to a proposal or close a deal. So, those things that are closest to being able to get assigned contracts, start work, and generate revenue. Now, optimally, you would pick times that you know generally work for you and you book them and you put it on a recurring block of time so you don't have to think about it every week. You just know that this time on this day for this duration is when I do this stuff. And the benefit of that is really the only decision-making you're doing is when you first set up that recurring appointment for yourself, but it doesn't require you to book it every single week.

Because often what happens if you do that is it starts to slip. And so one week you don't do it, and then you forget to do it the next week. And then it doesn't really become a habit because it's not something that is actually baked into what you pay attention to every day, which is often your calendar. And if you're using electronic scheduling system, which I always encourage folks to do, it also blocks it off. So, if you share your link for people to schedule with you, they can't schedule at that time because it's marked off as you being busy. And so it takes some of the burden off of you around setting boundaries for this thing that you're trying to do to establish your habit of business development. And it doesn't require you to think about it all the time. So, if I were talking to you and I wanted to know whether or not this is something you routinely really do, what I would ask you is, hey, tell me what the date of the next time that you're going to do revenue-generating activities.

And you would be able to name the date easily. You might have to look at your calendar, but you'd be able to name the date easily and actually show me where it is on your calendar and show me how it's a recurring appointment that you have for yourself. And without cheating. So, without saying, “Ah, yeah, no, no, it's next Thursday at 1:00.” It's real, it's in your calendar. And what I wouldn't see is I wouldn't see that it's overlapping with other appointments because if it's overlapping with other appointments, then it's not really dedicated time and it's not really going to contribute to the habit essentially of getting clients that it is that you want to form. Now, if you have, and I do encourage it, some type of customer relationship management system, if you're starting, even if that's an Excel spreadsheet, great, but if you have an actual system that you've bought and paid for and set up, it can even be easier because it can help you quickly prioritize activities.

And if you have it set up in a way that it shows, here's the leads, here's where the different folks are at any stage of your pipeline, then you're not going to spend, let's say you set aside an hour, you're not going to spend the first 30 minutes of your dedicated hour figuring out what to do. And then really you only have a half an hour and half an hour if you have a lot of business might be sufficient, but if you don't have a lot of business in the door right now, or you're facing some cliff in the near future, you want as much time as you can dedicate to it. And so you want to use that time wisely. These are how systems can actually help you, and it helps form a habit because now you've got that thing that you look at and it's just a normal part of your routine that you look at your pipeline, it's in your CRM, and you say, these are the things that I got to get done this week, and boom, I've got dedicated time to be able to do that. And that means that you can sit down, and you can take action right away.

Now, the other two, I'm going to do sort of two elements of forming and sustaining a habit together, and I'll explain shortly why I put them together, but ability and self-efficacy. Don't worry, I'm going to define what I mean by those, and I'm putting them together for a very deliberate reason. So, in this context, ability is basically the knowledge skills and access to do business development activity. So, you are actually able to do it, you know how to do it, you've got the skills related to doing it, and then you also have access to whatever you need to actually do those actions. So, if this is where you're reaching out to a former client, let's say to get a referral, do you have the knowledge and skills to be able to do that?

Do you, for example, know that you might send an email and that's not necessarily going to be sufficient, that you're going to have to reach out a few times in order to get them to respond? That's knowledge that you would have about how to do this particular business development activity. Do you know that you will have more of a chance of getting them to actually refer you if you make it as easy as humanly possible for them to do? So, do you know how to do that? Do you have access to the tools that make it easier to do that? So, for example, if you're asking them to make a referral, what you really want to do is whoever they refer you to, you want them to book a call with you. In which case, this is where the electronic scheduling system comes in. You've got that link, and now you've made it much easier for that to be able to happen. So, that's knowledge, skills, and access.

Then comes the self-efficacy part. So, self-efficacy means that you have the confidence to accomplish that specific activity. So, it's not overall confidence. So, it's not like generally how do you feel about your consulting business or generally how do you feel about your business? It's very tied to a specific task and activity. So, are you confident to do that business activity really well? And the reason I put them together is because not only do you have to have the knowledge and skills and access, but you have to feel confident enough that you're actually going to do it and feel confident that you're going to do it well, which again, increases the likelihood that you will actually take that action. You are way less likely to do a business development activity, even if you know how, even if you have gathered the skills to do it, even if you have the means to do it unless you feel confident doing it.

