Early in my career as a consultant, a prospect said, “Yes, yes, I understand you offer strategy, but do you do anything?” I immediately changed my tag line to active verbs and clear deliverables, all the while offering “strategy.”
A colleague of mine has agreed to create a training presentation for small business contractors. I asked, “What kind of contractors?” “You know, contractors – service providers rather that product companies – like plumbers and consultants.” I nodded, knowing that service businesses have different demands from product businesses.
But then I said, “Yes, but… a plumber doesn’t have the same challenges as a business or marketing or social media consultant. You hire a plumber and you know what he will do – he’ll fix the plumbing. The successful outcome is the sound of flushing. When you hire a business consultant, you don’t know what the successful outcome sounds like. Strategists and marketing and business development consultants must sell intangibles – they have a different challenge in presenting what they do and how to value it. Everyone knows the value of the flush.”
This got me thinking about pitching, closing and delivering on the value of an intangible service that does not have an easily definable deliverable – like strategy or marketing or social media consulting. Of course, there are projects and initiatives to work on, but tracking the actual results of an engagement can be difficult. And if your engagement is ongoing, not project based, the challenge is more daunting.
Sales’ consulting has results in prospects and closed sales; business development has deals signed. Market intelligence consulting is usually project-based, and the final report is the deliverable. But marketing and social media consulting delivers results that are more vague, or more distant, because they support “awareness” which can be tracked but not necessarily to closed sales or deals.
And strategy is the worst – what does “strategy” translate into? Sometimes more clarity, and efficiency, and better margins, and more deals, and less wasted time by management, and more bandwidth for the CEO – but these are intangibles too, to a certain degree. Ultimately, there is likely to be success or business growth or a rise in valuation from your services. But those take time.
Many service consultants learn to “productize” the deliverables of their intangibles – they write reports, or white papers, or findings. Sometimes these are valuable, but too often these deliverables end up on the credenza after a first reading and are not integrated into the strategy of the business, especially if you are not involved in a long-term, ongoing engagement. And sometimes this gives “consulting” a bad name., because the client can remember the price but not the value.
Here are a few ideas for ensuring that your client continues to value your involvement:
Clarity: agreeing on expectations, expertise, process and deliverables.
The best way to approach proving the value of your intangibles is to work with the client in the beginning, both before starting the work and during the first 30 days of the engagement, to refine his or her (and your) expectations. Before the work begins, you will define the scope of work for the contract. But as soon as the work begins, you must have the client outline with you the best way for you to get inside the company to get a handle on your work. Then you can dig in. But, you must continuously refer back to your client on what you are seeing and learning, and what next steps you should take, even if you are used to initiating your actions yourself. Your client must buy into the process as well as your expertise and deliverables.
Communication: taking on a defined role in the company as part of your engagement.
Also, you may take on roles that the company is lacking, say, handling the communications with the Board, or functioning as an outside marketing division. This role and its actions must be approved by the client, and remove most of the burden of this role from his or her responsibilities.
Reporting: Tracking your work done (and value delivered) every month.
Let’s say you are on a monthly retainer and you are going along responsibly doing an excellent job of it. And let’s say that’s become so comfortable for all concerned that it becomes routine in the company. This is good news. But only if you repeatedly make clear to your client the details of your ongoing involvement, deliverables, and work effort. You are still a consultant, and will be one of the first to be fired if bad times hit.
So, you must report in every month, along with your invoice for the upcoming month, with a brief report of work committed during the previous month. Do not track your time (except internally for your own use), but list everything that was accomplished, every situation that was resolved, every meeting you attended, every task done that was not in your contracted assignment, and every deliverable produced, whether the client saw it or not. This can be a bulleted list from an XLS spreadsheet (wherein you can track your time but not copy that section to the client). A client savvy enough to watch his or her bottom line will review it every month and be reminded of your value as your retainer check is cut. A client too scattered to focus on this “administrivia” will be able to be reminded of what you have been providing, in case some trouble or misunderstanding arises (legal or otherwise). In all cases, it is the track and the proof of your deliverables and your value.
These strategies of clarity, communication and reporting will keep your engagement strong and your client satisfied. All it takes is a sustained discipline (which is its own secret to success).