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Episode 233: Solving a Consulting Business Pipeline Crisis—with Deb Zahn

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So, this is going to be a short one because I have COVID. I'm not sure how long my voice is going to last, but I'm going to give you what I got.

So, on this episode, what we're going to do is talk about what to do if you suddenly find yourself with an empty pipeline of work. There are a lot of reasons that that can happen. May have nothing to do with anything you've done. I've certainly been in a situation where suddenly something I thought was going to come through didn't or a few things didn't.

And suddenly you're staring at an empty pipeline, particularly in those situations where it comes with an income crisis. So, you got to pay the bills. You’ve got to get money coming in, and if you're staring at an empty pipeline and you start to worry about it. Then it's time to act. And I'm going to talk about how to approach it, and some of the things that you can do to help solve that problem.

So, the first thing is it assumes that you did everything you could to prevent it. And there are a lot of things you can do to try and prevent it, including paying attention to your pipeline, seeing when things are stopping and starting, and assigning probabilities to things so you know.

There's a whole bunch of other things. So, assuming you tried to prevent it, and you’ve got the reality that you got. You have to do something with it. So, the first thing I would say really starts with mindset stuff because it is really, really easy to get paralyzed by panic. Now, what I don't want to say is, “Oh, completely ignore your feelings and don't panic at all. Just stay chipper.” Because that's silly. And I would never encourage that. It's OK if you panic a little bit. Income is income. So, it's a definite thing that you might worry about. That's OK. But the key is you don't want to get so paralyzed by it that you're not willing to take the actions that you need to take.

Now is the time to be decisive and be action oriented and to take good, smart, strategic action that's good enough to yield the results that you want. Not to get paralyzed because you get stuck in the panic about the income. The other mindset thing I would say is, and this is where I've certainly been stuck in this, and I've seen others, is pride. This goes along with doubts about our own business and all kinds of other things.

But sometimes we can experience it as pride where it's like, “I don't want to necessarily do all the things I want to do because I don't want anyone to know that I don't have things in my pipeline.” Then the tendency is to hide a little bit, which is definitely not what you want to do when you have an empty pipeline. But it feels too embarrassing to let people know that you don't have any business, or you need to get more business.

And here's what I would say is, and it's as simple as this, pride doesn't pay the bills. I mean, I'm really practical at the end of the day. I got feelings and, and those feelings I respect and I honor and all of those good things. And I got to pay the bills. So, I'm not going to let pride or something that looks and feels and tastes like pride get in my way of solving this problem.

And the reality is even the best consultants in the world for all kinds of different reasons could find themselves with an empty pipeline. And it's OK. As long as you're willing to step up and solve the problem. So, that's the first thing I'd say is to think about some of those mindset stuff and just, not get stuck and know that what you got to do is you got to think about things.

You have to figure out the strategies and you got to take action and then adjust those actions as you go along. I'm going to talk about what some of those are, but first I want to say, how should you be approaching this? Like, how should you be thinking about it? Because if you got a little too much panic going on.

It can feel like, “Oh my god, I have to do something!” And panic action is definitely not what you want to do. Like that's the, that's the other side of the coin of paralyzed panic. It's like, I have to do something. And then you're doing sort of scattershot things and it's not helping you because it's not focused action that's going to yield the result that you want.

So, while you want to think about this is what are the things that I can do. and start doing a lot of that are the shortest time period from where I am now to signed contracts. And it maybe you need one contract, it may be that you need a few contracts depending on what you do and your pricing and all of that.

All actions and strategy should be judged by that shortest time to contract and that gives you this really helpful criteria as you start to think about what some of the strategies and actions you're going to take. Ask yourself, “Is this a shortest-time-to-contract strategy? Is this a shortest-time-to-contract action?”

If the answer is no, or I don't really think so, then it's not something you should be focused on doing right now. And I recognize as I say this that advice that I and others give all the time, and it's true, is that you need to be playing the long game, the middle game, and the short game, all at the same time.

That's generally how you want to treat your pipeline. You're paying attention to every stage of your process and trying to get people into your pipeline and work in the folks that are in the middle work in the folks that are at the end. That's a 100% true, but if you have a crisis, then you have to respond to it like a crisis which means focus on solving the problem at hand the fastest.

And if that means that other things are going to fall away for a little bit, that's OK. And, again, I'm someone who talks about playing each stage of the pipeline. I'm someone who talks about how important consistency is and things you do. All of that's true. You got a crisis, you respond to it like a crisis, right?

So, I'm very practical from that standpoint. Give yourself permission. To perhaps stop doing some things or delay some things that you typically do. If what you really need is time to focus on the crisis at hand. And by crisis, I mean the income crisis. What is typically the fastest time to contract?

Now that is generally people. And by people, I mean people who are going to buy from you or connect you with people who are going to buy from you who already at the moment you're experiencing that crisis. They already know you. They already know your value. So, they don't have to learn about you.

