5 Ways To Improve Your Consulting Business

By January 26, 2015Client Work
Improve consulting process

With 2015 underway, many of you have goals you’d like to reach, like landing higher paying clients, raising your rates or streamlining your work processes.

Today, I want to discuss 5 ways you can improve your consulting business and really start separating yourself from other vendors. These 5 tips are written for web consultants, but can easily be adapted to any type of consulting business. Be sure to read through each as I’ve provided examples and tips throughout.

1. Have a Process

A process communicates to clients how you work and how the project will be executed. Having a very clear process is one of the best ways to close higher paying client projects and even charge more.

Instead of briefly explaining to clients what you do, give them an in-depth overview of the project cycle, from start to finish. This information will make a client comfortable because they’ll come to understand how their investment is being spent and how you’ll achieve the right result for their business.

Here is a rough example of a good vs. bad process for a website project. I like to go over my process on the phone or send clients a PDF file that explains the process as a set of phases. You can structure this in any format, but make sure it thoroughly explains how the project will be executed.

Project: 5 page website (design and development)

Bad process: We’re going to design each page of your website and then send you mockup previews. We’ll make changes as requested and once you’re happy, we’ll code it and send you the files.

Most consultants explain their process like this in a brief sentence, which doesn’t provide any insight into exactly how the new website will meet the strategic needs of the client. This type of process, if explained over email or phone could be costing you projects.

Good process: We break all of our projects up into phases, to achieve the best possible outcome for you and reduce as much risk as possible. We realize you’re making an investment, so its important you understand how we execute projects for a successful result.

Phase 1: The first phase is discovery, where we’ll dive deep into your project and learn about your requirements and goals through stakeholder interviews. We’ll also learn about your customers, competitors, marketing strategy, design preferences and do an SEO analysis. This information will strategically prepare us to build and launch the best possible website to reach your goals.

Phase 2: The second phase is user-experience and design. We’ll create a sitemap and wireframes for each page using our expertise along with the findings from phase 1. This will give us the foundation for the website, almost like a “blueprint” for a new home. We’ll then use the wireframes as a base to create design mockups with your preferred design preferences and present these to you for review. During this entire process, we’ll be working closely with you to get your feedback and iterate so we’re always on the right track.

Phase 3: The third phase is development, where we’ll convert the designs to working code so they can be accessed on the web. We’ll also add in any required javascript or plugins for increased functionality. We’ll test the website for web, tablet and mobile compatibility for a perfect visitor experience. You’ll also have access to a private link to view the website and provide any feedback before we launch it.

Each projects is set up on project management software, so you can receive updates along the way in one centralized place. We’ll also have weekly standup meetings to review the current progress and to answer any questions you may have.

This process is more detailed, clear and helps the client understand how the project will run. This is so important for winning bigger projects because clients need to be able to trust you with their investment to get a successful return. Without this information, clients will be uncertain and afraid to hire you because they won’t understand how their business will get from where it is to where they want it to be.

The process above is very rough for the purposes of this post and can definitely be more detailed. I highly recommend watching this webinar from GatherContent for a well-thought-out process by a digital marketing agency. It touches on the process above in more detail and also provides amazing tips on managing clients.

2. Manage Client Expectations

This is something I wish I had done earlier as a consultant. I rarely managed client expectations and would often let a client run (or ruin) a project.

Clients hire you for your expertise and to solve a problem – so why let them run the project on their terms?

I’m referring to clients who don’t take the project seriously or give out random revisions rather than trusting your expertise. We’ve all had clients who insist on making a logo bigger, changing the colors or making something work a different way. Deep down, we know this isn’t the right solution, but we do it anyway because it’s what the client wants, right? Well, not exactly.

You should never let a client be in the driver seat of a project. They’ve hired you, not the other way around. You have to make it clear from the start that you’re in control by laying down some ground rules (shown below). Having a process (mentioned earlier) also helps reinforce that you’re in control. By doing this, the client will realize working together is a serious business engagement and that you both have jobs to do. Otherwise, clients will have free rein to act how they please, which could mean replying when they want (causing delays), giving horrible feedback or not using tools properly to execute the project on time.

Below are a few ways I like to manage expectations and lay the ground rules on projects (this is by no means a definitive list). You can do this by sending a bullet list to clients over your project management app, putting it in your contracts or telling them directly on the phone.

