Episode 208: Scaling Your Consulting Business Through Digitized Advice—with Stefan Debois
Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So, on this podcast, we're going to talk about how to scale your consulting business without having to add headcounts, without having to bring a whole bunch of other folks on to work with you, and that's through digitizing the delivery of advice. It's a really interesting topic. So, I brought on someone who knows all about this, Stefan Debois, who's going to walk through why to consider that and what that ultimately can look like, and what it can do for your business. So, let's get started. Hi, I want to welcome to the show today, Stefan Debois. Stefan, welcome to the show.
Stefan Debois: Thank you, Deb, for having me.
Deb Zahn: So, let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.
Stefan Debois: As an education background, I'm an engineer, and then after graduating I started immediately in consulting. First, back then, it was for Price Waterhouse, which then got merged with Coopers & Lybrand. So, PwC. And then I changed to a company called CSC and US Company, Computer Science Corporation, and so I worked 10 years in consulting and I did a bit of traditional career path from consultants. We were doing like ERP and CRM projects like SAP projects at large corporations. So, from consultants to project manager and then also later account manager, but then after all these years I came to realize that I wanted to start something on my own and create a company or create also software product, and also sell it of course. So, then together with an ex-colleague, we started what was then called Survey Anyplace, so we started a software company for online surveys. And back then we focused on mobile surveys and on surveys with great respondent experience because back then most of the survey tools were more market research kind of tools focused on data collection.
So, that's how it we began. That's 10 years ago, so in 2012, and then in 2019, we pivoted the company, in fact, towards assessments with personalized advice reports. Driven by what market and what customers were asking us, of course, but then the consultant…so my previous industry where I was familiar with, the consultants became our main target because we were doing assessments with personalized advice reports. These were especially useful for people where advice is a core business and those are, of course, the consultants. And since then, since we made this pivot from surveys to assessments, the calls of our company has really taken off. The company is now also named Pointerpro instead of Survey Anyplace because we wanted the word survey not anymore in the name because it was much more than surveys that we did and that we are doing now.
Deb Zahn: That's exciting. Well, I have to tell you, that's why I was interested to talk to you because so many consultants think that the only version is trading time for money. You show up and you do things and then afterwards you get paid for that. And obviously they run into problems of being able to scale their business and scale the type of help they can get people. So, before we get into the details of how to digitize some of the assessments or other processes, what are the problems that you're seeing in the current consulting business model that would suggest, hey, there's another way that you could do this that lets you actually help more people?
Stefan Debois: The fundamental problem is, like you were saying, in fact that we all want to grow our companies, of course. When I was in consulting, and we wanted to cover our revenue, cover our business, we always had to recruit new people. Now, it's not that I'm against recruiting people whatsoever, but it's a limitation because we all know the war for talent both in Europe and in US. So, we are looking for means to grow what we call non-linear growth. So, to grow faster than your headcount as a professional service company. All the things that are playing there, all the pains that are also related is the fact that everything is... All the expertise is in the head of your consultants and then...
Deb Zahn: That's right.
Stefan Debois: Leave of course, then the expertise also leaves the company. That's another thing. There is also the fact that consultants want to do more strategic work and the transactional advice delivery or data gathering and then subsequent advice delivery is a routine job. That's also something that plays. And then there is also on the side of the clients, they expect faster what we call time to business impact. So, you have the time between when the consultant starts an assignment and the business impact for the customer and that time should be as short as possible. When I was a consultant, we used to have an initial phase of a project as is mapping. So, the mapping of the actual situation that took three months and then we delivered a bunch of PowerPoint with all these processes map assist, so the customer in fact after that phase doesn't really have any value. So, that in today's world, that's no more acceptable, like this initial data gathering and then also giving the first advice is a good candidate to be automated.
Deb Zahn: So, I love some of the examples you gave because I think in particular, I've had some colleagues who have so much in their head and we always joke that we want to wrap them in bubble wrap because if anything happens to them, that knowledge evaporates. And yet if there was a digitized aspect to it, then that doesn't mean that you can replace them. That means that knowledge exists somewhere, but I also like the time to business impact, which I think is an important thing to consider because clients aren't just comparing you to other consultants, they're comparing you to other industries. And so, they expect faster results, and sometimes sending out... And I've been part of this, I'm sure you've been part of this, sending out teams of people to swarm into an organization or a company to do an assessment and it takes three months and then sifting through it and organizing it takes another two and then it could be six months plus before they have anything that's meaningful to them. I love that.