They don't have to learn about your value. They already know it. And they already have a demand for what you do. And I'm going to break down those things because each of those is important. So, the people that know you and value you. The reason for that is people that you have to get to know you, people you have to convince of your value, and that tends to be more on the cold outreach side.

And I'm not against cold outreach by any means, I just don't think it makes sense to do it in a crisis. It's less likely to bear fruit, so it has a much lower conversion rate of converting people from. The folks who are doing outreach to become clients, so it has a lower hit rate. That's not helpful when you're in a crisis, and it includes multiple steps.

And the first step is figuring out who they are, doing some outreach, hope you actually get a response. If you don't get a response, you keep you keep going back to them. If you're able to get a response, then there's the whole wooing process of getting them to care enough about you. That they're willing to have a conversation and if they have a conversation that they come to understand that there's a reason that they should hire you.

Again, that tends to take longer. So, the whole faster thing goes out of the equation, and it has a lower conversion rate and what you want to do is fastest time to contract and the contract means it's got to have high enough yield that that strategy and that action is going to be worth it. Here's the other thing I'd say is when you think about, all right, who knows me and who already knows my value.

That tends to be people in your network. So, these are folks that you've done work with in the past, either when you were employed or as clients. These are people who, who you've worked with in some capacity who might need your help today or they might be able to refer you, in which case that's not cold outreach if it's, if it's, they're already warming someone up to have a conversation with you.

And it's also possible that this could be folks who started as cold outreach before, but because of your marketing efforts that you've already done in the past. So, these are folks that you've warmed up already. Through past action that you took, marketing you've done, outreach you've done, and you're at a stage in the process with them where reaching out to them makes sense.

They've already learned about you. They've already learned enough about your value. You've got some kind of sense of what demand they might have. So, it makes sense to reach out to them now and try and get them into a discovery process with you. So, those are the folks that it makes sense to reach out to.

Now, here's the other thing I'd say. You also want to look back at what has worked for you before and what has tended to work more quickly. And then you want to do more of that. And I've had conversations with folks in my membership doing marketing and doing a bunch of other things to expand their network and their potential buyer pool and all of that's the right stuff.

But when they look back and they think about where have I gotten the majority of my business, it tends to be through their networks and which is very, very common. That's absolutely true with me. I've gotten some folks that haven't been in my network, but a lot of it's in my network. And it makes sense if you're looking for business to lean into that because that has worked for you in the past and it tends to work more quickly.

If you look back and you say, you know. Every time I go to a networking event or most times I go to a conference and I, I have a clear plan and strategy and I walk in and I rock it, I walk out with a bunch of folks that I can have discovery calls with. That's then something you want to pay attention to and do.

If you've actually gotten clients through that process and you've gotten them pretty quickly because they had a chance to experience you live and in person or virtually, then do that. If you've gotten a lot of your business before through repeat business or referrals, and that's where a lot of your businesses come from, I would lean into that. If reaching out to former colleagues tends to yield results for you, then do that.

So, you want to think very clearly and honestly about, “OK, really, where has my work come from? Where has my work come from quickly?” And then that's what you're going to focus on.

Now at the same time, you want to be brutally honest with yourself about what hasn't worked, right?Or maybe it hasn't worked yet, but you think it'll eventually bear fruit. I wouldn't spend a whole lot of time paying attention to that while there is a crisis. That's if if you still think something might bear fruit, you go back to it once you have enough clients that you're no longer worried about the income coming in.

But I would say. Just give yourself permission to focus on what you think is going to work more quickly. And, and ignore like, cause there's a bunch of experts out there who are like, no, you must do this. And this is going to work if you do this. And you can do this in 30 days and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Yeah. I don't buy any of that. And you can tell I get a little more frankly when I have COVID. I've been sick now for a week. I'm just going to tell you like it is. Ignore all of that and just do what makes sense is actually going to work for you. And here's the other thing is, this is sort of my warning is, be really careful of the scattershot approach.

Now again, as I said, if you're kind of in a panic or you're worried, it's easy to just be like, “I’ve got to do something!” And then you start just doing a whole bunch of things and that's panic activity, which I don't think is very helpful. You want to keep it directed at the buyers who you think are going to get you a contract sooner and sooner.

It comes back to what I said about go where there is already demand. I'm going to spell that out a little bit because you may not know precisely what their demand is. But if you've had conversations before with particular buyers or buyer types, and you have to convince them that the thing you do is valuable and will get them a result that they care about, you're not even talking to them about your value and why they should hire you over someone else.

You're trying to convince them that that thing is a good idea. You've now created two steps in the process of demand. The first is demand for the thing. And the second thing is demand for you doing the thing. That takes longer. So, because you're trying to get contracts as quickly as possible, you want to think about who already knows that this thing is valuable because now. I need to talk with them about why it makes sense to hire me. And if you do that at the same time with folks who already know your value, and they might even not know that you do that thing because you did another thing for them before, they're still much more likely to get to a yes because you don't have to convince them of having demand for the thing that, that ultimately you want to do for them.

