Martin Roell: Getting Started in Consulting (LIFT’07)

Warning: these are my unedited notes of Martin’s workshop at LIFT, meaning my understanding and interpretation of what he said. They might not reflect accurately what Martin told us, and might even be outright wrong in some places. Let me know if you think I really messed up somewhere.

Martin’s Story

Martin came to Dresden with the idea to study business economics and start a big factory someday. In 98, the web was taking off, so he changed directions and started an internet company. After a turn or two, ended up writing project proposals for projects which would never happen, got fed up with having a boss, quit and became a consultant.

LIFT'07...

What kind of consultant? He knew stuff about the internet, he could talk… so there were probably people out there who wanted to know about the stuff he knew. Problem: didn’t really know how to start a business. Just knew he would be looking for people doing an internet project, and looking for somebody who knew more about the internet than them.

Got lucky, a previous client hired him for a full-year contract, paid in advance! (That was good, secured him for the first year. “Hey, I’m a consultant!”) Flipside: worked, surfed the internet, enjoyed the money, but didn’t learn much about building a consulting business, though he learnt quite a bit about consulting. (Got to hang around in the offices, be there to answer questions, and roughly do what he wanted…)

Getting clients is about setting up projects, and it is not the same job as “being the consultant” — which you are once you’ve got the client.

Last year, business was doing OK, but a bit frustrating: lots of small projects, of questionable utility (in a “change the planet” way), and feeling of being underpaid. This is what brought him to start giving seminars about consulting.

Warning: there is no one true way of doing things. His way.

Program:

  • Basics: what consulting is/is not (specially in the contexte of communications, technology, internet consulting) — what does a consultant do, what does an agency do?
  • Marketing yourself: how do you get people to call your phone number?
  • Sales process: what you do after you pick up the phone
  • Fees: different ways of getting payed (time-based fees or not?)
  • Practical: how to write a proposal, marketing material needed or not
  • Optional: grow your business without losing your mind or your personal self

What is consulting?

David Gerald M. Weinberger: “consulting is influencing people at their request” => it’s about people and relationships (that bit is sometimes hard to get for the hacker/coder/hardcore-geek crowd who gets into the consulting business)

Consulting is not about “selling your knowledge”, there is no such thing. It’s about influencing people and using your knowledge to do that.

Consultant vs. service provider. The client remains autonomous after you leave. The client’s organisation should be stronger, not weaker. (e.g. web agencies, called in to do a design or something, but from an organisational point of view, it means the client needs to contact them each time they need a website.)

Important thing for a consultant: when you leave your client, he should be able to do more than before. If your client needs you again when he needs the same thing he called you in for, you probably haven’t actually been consulting. => when negociating, keep in mind: does the client want you for consulting, or is he actually trying to get you to do something else? !==outsourcing

Five required things to do consulting:

  • you need a client (look at the number of people doing “consulting” who don’t actually have clients)
  • the client needs to have a problem, and he needs to think he has a problem (or needs something to change, or an issue, or a challenge, or an idea that something could be done to make things better…) — (thus avoiding: “hey, client, you have a problem! sure, you do!”)
  • the client needs to want to solve the problem, not just want to complain about it
  • he sees ways in which the problem can be solved (ie, he doesn’t think it’s impossible to solve) — he needs to believe that the problem can be solved
  • the client needs to be ready to collaborate in the consulting process — involvement, active participation; requests like “give us a talk on blogs, give us a seminar on blogs” are perfectly fine, but selling talks like that is often not really consulting (Martin’s experience: sometimes when clients want to buy talks, they actually need/want something else if you dig deeper — identify the real problem, and see if the talk/workshop is really the solution to it)

steph-note: danger in accepting to give the “talk” or “workshop” when you know it’s not the right solution, is that the client will not get what he wanted/expected/hoped out of it, and will then be dissatisfied with what you did.

=> our job is also rejecting stuff. Clients often come with a symptom, not the real problem. (Picking the easy target, ie problem #1, often means you’re going to head straight into problem #2)

If the company has more than one problem, good sign. If the company has no problem, usually a bad sign.