Stefan Debois: It used to be like that. Nowadays, it's not more accepted, I think.
Deb Zahn: So, you touched upon a few of the examples of what it could look like. I'd love to focus on the way of actually acquiring information from a prospective client or clients. So, if you were a consultant who are building their business today, how do you think they should plug that into what they're doing and what specifically would that look like?
Stefan Debois: Every consultant should have a diagnostic or scan or you can call it whatever you want of his or her expertise and domain. For example, if you're a consulting agency in cybersecurity, then you have to have a cybersecurity scan, so a short assignment or I think it's a paying assignment, you don't have to do it for free, or you diagnose the current situation of the customer, and you can already give first advice. That is I think mandatory and it should be highly standardized, and also comparison with benchmarks and industry best practices should be embedded in that.
Of course, before getting to that point, there's a couple of things that you should do already as a consultant, which have nothing to do with the tool or with digitizing your knowledge. Two steps, I think... Well, three steps in fact. The first step is that too many consultants are doing everything for everyone. So, the first step is to organize your services into service offerings. What are you doing? Digital marketing agency. It can be paid advertising like organic search marketing, and a couple of content marketing, and a couple of others. That's a first step, and also maybe choose not to do some of these, that is also a choice that you can make.
Deb Zahn: I love how you said that so casually, and just you could choose not to do things. I want to underline that and put that in bold because you lose... And you're going to get to this, but you lose some of your opportunity to standardize things if you're all over the place.
Stefan Debois: Of course, and when I look at digital marketing agency for example, to help us and they do everything and they're only like four people, then it doesn't give trust because four people cannot cover all the domains of the digital marketing knowledge.
Deb Zahn: That's right.
Stefan Debois: So, the first step, service of things. Second step is you go from time and material to fixed price offering for each of these service offering. So, if you have done projects over and over again, then you have an idea on what the activities are for you to deliver on those kind of projects. You can go to the next customer or prospects with the final set of deliverables from your previous project or some generalized things. You say, "OK, this is what you are going to get," and you have an idea of what it costs for you. So, then you can add a margin and then say, "OK, this is the fixed price that I'm asking for this project." I'm oversimplifying it a little bit, but that's what it's coming down to.
So, more from time material to fixed price, and then the third step is to make a model of your customer's business or the domain that your are consulting is in at least. So, a cybersecurity maturity model that you can say when a new prospect enters and say cybersecurity maturities, ask a number of questions and cybersecurity maturity levels is number two, and this is what you have to do to go to level three.
Most consultants have that model in their head or implicitly have it maybe already on PowerPoint, but you should have it. And then, based on that model, you can do the diagnostic or the scan that I talked about as an entry point to acquire a new customer. Of course, afterwards you can digitize all these things with our tool or with another tool, but before digitizing, it's important that you execute these three steps.
Deb Zahn: And, I love the idea of get your model before you digitize because otherwise you're going to try to figure that out as you're digitizing it, and that doesn't make sense. And, I have done with a group of folks before on the consulting and we did an assessment tool and we worked out the model and we tried to do it manually for a client and it took forever and it was really expensive. And I said, "Surely there's a better way to do this." And so, that's when we decided to make an online assessment tool and we could sell it more broadly. We could help more people, but we had to nail down the model first. We didn't just jump into now we've got a survey tool in front of us, let's figure it out.
Stefan Debois: Of course, but then you don't know which questions to ask, which advice to give, and there's two kinds of models. There are descriptive models. So, you start with the descriptive model where it's just, say, this is your score or your category in cybersecurity. Your level two out of five, just the diagnostics and maybe also comparison with the benchmarks is also very nice if you can do that, and then the prescriptive is when you not only say, you are level two, but here and here, these are the things that you have to do to go to level three and here's how we can help you with achieving that.
Deb Zahn: I love that. And I'm delighted to hear that because we did that instinctively, but I came up with that idea because I was looking at a book on crop rotation for plants and they had something in the book that said, "Here are the five most important things and here are the five most important things to do first." And so, we sort of took that model and we did the descriptive just as you described it, where we said, here's where you are based on your answers, and then the next step was what are your priorities in terms of timing was sort of the next phase, which is when we got into the prescriptive part, which essentially answered the question, what should I be doing first?
