Deciding How You Want to Deliver Your Consulting Services
Updated: Mar 11
One of the fundamental things you have to do as a consultant is to decide what services you are going to offer to clients in your market. Hopefully, before you decided what your services are, you’ve taken the time to:
Select a market and potentially a niche that you will offer your services in
Identified your ideal client(s) within that market
Done your market research to know what the pain and gain points are of those clients
Clarified what those clients have a demand for (i.e., what they are willing to pay for to solve or gain)
Defined your value relative to their demand (i.e., matched what you can do to solve the problems they want help to solve and achieve the things they want help to achieve)
That is the foundation upon which you can define your services and ensure that they are sellable.
How You Deliver Services is As Important as What They Are
But it is also important to consider how you want to deliver your services. Deciding that will help you pursue and pick the client engagements that you are best suited for and match how you want to work.
There are many ways to answer the how question. And it isn’t just when you start consulting. In the decade that I’ve been consulting, I’ve had to reexamine how I deliver services many times. In the last few years—after trying many versions—I’ve been looking at these ways of consulting and asking myself how much of each version I want to keep doing:
Doing time-limited projects
Being a trusted advisor
Developing and selling products
When I first started as a consultant, most of my work was doing time-limited projects. They usually lasted one to six months. The scope of the projects were defined and executed within a distinct timeframe and then the project was over. These types of projects were like doing sprints. They often involved really intensive work toward accomplishing a specific objective in a short timeframe. The upside of these is that you get to work on many different projects and with different clients throughout the year, which, at least for me, keeps
consulting interesting. The downside, of course, is that you have to constantly be paying attention to your pipeline and ensuring that you have work as projects end. For some consultants, that is more stressful than the benefits that come with the upside.
Occasionally, I would secure projects that lasted over a year, sometimes several years. Those were more like marathons. The upside is that you know you have business for an extended period of time and have to worry less about cashflow. The downside is that longer timeframes can make projects and project costs more difficult to manage. A lot can happen in a year or more! The downside can also be that it can feel too much like having a job, especially to consultants who like novelty.
For a long time, I thought project-based work was the only way to do consulting. I just fell into it by default. Then I noticed a few consultants who were in my market had a different approach. They were hired more for their brains—or access to their brains. They show up, assess situations, and say smart things. They’d give guidance and help develop strategies. But they weren’t doing all of the hands-on work I was doing. I remember commenting to a colleague, “Hey, why can’t I get paid to tell people what I think?” Her answer was, “You should!”
I think one of the reasons I hadn’t entertained that before was the negative image of the consultant who, as the saying goes, “borrows your watch and then tells you the time.” And then bills you. I didn’t want to be anything like that!
But this way of consulting could be very different. You can be a “trusted advisor” who is truly adding value to clients without trying to upsell the next project. The best version of a trusted advisor is someone who has real-world experience, expertise, and skills and someone who gives advice that is useful and actionable by clients or other members of a consulting team.
I thought project-based work was the only way to do consulting. Then I noticed a few consultants who were in my market had a different approach. They were hired more for their brains—or access to their brains.
As a trusted advisor, you could have deep knowledge of a particular industry and the direction it is headed, which will help clients make informed choices. You may have expertise in how organizations and people function and perform or are able to see above the day-to-day struggles within an organization to provide advice that leaders can’t get internally. Whatever your unique contribution is, this consulting role can be a wonderful way to deliver services.
The upside is that you get to apply everything you have done and gained in your career to helping clients achieve longer-term goals. And you often get to make a more significant contribution to the success of an organization because you actively look for ways to help the organization outside of a more narrowly defined project. If you demonstrate value to the client, being a trusted advisor is often an ongoing engagement, which means you can also enjoy ongoing revenue.
The downside is that you are not on the ground with a project where you get to drive the actual change. Some consultants love that type of work and would miss it if they only were giving advice. You also have to invest your time and brain-power into staying up-to-the-minute current on what is happening in your industry so you can continually provide relevant advice to your clients.
When people hear the word consulting they don’t often think of products, but this can be a wonderful way to deliver services that are valuable to many clients.
For example, while I was leading a team working with a client, we developed an assessment tool that was relevant to a major shift that was happening in the market. This was a shift that was impacting many organizations and the risks of not being ready for it were significant. The client found the tool very useful. We knew it would help similar organizations who were facing the same situation. So we decided to turn the tool into an online product and deliver it in a way that would be valuable to clients, easy for them to use, and affordable for them to access. The process was not easy given that we no experience developing a product. But it was a huge success!
Adam Falcone, a guest on my podcast, said his firm has developed a suite of online, on-demand products that help clients stay in compliance with ever-changing federal and state regulations. He said it helps them serve more clients who have the same needs and gives clients a more affordable option to get what they need.
The upside to this approach is that it is a way to offer valuable services at a scale greater than what you could provide working one-on-one with clients. So it can help more clients! It is also a source of passive income, meaning once you invest in developing the product and marketing it, it generates revenue without you having to do more work except for periodic updates if needed.
The downside—or reality—is that developing and selling products requires upfront and ongoing investments. You have to invest in assessing the demand in the market, developing the product, paying for an automated delivery mechanism, keeping the product current and relevant, and marketing it. Successful products can generate revenue to cover these investments, but there is no guarantee that you will sell enough to recoup your costs. You may also need to acquire new knowledge and skills, or pay someone who has them, to increase the likelihood of your products being profitable.
Mix It Up and Experiment
Although the proportions keep changing, I prefer a mix of these ways of delivering my services. For example, I have taken on more engagements where I am the trusted advisor. However, I like doing at least some project work because I find it keeps me steeped in the reality of what it takes to make change happen and stick. It also gives me more credibility and more recent examples to use when I’m pursuing new clients. I also love what we were able to do with a product and, because of that, plan to do more.
There’s no single choice or right formula to choosing your how. But it is worth experimenting with new ways of delivering services and paying attention to what suits you and your clients best. There is no default way to provide services. So my advice is to deliberately decide what you like best and services your clients, and then actively pursue that type of work. The beauty of having your own consulting business or practice is that you get to decide, and you get to switch it up if you’d rather work a different way.