1. Gather all feedback internally and have one person post it

In the past, I had several stakeholders posting feedback which made the project difficult to manage. Instead, on projects with multiple stakeholders, I require one person to be the voice for the group and to gather all thoughts/feedback internally before posting it. This forces the client to provide a single set of concise feedback, rather than random streams of thoughts from different people. You can do this by simply stating at the beginning of the project that one person should be the voice of the group and if you have to, reiterate this throughout the project. Again, don’t be afraid – you have to be in control and set the tone early if you want the project to be a success.

2. Provide feedback within 2 days

A lot of our projects have long feedback loops. We need feedback on logo concepts, design direction, UX and so on. In the past, we would just send something to the client and wait for them to reply on their terms. That was a huge mistake because we’d often have to wait days or weeks for feedback. We now make it very clear that feedback should be delivered in 2 days, for all deliverables and updates that we post. If a client misses the 2 day feedback schedule, we stress we won’t finish by their deadline. By implementing this strict feedback schedule, clients are more active and reply on time.

3. Give proper feedback

We don’t want clients to tell us how to design something. We also don’t want them creating their own mockups in paint for how something should look. Our clients are not designers, they hire us to design, so we make it clear that feedback should focus on things they don’t like or problems and we will come up with the solution to fix them. Again, this helps you lead the project and forces the client to respect your expertise. Also, when clients insist on revisions that that don’t make sense, instead of saying “ok”, ask “why”. Take their answer and reply with data or real expertise for why you strongly disagree with their position. The sooner you do this, the sooner clients will trust you and value your expertise. Wonderful Client Feedback is a resource worth looking into for how to get proper feedback from clients.

4. Use the project management tools properly and consistently

We often use Basecamp for projects (as well as Clientflow) and stress that clients use the tools when communicating and working with us. That means questions, feedback, problems, thoughts and so on should be communicated within the proper app to keep the project running smoothly. When we didn’t stress this, clients would email us feedback, ideas, notes, etc. (or worse, call) which can make projects very unorganized, especially if you have multiple clients.

Setting expectations early on communicates to clients that you are in control and the project is not a free-for-all. You can do this over the phone, in a kickoff meeting, within your contracts or by sending clients a project guide PDF that explains the ground rules. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck with clients who push you around and don’t value your expertise.

3. Update Your Website

Update your website to reflect your best work and how you can help clients (we’re in the process of doing this now).

A visitor who is interested in hiring you will have questions like who you are, what you do and how you can help them. Your website should be a new business generator for you, and the only way this is going to happen is if the client can find answers to their questions and value in your services.

To give you concrete examples, I’ve analyzed some consultant and agency websites below that do a good job of selling themselves. If you know of some other great examples, post them in the comments.

Galen Vinter
I really like Galen’s website for a few reasons. First, he uses an engaging headline, followed by a quick and friendly photo introduction. On first impression, I feel this guy knows his stuff, is approachable and is ready to solve my problems. This is exactly the type of person businesses want to hire, not someone who looks like they might not be around tomorrow.

Galen uses strong client testimonials and photos that build up his working credibility right away. Further down the page, we find the most important part: the actual work and what he’s done. What I like about his work section is he didn’t just throw up some screenshots. Instead, he explained the purpose of each project and how he solved the client’s problem. This is important information that prospective clients look for, to learn about how you solve problems and deliver results.

Galen also plugs his weekly newsletter which creates even more trust with prospective clients and shows he’s active in the development community. He closes things up with a strong “hire me” call to action. The entire page is friendly, easy to digest and actionable.

Neil Patel
Neil Patel is so popular online and in the marketing world, that he probably doesn’t even need a website to land new clients. But for marketing consultants out there, his website does an amazing job of selling himself.

Right when you load the page, Neil immediately shows his results with TechCrunch in a nice graphic format. This is a juicy attention grabber and instantly validates Neil’s expertise and credibility. He then goes into the problem or what most marketing agencies do wrong, and introduces himself as the solution.

Throughout the page he builds up trust with case studies, client logos and powerful call to actions (“are you interested in boosting your revenue?” is way better than a generic “contact me” button). I also love how he gives reasons why you should hire him, which helps remove any uncertainty or fears from a prospective client’s mind.