Stefan Debois: Exactly, the difference between static content, for example, again, with cybersecurity you can buy a book or a white paper about cybersecurity. Then the craft of the consultant is to understand the situation of the client and say, "OK, this is a book of 200 pages, but it's this and these things you have to do first." The information is too generic, not enough personalized, and to be actually applied for a certain customer or certain case.
Deb Zahn: I'd love to dig into that more because I've had consulting clients on the show before and one of the things that I've heard from them is, "We don't want just something that's a model that is off the shelf that you shove down our throats and you tell us it's exactly what we need, and you told the last 10 people that it's exactly what they need." So, that's why I like the part that you're talking about that it includes the assessment piece and then the prescriptive piece. So, how do you balance the digitalized process of acquiring the information and delivering advice with it feeling and actually being personalized to who the client is and it feels like they're not just getting something off the shelf?
Stefan Debois: The advice that you give based on the answers to the questions should be really specific for that client or that category of clients and nothing else. It's very important to ask the questions in a way that you collect enough information to give that specific advice. Of course, that's maybe kind of generic, but you have to see it in your own situation. As I said, most consultants have it implicitly already in their heads or maybe already written down on I know static documents because when you're an expert in a domain, you see these things always the same or same mechanism. People ask which questions what should I ask in the assessment. Go with your salespeople or with experienced consultants when they come the first time with a new prospect in a meeting.
They're not going to give advice immediately because they don't know the situation. They are going to start with asking questions. So, it's exactly those questions that you want to have in the assessments. Personalize it, it's of course not the intent also to completely replace the consultant's job with an automatic tool. It can be used to gather, the tool can be used during a conversation to gather the transaction data beforehand and then to make the flow of meeting more productive because then you can already look at the results instead of wasting the meeting time by just collecting information, so that's I think important.
Deb Zahn: And, what have you seen in terms of clients' willingness to do this? Do they actually do the work of filling out the assessment and doing that work themselves?
Stefan Debois: Yeah, I think most clients do not have a problem doing that. The only attention points is there that you don't ask questions that you are supposed to know. The assessment can ask questions about different things, about different topics, but different things like company size or industry or so, if you know it, don't ask it. It can sound obvious, but sometimes some people still do it. So, some of the data can also come not from assessment questions, but from systems. If you need some more quantitative data, say a finance consultant could get some data from a finance system and link it with an API or spreadsheets to the assessments and that people don't have to avoid that your client has to do things that do not add value.
Deb Zahn: Or that would irritate them. I like that it seems to be what piece of this is thinking through the client experience of actually engaging with whatever the digitized process is. So, how do you think about that as you're designing, one, of what do we want their experience to be on the other end, so that they feel good about it, they're willing to do it, and it's not irritating them and it feels valuable?
Stefan Debois: Beforehand, indicate two things, like what I will get and what their investments will be. So, for example, you say take five minutes to ask or to answer these, I don't know, 25 questions, and you will get a full report comparing you to the benchmark with specific advice. And, you can also do screenshots of the report in the first page and that they see how it looks like, that's very powerful, I think, can also be some social proof, like some marketing job in fact. When the questionnaire is too long or very long, it's better to be open and transparent about it beforehand. Sometimes you can also have after 10 questions that you give some feedback.
Deb Zahn: Oh, good.
Stefan Debois: Like snippets, some things. That can be dynamic but can also be static. It's very easy, again, with cybersecurity you could say, "Did you know that, I don't know, so many percentages of the cybersecurity attacks happens via mobile devices and not via desk top device?" I don't know, I'm just-
Deb Zahn: That's interesting.
Stefan Debois: Just to keep them that it's a two-way conversation, and these things are not difficult to do. You can make a conditional opening on what the answers the previous questions were, but you can also make it static, just the fact to give something back and will motivate them to go on.
Deb Zahn: We tested ours ahead of time with a client where we said, "You can have this for free, but we need you to test it and give us feedback," and that's partly how we timed how long it actually takes to complete it. So, we had to tell them, "Here's who has to be involved in completing it, here's everybody's role, here's how long it takes." So, all those things, just client expectations ahead of time, but I love the idea of gamifying it to keep people's interest as they go along. I thought that's a wonderful way to do it.
Stefan Debois: Another very practical tip is in your introduction, you say, for example, if you are a consulting company of, I don't know, 20 persons, you say, "These 20 persons together have, I don't know, 224 years of experience. We have consulted all these experts and in total, they have 224 years of experience. By investing some now in this questionnaire, you can capitalize on all the experience and you will get a personalized advice report," something like that. That illustrates the value.
