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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

How to Avoid the Feast or Famine Trap of Consulting

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

One of the most common problems consultants face is establishing a steady, reliable pipeline of work that will generate ongoing income. If you don't do that, you can get trapped in a cycle of intense variation in the amount of work you have. It is often called the "feast or famine" cycle of consulting. One moment, you'll have so much work you don't know what to do with it, and the next moment you won't have any.

Unfortunately, this means you won't have income you can rely on. This is a sad but common trap to fall into and not just for new consultants. It also happens to consultants who have been in business for a very long time.

Why Does It Happen?

Many consultants often do a big push to get business when they don't have any, succeed in getting business, and then focus on the abundance of work that they have. This is the feast cycle.

When all these gigs are coming to an end, they panic. They're heading into the famine mode because they did not do anything or enough to line up business for the future.

The good news is that this dreadful cycle is avoidable!

A Plan is Your Path Off the Cycle

The first thing you need to do is understand that this cycle will continue to occur unless you do something to stop it. Stopping the cycle requires deliberate attention and action.

Since I love gardening, I’m going to use a gardening analogy to explain this scenario.

First-time gardeners often plant all their seedlings at the same time. Then, when they harvest, they have more food than they could possibly eat. But, after they've consumed that food, they’re left with nothing.

As any seasoned gardener can tell you, you can be planning for your next round of plantings while the ones you currently have in the garden are growing. That means you get subsequent harvest over a longer period of time. But you have to have a plan to know what to do what when.

It works the same with consulting. But how?

Avoid the Famine by Tracking the Feast

To avoid the famine, you first need to have some basic systems in place for planning and tracking. The goal of the systems are to allow you to more easily anticipate future famines while you have a feast of business. Consider these your early warning systems! They let you know that you have to do something to intervene well before there's a problem.

This kind of forward-thinking planning is exactly what I do to ensure the healthiest yield in my garden. I have a gardening software system that lets me track when I'm supposed to plant seedlings, harvest, and plant again. The system I use helps me keep track of everything that is in the ground and what needs to happen after I plant the first round so I can get subsequent yields from my garden over the longest period of time.

In consulting, the first step is to know what business you currently have and when each of those engagements begins and ends. That may seem obvious, but I know many consultants who couldn't tell you that information simply because they aren't tracking it. They're enjoying the feast and don't think about famines until they happen!

It’s also wise to track the lead time of what it took to get the business you do have. Why? Well, ultimately, you want to build lead-time assumptions into your plan. That will help you make better and more timely decisions about when you need to intervene.

You also need to know, at any given time, when you expect revenue from your current work to make it into your pocket. Avoiding the feast or famine cycle of consulting is not just about when you get business. It's also about when you get paid. Revenue might come in at different times, which impacts your cashflow.

(Having a customer management relationship system is the best way to do this.)

Ongoing Planting for Consulting Business

Tracking provides the information you need to develop an ongoing plan and intervene when you need to.

As a gardening example, I plant two rounds of seeds of the same plants so that by the time the first round is almost ready to harvest, I have plants ready to go in the ground. That means I get subsequent harvests that I can enjoy for a longer period.

To keep your consulting business pipeline full, you have to plant seeds through continual marketing and outreach. That's true for all consultants. Whether you’ve got clients lined up for months ahead or you are just starting to build your client base, you should always be doing things to bring in additional future business.

Minimally, you want to always visible in your market. For example, you don't want to flood LinkedIn with posts when you are starving for work and then disappear when you have business only to reappear when you don't have business again. That sends a confusing signal to potential clients and causes people in your market to forget about you in between.

But you also want to have a list of prospects that you reach out to on a regular basis. It could be as simple as sending them information that they would find valuable to sending a regularly scheduled email newsletter with news and information about your industry or market to setting up meetings with clients who you have decided are priorities on your list.

Repeat and Referred Business to Help Fill Your Pipeline

You can also avoid falling into the feast or famine trap by getting repeat and referred business. This strategy lets you spend less time chasing business and more time doing the good work that you want to do as a consultant.

Sometimes it's a passive process where existing clients ask you to do more or a former client calls you back do something else for them. But it should never only be a passive experience!

How else do you get repeat and referred business?

You deliver excellence and then ask to help them more and referrals!

Step one is ensuring your clients get an excellent outcome and experience. (That should always be your main goal anyway!) Doing so will make them want to keep working with you. It will also make them more willing to lend their reputation to you by referring other potential clients your way.

Once you know they were delighted by what you did for them, directly ask them if there's anything else you can help them with. Better still, look for ways you can add more value and suggest what you can do to help them. As always, you want to make sure that it is clearly about them and never looks like you're just trying to get more money out of them.

If you know that you want them to refer you to other types of clients or other specific clients, ask them to do that. If they had an excellent experience with you, they're going to love to do this for you because it's going to make them look good to their peers because they will be sending them best consultant imaginable.

Make it easy for them to refer you! Don't make them do any extra work to help you. If you are asking them to send someone an email, draft it for them. Make it short and to the point.

Include three to four bullet points on what you can help clients like them achieve. Highlight any significant results.

Don't include any attachments so they can easily forward it. If you want the people they send it to see examples of your work or case studies, create a landing page on your website and include a link.

If their referral results in an engagement for you, thank them! And always honor the trust they have in you by ensuring that the clients they send your way get the best results and experience with you.

An Abundant Harvest

These types of strategies will help you increase the likelihood of having a steady harvest of work and income when need it. Just like in nature, you will not be able to control everything, but, by paying attention and taking the right actions, you can set yourself to have the abundant consulting business you want.

Want More Help Making Your Consulting Business Succeed?

Check out the Craft of Consulting Membership. In this community, you'll get me and other consultants helping you make decisions and take action that get you results. Plus, you get your own cheering section filled with folks invested in your success!

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