Neil also mentions who his marketing services are not for, in an effort to really attract only his ideal clients (rather than having a ton of unqualified leads contact him). Finally, Neil creates urgency with a private consultation contact form which entices users to book him right away (“1 spot left”). I don’t have any solid numbers, but I’m sure this contact form converts really well for Neil, because its personal, bold and exclusive.

Conversion Rate Experts
Conversion rate experts are a leading conversion optimization agency and do an amazing job of building authority and trust with visitors.

Right when you hit the page they have a strong headline: “Find out why Apple, Facebook, Sony, Amazon and Google hired us to design their pages”, which helps drive click throughs to their downloadable reports. This strategy allows them to not only show their results, but also build a mailing list of potential leads to market to.

The website does a good job of showing how CRE are the best in business, through detailed case studies, reports, results and testimonials. Giving away this much information coupled with strong client recommendations makes it enticing for a prospective client to get in touch.

4. Qualify Each New Client

For every new project inquiry I receive, I qualify the client to make sure they are a fit for my consultancy and have a budget to work with. This is the most important thing to do with new project inquiries and if you don’t, you’re most likely wasting lots of time.

A few years ago, when a new project inquiry would come to my inbox, I’d ask dozens of questions, but none that would really qualify the client. We’d discuss the project, technologies, ideas, features and have lengthy phone or email conversations. When it came to quoting, I’d present a figure, usually in the thousands and the client would snap back saying they only wanted to spend $XXX. This always resulted in wasted time and frustration.

Ever see a commercial for a new car and hear the words “well qualified buyer” somewhere in their amazing, no money down offer for the vehicle? That basically means in order to get the sweet offer their advertising, you have to meet certain financial requirements to qualify. Dealerships qualify buyers to make sure they have the money and are capable of paying, otherwise they’d be wasting time showing a car to someone who can’t afford it.

This same exact idea applies to online business, whether you’re making a website or doing marketing work. You have to qualify prospective clients to make sure they can afford your services, otherwise like the car dealership and my example above, you’ll waste hours of time.

You can easily qualify clients without spending hours by asking them up-front what their budget is and when they are looking to get started. If the client responds with “we’re looking for a quote”, explain what your minimum or typical project price is. Based on their response, you’ll know right away if the client is serious and has a budget. It’s also good to ask clients when they are looking to get started, that way you can find out if they are ready to go or just vendor shopping.

I find serious clients that have a budget will most likely share it with you and not hide it. The ones who beat around the bush are those looking for a deal or something on the cheap, and I can usually spot these right away from the “give us a quote” type of reply. For those of you who are worried about scaring clients away by putting a price out there, those clients wouldn’t be ideal for you anyway, if you’re looking to charge a certain rate. Don’t waste your time, be confident and start qualifying your clients.

5. Write Real Proposals

Up until recently, we’ve mostly sent out line item estimates breaking down each phase of a project, deliverables and cost. We’d also write a small paragraph as to why the client should hire us and what we’ll do. This works to some extent, but for larger projects (which is what we want), detailed proposals are key for really closing projects.

You normally don’t need a lengthy proposal for a small project, but if you’re quoting a high budget project you should write a real proposal that will make the hiring decision easy for the client. A proposal shows you’ve taken the time to understand the client’s needs, can solve the problem and have the experience to back it up. This will help you win bigger projects rather than a line item estimate, because the client will be focused on achieving their goals, not reading through line item pricing.

So what should your proposal detail and look like? The best proposals talk about the client’s problem, the solution, how you plan to solve it, past client results and the investment or cost. All of this is done best with a personal tone and delivered in a PDF format or via a link. Brennan Dunn wrote a great post on writing assumption-less proposals that will help you get started writing your own proposals. I highly recommend reading it before drafting up your next proposal.

Closing Thoughts

These 5 tips will help improve your consulting business, from managing clients, landing higher paid projects and selling yourself. If you’re serious about growing your business year over year, you have to implement these tactics right away.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for improving your business. I’m sure my tips above can be improved and I’d love to hear suggestions or other strategies you use for your consulting business. Post in the comments and we’ll reply back.

abhinav marla

Author abhinav marla

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