And this is where in order to increase that confidence, maybe you need to go get more knowledge and skills to be able to boost your confidence level. Maybe you need to be able to practice. So, one of the things that I always encourage folks is never, never, never have the first time that you say something critical that is going to make a difference in terms of getting business. Never have that first time be when you're in front of a prospective client. It's way too easy to botch it. I definitely have multiple times. So, I'll give you an example. So, in my membership, we just did a workshop about how to make an offer when you're in a discovery process with a prospective client. So, there you are. You're in person. You're on the call, whatever it is, you have asked all kinds of great questions and have identified that there are things that you can help them with that they have a demand for. And now you need to pivot into having a conversation about what your offer is.

So, this then turns it more towards the transactional part of the conversation, which is where a lot of people get really, really uncomfortable because a lot of people get very uncomfortable with it, it's really easy to not do it well. And so in my membership, what we did is we had a workshop, and we talked about some basic principles for how to do it. We talked about some of the things that might get in the way of doing it, and then folks who are members actually got to give a scenario where they did it. They got to give essentially that offer as they would to a prospective client out loud. They got feedback, and then we talk through, all right, you're going to give that offer, and then they're going to respond.

Now what? And how can you handle different responses? And the whole purpose of that is recognizing when you're in a situation like that, it is dynamic, and it is often uncertain. And so you need to feel more confident going in, not just that you have the knowledge and skills and the access or the means to do it, but that you really feel like you can do it well because you've actually practiced it, you've been thoughtful about, you've gotten some feedback about it. So, these are just a few factors that I want to touch on when it comes to creating a new habit and sustaining it. There are other factors that definitely matter, but these are the ones that I think are, well, my favorite, and I think they're actually really critical to, again, forming that habit of doing business development, so it's not something that you do just when you have to, but it's something that you do as the CEO of a consulting business.

And with that, you're going to get more clients coming in the door. Now, you might be thinking, “That's great, but it kind of sounds like a buzzkill. What about spontaneity? What about serendipity?” And that's the last one. I've heard that a lot. And is this just make everything kind of rote, just I'm going to be like a robot that's just doing these repetitive things over and over again. And here's what I would say is one, no because I say, don't worry about anything being wrote because again, you're trying to get business from other human beings. They will always keep it interesting; I assure you. But the thing I'd say is I love spontaneity and I love serendipity, and I've gotten business by those things popping up in an unexpected way. I would just say never, ever build a business solely off of those because by their nature, they aren't predictable.

And unless you're in a financial position where you don't need to have predictable revenue or even likely revenue, then it's not a great place to build a business from. And sometimes you can influence them and sometimes you can't. So, someone in my membership was recently talking about some local things she went to and ended up in a meeting a week later with folks who are her ideal client doing exactly the type of work that she wants to do. That's not what the purpose of the things she went to is. So, serendipity happens, and when it does, you want to take advantage of it and you want to enjoy it certainly, but just don't rely on it solely for business because if you do, you end up sort of having hope based business development and hope-based income rather than action-based business, which is really at the heart of what I'm talking about.

So, you have to stay focused on what gets you business and then do those things and do them repeatedly that lets you secure that business. And that's really what it's about to form the habit of doing that. And what my hope is, even if you look a month or two down the line and you're there and you look back, what I hope that you will see is that you will see on a regular basis you are attending to your business, you are attending to it in the way that a CEO does, and you are attending to it so that you can feel confident that you're going to have the pipeline that you ultimately want to have because you are repeatedly doing the things that are going to yield the business that ultimately you want to get. Now again, if you want to know sort of more really essential things that you need to do to be able to get business, I really would love to have you join me on my fabulous masterclass that is going to be on LinkedIn.

And I say it, I feel comfortable saying it's fabulous, mainly because folks who've attended overwhelmingly have just loved it and have told me that they found it really helpful. Golden is one of the words that someone used. So, again, it's March 30th, 2023. It's a free live training. The top five things you must do to get consulting clients. It's going to be at 12 noon Eastern time. So, if you're at Pacific Time, it's 9:00 AM and if you're GMT, it's 5:00 PM. And again, it's live. So, I'm going to be on answering questions. I answer them throughout the entire webinar. So, the whole point is it's meant to be interactive and engaged, and I want to give you a goodie, which is if you register and you do have to register, you'll get a free tool for developing your value proposition. Now, if you have a value proposition, yay, I'm very excited about that.

You might use this to see if it needs any fine-tuning. If you do not yet have a value proposition. And value proposition describes in very specific terms, what is your unique value to the folks that you most want to work with in your market. And it's going to enable you to be able to articulate that value to clients. And if you're able to do that, you end up getting more yeses, just point-blank period, you end up getting more yeses. So, I'm going to give you a free tool that will help you develop or refine yours as soon as you sign up. And you can register on my website. You can register on LinkedIn. It'll be in the show notes of this podcast. But I can't wait to have you join me because I just love sharing things like this so that your journey as a consultant gets easier and the actions you take get more fruitful and you ultimately have the business and the life that you want to have.

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.

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