So, that's the main things I would say, but I want to give you a few other tips. The other is, obviously, you're going to do a whole bunch of work with the goal of trying to get into conversations with folks, discovery process with folks, to try and get a contract. So, even, and I would say, especially if you're feeling a little bit worried or desperate or anything along those lines, you want to be especially prepared.

I always think it's a good idea to be prepared. You want to be prepared to get that? Yes. and I have blogs, and I've done other podcasts about how to do that. But you want to be as prepared as possible so that there's nothing that you do that makes a yes less likely. You want to have everything you do make a yes more likely. And so being prepared is one of those.

Another thing I would say is just stay focused. Do business development every day. When your pipeline is full and flowing and it's got a beautiful rhythm to it, you don't necessarily need to do business development every day. But if you're in a crisis, this is what I would focus on in business development, specifically on the contracts that you can get in your hand more quickly. And here's what I'd say is the cool thing about that is if you take that kind of action, that kind of action tends to put any doubts or panic or whatever you have on the back burner. Because you're like, “I’ve just got to get ‘er done. This is actually made a hot sauce once I called “Get “er Done Hot Sauce.” And it's the same thing. You just got to get 'er done. And if you do that, you're going to bear some fruit, but you got to just knuckle down and you got to, you got to work through it and you got to be able to do it. I would also say one of the fears that I've seen people have is, “Oh my gosh, what if I do a bunch of outreach, and everything comes in at once, right?” And then suddenly it's more work than you could possibly do.

So, let me say two things about that. The first is the chances are really low. No matter how fabulous you are, and if you picked the right buyers and you got the right folks who you're having conversations with about the right stuff that they already have a demand for, everything's not going to come through. And everything's not going to come through all at once. So, that's a good thing.

And then the other thing I'd say is, I would welcome that problem. That's a good problem to have. That is a good problem to have to solve. So, don't worry about it when you're doing outreach.

That's just feeding. the non-action that's feeding sort of the doubts and being paralyzed. So, just set that aside and say, “Look, if everybody wants to work with me, I can solve that problem. No problem at all.” And just know that you can. The other thing I'd say, and again, this is where I'm going to veer from.

If you have a crisis and you need income coming in, then be willing to do less than ideal work, right? I mean, if you can do it well and you can really serve the client extremely well…don't do anything where the client isn't going to get what they need. I definitely do not because that's not fair to the client and it's not going to serve your reputation. In fact, it might harm your reputation, but if you can do it well, even if it's not exactly what you want to be doing ultimately in your consulting business. So, what? Like this is where, and I've done it before.

I've just been like, “Look, I need some business, and there's this thing I do.” And in my case, the thing I do is I'm really good at writing federal grants. Do I want to build a business around writing federal grants? No, I do not. I really don't. I don't hate it. I don't love it, but I'm good at it, and I have a really high hit rate for my clients.

So, there's a reason that they would want me to do that for them. But if I got a hole in my pipeline. Yeah, I'm going to suck it up, and I'm going to do that work. And it's OK because I can worry about how to fill my pipeline with the work that I truly want to be doing once I'm out of this crisis. I just have to give myself permission to do that. That's what I'm going to encourage you to do is give yourself permission to not have this be perfect. You can hop back into your zone of genius after you've solved this crisis.

So, last couple things I would say about this is as you get the business because if, if it's an income crisis, cash flow might also be part of the crisis. So, try and arrange payment terms that help you solve cash flow, right? Like you don't want to be like, “Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you for giving me business.” So, that you're not going to be willing to make the arrangements that are both beneficial to them as well as you. So, this is the time to get an upfront payment or to do a payment model that gives you a chunk of that change ahead of time. And if you've been nervous about doing that in the past, well, now is the time to ask for one. Now is the time to push yourself to do that. The client might say no. A lot of times they don't say no. I've asked for upfront payments before and nobody thought that was weird. There were a few times they weren't able to do it, but now is the time for you to get a little bolder because a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

So, if this can get you over other humps, and it helps solve things that are part of the crisis that you're having right now, heck! Why not do that? I mean, absolutely. Why not do that? If it makes your life easier immediately and not for nothing, it's going to make your life easier in the long run. So, that's what I would say about that.

And hopefully this was helpful. My voice held out the entire time. I'm hoping no one listening to this gets COVID because it's awful. But I wanted to make sure that I got in, and I was able to do this podcast so I could share something with you that I thought would be helpful.

I've been talking to people, particularly in my membership about this for a while, just something wacky happens or something didn't happen that folks thought would come through, and they have to solve a problem. And how do you solve that problem? These are some of the things that we end up talking about.

So, hopefully that was helpful, and I'll see you on the next episode.

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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