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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

How to Prepare to be Successful When You First Start Consulting

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Does Preparation Really Matter?

When you first decide to be a consultant or take the leap, you need to set yourself up to be successful. The key to doing this is to be prepared.

Taking the steps to get the right things in place before you start engaging clients is what makes a difference between succeeding and not succeeding or building a business fast or glacially.

That might seem obvious. Sadly, it isn’t. I have seen so many consultants skip critical preparation steps. The result is they end up spending a lot of time floundering; not getting any traction with clients; or, worse, losing opportunities because they didn’t make a great impression when they first engaged clients. I say that not just because I've seen other consultants go through that, but because that's what happened to me when I first started consulting. But more about that later…

If I had to estimate, I’d say that when you are first developing your consulting business, preparation should be at least half of what you should spend your time and energy doing. If you do all your preparation, the actual amount of time you should be engaging clients and selling your services should be about 15 or 20%. The rest is doing an excellent job and ensuring that the client has a great experience once you get an engagement. As your business matures over time and your reputation in your field gets stronger, then the time and energy you spend doing an excellent job and giving your client a wonderful experience should increase because your business will depend more and more on getting repeat business and referred business, which is most of the business I get now. But in the beginning, at least half of your time should be spent preparing for success.

Let’s dig into what that means, including why it is important and how you do it. Now, because I am an avid (rapid) vegetable gardener and it's spring where I live, I can't resist using a gardening analogy. Now for folks who aren't gardeners, don't worry, it'll make perfect sense.

What the best gardeners know is that before you ever plant a seed, you have to prepare. You have to make good, deliberate choices; you have to create the right foundation for success; and you have to implement systems. And if you do those things, it increases the likelihood that your garden is going to thrive and you're going to get the yield that you want. In my garden, I want to make sure that when I plant my corn now, I'm going to get big harvest of sweet, juicy, delicious corn in August. But I’ve got to make sure that the right things are in place to do that. And it is the same way with consulting!

Make Deliberate Choices Before You Do Anything

So the first step is to make good, deliberate choices before you do anything else. That way you will not have to keep changing things after it didn't go well or get so overwhelmed by having to make decisions and execute on those decisions all at the same time.

In gardening, you have to decide what you're going to plant. You have to think about where you're going to plant, what the conditions are, and what you can and can’t do. What's your soil like? How much sun is there going to be? What can you do with the time that you have? What you can do physically, especially if you're like me and over 50. Considering all of those things and more will allow you to make decisions that will increase the likelihood of a high yield. Then you have to make a whole slew of choices before you ever put a shovel in the ground.

For example, where I live, the soil is all clay and rock. It’s hard to dig into, and it’s not suitable for growing most veggies. So I built raised beds. If I didn't pay attention and just tried to plant things in the soil I have, it wouldn't have worked. I would have wasted my time and energy and for nothing.

In consulting, there are also many things you need to consider and then make decisions before you jump out there to get business. The first things you have to consider and decide on is what market you are going to offer your services in and, if you're going to pick a niche within that market, what that's going to be. Those decisions should be based on an understanding of what your knowledge and expertise are, what results you can help clients achieve, and what the market conditions are. If you make well-thought-out decisions, then when you go try to do marketing or engage clients, it will be a scattershot approach, which is far less likely to be successful. It's going to be difficult for you to articulate and for clients to understand who you are and what you can do for them.

You also have to figure out what your pricing model is going to be and what your price is. That's a critical decision, and there is not one what to do it. And you never want to wait until you're in front of a client to make those decisions. They may ask you on the spot what you charge or how you charge. If you haven't made those decisions ahead of time, then you're probably going to say a number or a pricing model that isn't right for you. You're going to more than likely underprice yourself or say a number that is completely out of whack with what's appropriate for that market. You might default to a pricing model, such as charging hourly, that ultimately you don’t want to do. And once clients get used to paying you in a certain way or a certain amount, it is tougher to switch later. So consider ahead of time what you want your business and life to be like and what the market is like. Then make a choice.

