Want to Succeed at Consulting? Know Your Zones
Are you dreaming of becoming a consultant or have you just taken the leap into consulting? Or are you struggling to get clients because you can't describe what you can do to help them in a clear and compelling way?
When I first made the transition to being a consultant, I was surprised that I struggled to describe to others what I could do, even though I had been in my field for 20 years. I had been very successful in my professional job. I had contributed to many successful projects. I was respected for what I knew and what I could do. I thought it would be easy to take that experience and expertise and translate it into a concrete description of what I could do for a client.
It turns out that it wasn’t that easy. How the heck do you describe your knowledge and skills in a way that makes a client say, “Please come do that for me”?
Over the last decade that I have been consulting and helping other new consultants, I've seen that this is a common experience for new consultants. It doesn't matter if they were formerly highly successful CEOs or highly praised mid-career professionals. So many smart and skilled people spend months (and sometimes years!) wrestling with how to describe what they can do, and then how to feel confident in selling these services to clients.
Underestimating (and Sometimes Overestimating) Your Value
New consultants often underestimate the value they bring to a client. They think they can only do the specific things that they've done before. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve also seen new consultants oversell themselves, say that they can do anything and everything, and then fail to deliver on those promises to a client.
So if you're just launching your consulting career, how do you find that sweet spot—the spot where you can easily describe what you truly can do and can reliably make good on your promises?
Know Your Zones
Knowing your zones is the foundation of consulting success. Knowing your zones will help you more precisely and accurately articulate what you can do to help potential clients acieve their goals and, if you work with others, what you can do as part of teams.
I’ve defined four zones, which are based on your knowledge and skills.
ZONE 1: COMFORT ZONE
This is your primary sweet spot. You’ve done this type of work before, and you did it well. You have specific knowledge and skills that you have used to do this work.
This is a great place to start your consulting business. But don't stop there...
ZONE 2: EASY STRETCH ZONE
You have done similar work but not exactly this work. However, you are confident that you have transferable knowledge and skills that you can successfully apply to this work.
Even if you're just starting out as a consultant, you can work in this zone. That might mean referring to specialist colleagues to help you most effectively use your transferable skills, but this zone is still very much within your skillset, even if it is a little more challenging than your comfort zone.
ZONE 3: DEEP STRETCH ZONE
You have not done this type of work before. You have some knowledge and skills that are useful, but you need to get some additional knowledge and skills to do it well or work with others who can bring something essential that you do not have.
ZONE 4: NO-GO ZONE
You have not done this work and will not do it well, even with additional knowledge and skills. Don’t go there! Let someone else do this work who can give the client what they need.
This is when you should say no to a client engagement.
After You Know Your Zones
Knowing your zones can form the foundation of how you describe what you can do for clients. You can map your specific knowledge and skills to each zone and then craft descriptions of what you can do, what results you can help clients achieve, and how you do it. And knowing your zones can stop you from doing work that you are not the right consultant to do and, by saying no, protect your reputation in your market.
Examples of When Should You Should Say No to Clients