Deb Zahn: I love that. We also got feedback from the folks who took it initially, who told us other ways that they used it that they found valuable, so we started incorporating that into our marketing, which is you can also use it for, and that really helped because then basically you're paying once, but look at all the ways you get to use this.
Stefan Debois: Exactly.
Deb Zahn: Oh, wonderful. So, you've covered a bunch of them, but I want to hit sort of the highlights. So, as the consultant or the consulting firm, what are the big benefits for folks who are thinking about digitizing these types of processes? What do they get out of it?
Stefan Debois: The first benefit is kind of obvious, it's automating something that they used to do manually. So, if they have already a more fixed price offering and that should be a requisite, I think, then this will result in... because you have less work to deliver the same results if you have not, of course, time material. That was my issue when I was consulting. When I came to my boss with the technology that it uses a project of 500 mandates to 400 mandates, it's not really appealing for him because it reduces the income or the revenue because we're always charging time material.
Deb Zahn: That's right.
Stefan Debois: Time and material is not really an incentive for innovation. So, the benefit is the things which are done manually by consultants will be automated, and so you gain time. Then in terms of marketing, also, you can do a free teaser, like a light version or a stripped-down version of the assessment can be given for free, for example, on the website or on events at the booth of the company, and that can generate leads, that's also a possibility.
And then on a higher level, of course, if you can scale this, you can enter new markets by doing this, by getting to segments of customers that we're not capable to afford, like your traditional consulting offering. We have someone, it's not really consulting, it's in private banking, we have a client that... Private banking you normally need, I don't know, half a million or 1 million in assets to a client in those banks, but he has done a stripped down... Freefinancialplan.com, it's called. You have to enter quite some information, but you get a free advice, of course, links to different partner companies, but by doing that, he's an ex-private banker, so he said…
Deb Zahn: That's right.
Stefan Debois: In the assessment and in the report. By doing that, he can go to client segments with lower total assets, but still interesting, so new customer segments for traditional private banks normally they do not target those segments.
Deb Zahn: I love that. I had another guest, Adam Falcone, who works at a law firm. They have a subscription service for clients who typically would not be able to be served by them because of the price. And so, they can instead buy a subscription service and get what they need through that. That requires a little more work on their part. It basically removes any legal risk from them because they're able to get it directly from the experts that actually know the ins and outs of what they're subscribed to, and then that's recurring revenue because they need that every single year.
Stefan Debois: That's interesting.
Deb Zahn: So, where can folks find you?
Stefan Debois: On social media, I'm most active on LinkedIn, so when you search for my name on LinkedIn, I'm happy to connect and also to share experiences with your listeners, and then on our website pointerpro.com, if you want to know more about the product, but also on content about digitizing professional services, about assessments and so on. So, we try to be quite active, so that's another way to find me.
Deb Zahn: Wonderful, and we will have links to all of that on the show notes. So, since you are the king of digitizing, that means you freed all of this time in your life. That's what I'm going to assume. So, how do you bring balance to your life, however you define that?
Stefan Debois: I think in my personal life I've done quite some digitization. I think that maybe I can do a bit better, that's something to think about, but how I balance is mostly by doing physical workout. Instead of taking the car to work, taking the bike and also independently of the weather, and this gives me a boost in the morning and then in the evening. Also, going for a run in the weekend or so, then it clears your mind, and that's something that I need to find balance for the rest. I think my life is now that the company is more stable and that our kids are of a certain age, my life is a bit more stable than before. I'm getting enough sleep, also that helps.
Deb Zahn: That helps.
Stefan Debois: So, that helps to have a good balance.
Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Biking to work makes you my hero, so that's very cool. Well, I want to take you-
Stefan Debois: It's only eight kilometers, so not everybody can do it, but with me it's only eight kilometers, so it's only 25 minutes, so it's ideal. It's not too long, not too short. So, it's only the weather here in Belgium is sometimes a bit not that good.
Deb Zahn: Thats great, though. Well, Stefan, thank you so much for being on the show. I think one of the things that I'm dedicated to this year is to help consultants think about other ways of doing things, so that they can scale without, as you said, adding headcount. But also without ruining their lives by working all the time. So, thank you so much for offering what you shared with us today.
Stefan Debois: Thank you for having me, Deb.
Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or 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.
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