Create a Foundation for Success

The next thing you have to do is create a foundation for success. This is where you create the conditions that are going to increase your yield. In gardening, there are some fundamentals I have to get right. I have to have really good soil. There's an adage in gardening that if you have a dollar, spend 90 cents on improving your soil because that's the foundation for everything you do. If you have crappy soil, it doesn't matter how good your seeds are. You're not going to get the yield that you want. So I add compost and mulch to keep my soil happy and healthy. Plus I have a water source, a shed to store my gardening equipment, and other things set up so that it's really easy for me to focus on the best parts of the process, which are planting, tending, harvesting, and eating.

It is no different in consulting. There are a number of things that are absolutely essential for your foundation.

Your Value Proposition

The first step in this stage is to develop your value proposition. A value proposition is not what you know how to do or what you are passionate about doing. It's not really about you. It's about what results you can help clients achieve. It is what value you can bring to clients. The more specific you are when you're developing your value proposition and the more you can learn to quantify that value, the more compelling it's going to be once you enter your market. It will also clarify who it makes the most sense for you to reach out to rather than using a scattershot approach.

This is one of the most important things all consultants need to do at the beginning. Unfortunately, I've seen this step skipped more than anything else. My little secret is that I skipped it at the beginning. I didn't know that I should do it. I knew that I had done good things in my previous jobs and people liked working with me. I knew that I had helped achieve results in my jobs. But I didn't put it down on a piece of paper in a way that would help me articulate my value when I was in front of clients.

Your Descriptions

You also have to know what you're going to say before you engage a client. You don't want the first time you describe your value or say who you are to be when you are in front of clients.

How you describe yourself and your value may seem pedestrian. You know who you are and what you can do, so how hard can it be, right? Very hard actually. Bad, cringe-worthy things can happen! I’ve seen it. And I’ve done it. Without preparing adequately, folks often just start babbling. Clients’ eyes start to glaze over. Worse, they start typing on their computer or phone. Ouch!

So you need to be able to nail down the way you introduce yourself and how you describe your value so they are crisp, clear, and compelling statements. Then practice them so you can say them effortlessly.

Your Brand

You need to decide what your brand is going to be. You want to have a clear, compelling consulting brand that is going to help you build the business you want and a reputation that will feed your business over time. I don't mean all the pretty stuff like colors and images for your business cards and website. Yes, you have to do those things too, but I mean a real brand, which is what you want people to think and feel about you and what you want them to experience when they interact with you and your consulting business.

The answers to those questions should guide your decisions about how you're going to enter and operate in the market. I would never suggest that you leave that to chance. Since, ultimately, you want your business to be based on repeat and referral business, you need to be in charge of your brand and reputation. If you think about that ahead of time and then you align all of the ways that you operate, all of the ways that you do marketing, and all sorts of decisions about how you are present in that market with that brand, you be able to create and cultivate a brand that gets you results.

Now, do you need a website, business cards, and all of those visual elements of your brand? Sure. But those should be expressions of your brand not the whole thing. And I would not spend inordinate amounts of time getting them “just right.” Perfection in this area does not help you get clients so don’t a lot of time spend time fussing over these things.

Your Marketing

To build a solid foundation, you also need to develop and execute a marketing strategy. There are so many options that is can be overwhelming. And I’ve seen some folks who do it all. They have books, case studies, events, email campaigns, social media posts, and more. All of those things can be really great if they offer true value to your market and are deployed strategically. But at the beginning, pick what will likely yield the best results. Consider what will reach your specific market, what will be valuable to them, and what you have the skills and ability to do well (or could pay someone else to do). The most important thing is that you to show your value in the places where your market already is. Consider that before you do any marketing so that you don’t waste time and energy doing marketing that doesn’t reach your market and doesn’t get you clients. As a consultant, you at least need to have a strong LinkedIn presence because that's where most professionals go. A strong presence means that you are consistently posting content that is valuable to your market and demonstrates your credibility and value. The rest of your marketing strategies will depend on your market but should follow the same principles.

Your Financial Cushion

If you're an independent consultant, a critical piece of your foundation is to have some type of a financial cushion. I would suggest having a cushion of at least 6 months of income. More is better, especially now when there is so much market volatility. That is going to give you the breathing room to take the right steps and do business development in a deliberate way. It's more difficult to do if you are frantic for income. You may end up taking projects that aren't right for you and aren't going to be easy for you to do well, which could damage your reputation. Plenty of consultants have made it work without a cushion, but it gives you more freedom to make decisions about the type of business you want to do and allows for the time it can take to get business and get paid.

Get Your Systems Right from the Beginning

If you’re like me, establishing systems is really sexy! If that’s not what excites you, well, you have to do it anyway. The goal is to get your systems right from the beginning so you can save time and energy later and prevents mistakes. In my garden, every single one of my gazillion garden beds has a drip irrigation system so that I can easily water when I need to. I have trellises set up for climbing veggies before I plant them. Nerd that I am, I've even have software to help me plan and track my garden and rotate crops over time.

Having the right systems is just as important in consulting. I especially encourage you to automate everything that you can. Anything that is a repetitive task should be automated so you can spend most of your time getting clients and working with clients and less time doing things that otherwise could be done electronically with minimal effort from you.

Systems are also important to ensure that an optimal client experience. Every interaction that you have with a client gives them an experience of what it's like to work with you. That includes things like getting them a proposal or contract and invoicing. They want everything to be timely and accurate. They don’t want to spend their time going back and forth with you to get things or get them right. Systems help you do that.

Some of these should be a no-brainer, but, again, I've seen way too many instances where all of these things weren't set up ahead of time when consultants started their businesses. Then clients were left waiting and wondering what’s happening because a consultant had to take extra time to make everything up from scratch.

What systems are the most critical? Here are my top 5 picks.

  1. Templates for proposals and contracts that allow you to add a scope of work and pricing information but otherwise have standard language

  2. Systems that allow you to send clients contracts and have the client sign and send them back electronically

  3. Financial software to track revenue and expenses, view automated reports for things like profit and loss, timekeeping (if you decide to charge hourly), and invoicing—all sent and paid electronically and with automated tracking and reporting

  4. Content marketing systems that allow you to build email lists and push out valuable content to your audience through email and social media

  5. Customer relationship management system to track client engagement

Regardless of what systems you pick, optimally, have all of this in place and ready to go before you enter your market and start engaging with prospective clients.

Now, the obvious question is, "Well, can't I just figure things out and get things in place as I go?" Sure. You can do that. I've seen consultants who have winged it, and it worked out. It might not have been smooth or easy, but it worked out in the end. But I've seen more consultants who have not been able to make that approach work and have failed or floundered because they didn't prepare ahead of time. Or they got really overwhelmed because too much was happening all at the same time.

My Confession

My confession is that, in the same way that I was not a successful gardener the first time, I was not successful at consulting when I first started. When I first tried gardening, I planted a tomato plant. My first tomato plant became sad and anemic. I got like two tiny tasteless tomatoes because I didn't prepare. I didn't create the conditions that would give me the yield I wanted.

When I started consulting, you think that would have taught me a lesson, right? Well…it didn't. I was fortunate that I worked at a great firm and they had some systems in place. But I didn't know how to prepare for the things that were on me, like developing my value proposition or figuring out how I was going to describe who I am and what I can do for clients. I didn’t know how to market my services. I didn’t have my own brand figured out.

Sadly, the result of my lack of preparation was that I wasted months. Several painful months. I was not getting business. I ended up doing work that I didn't like doing and wasn’t the best person to do. It wasn't until I failed a few times that I stopped and got some advice from successful consultants who had been down this path a lot longer than I had. With their guidance, I took the time to get more grounded and prepare. I did the steps I outlined for you. And that's when it started to get better for me. I was able to get business and work on the right projects with clients who I absolutely was the best suited to help.

The Cycle of Success

The other thing is I had to learn along the way is that, just like gardening, consulting is a continual cycle of preparing, executing, reassessing, and redoing. That’s the cycle of success! Continually figuring things out again to make them better.

It's just when you're first starting in consulting, the stakes are higher because you have to make it work. That’s why preparation is so critical when you start. It is the key for you to be successful faster than you would if you just try and wing it.

So take the time to prepare. Create the conditions that will make you a bountiful, high-yield consultant.

Also, check out my blog How to Become a Consultant in 7 Steps. It provides more detail about how to become a consultant and how to do things like create your value proposition.

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