=> consultant = partner for the client who works alongside him, and not service provider who gives something to the client.

Client relationships

Why would anybody want to work with you?

Martin learnt: people don’t work with him because he’s clever or knows a lot of stuff (always people out there who know more about your specific area of expertise than you).

What’s needed is trust between the buyer and yourself. Need to understand the mechanics of trust work. Putting pressure on the relationship (for example, when we need to tell the client he’s wrong), and releasing pressure. The client trusts you that you will change his organisation, and do so at his request.

Steph-note: therapist for companies!

Important: the client will not need you after you’ve left. Don’t oversee that when you make proposals to the client about how you can work together.

Steph-note: teach them to fish, don’t give them fish.

Not locking the client in. Also a chance to sell more, because you’re not just selling the result, but you’re teaching him competencies that he’ll be able to use next time.

In the end, you can end up doing a really high level of consultancy, where the client trusts you to help him solve difficult problems even more than your knowledge in this or that field. Looking for the source of the “problem”, don’t jump in and just solve the “surface problem”.

For Martin, it’s up to the client to start the consulting relationship, and not upto the consultant to pitch the client. (Thus, no real need for an “elevator pitch”.)

How do you get people to call your phone number?

“We found you on the internet.”

But how do you get there? Word of mouth, but that doesn’t work to start with. For Martin, it worked by blogging. He wrote about the stuff he was interested in, and at some point, after a lot of waiting, these topics became interesting to other people.

The blog itself doesn’t really bring people. People got worried when Martin published his number on his blog (“You won’t be able to sleep anymore!”). But no. People who are going to buy your consulting are not your blog readers, and do not read blogs. But the readers of your blog are going to recommend you to their non-blogger potential client friends. Blogging helps tremendously in creating your own ambassadors, gets you clients indirectly. You also don’t get contracts from fellow collegues. (Consultants never have “too much work” and pass it on to their friends.)

Beware: blog success is a slow project. A PDF sent to the ten right people can be worth two years of blogging. Remember that people who will decide to hire you have very little time and don’t read blogs.

Martin’s experience with his “talking about his life” Newsletter: people not signing off. Surprising how many people are actually interested in you.

Mainstream press coverage. Martin’s experience is that press doesn’t lead to contracts, but just to more journalists. steph-note: I’ve had press coverage lead to contracts — but maybe not as many as one would expect. Press coverage, though, will help a prospective client trust you (“Hey, he’s in the papers, must be serious, etc.”

Write short pieces on stuff that interests you — basics. “What is blogging?” –etc.

Do I need a company name?

Two schools of thought.

  • Important for marketing/branding.
  • One-person business with a big name… ahem. What’s the point? Deceiving, creating an image of something larger than you.
  • OTOH, some large corporations will only work with other companies (won’t deal with people), so for them it makes sense to “have a company”

For Martin, names and brands do not matter very much when somebody else is contacting you. They’re contacting you because of you. A logo/company name won’t make people trust you more. If it works out, it’s because people trust you as a person. Martin likes breaking the expectation that you’re “a company”. Helps sort through clients too (if they’re put off by the fact he’s an individual, in a way, they failed the first test).

Don’t spend too much time thinking about your image when you’re starting a company.

Ollie: problem is that the person you’re talking to is not the person who is actually going to buy your services.

At the start: try to build from your existing network, even on the internet. Important: indicate that you are for hire! People reading Martin’s blog for four years and who have no idea what he does for a living… Don’t save money on the business cards.

Writing on the blog: try and forget what you know, and explain very basic stuff.

Money

Lots of things wrong for daily rates. 30 seconds of thinking under the shower can solve the huge problem. Time-based fees make the consultant and the client on the wrong thing (activity, duration) and not results.

Motivate the client to control the consultant (is he really spending n days on that), minimise the time spent on the project, and minimise the contact with the consultant. It also motivates the consultant to maximise duration and sometimes do more than is necessary.

Focusing on activity and not results is not good (often, you don’t know how much time this or that will take, or how many workshops it will take). Sometimes you can evaluate the number of days, but often, it’s better to agree on a fixed fee for a phase of the project.

How do we get from person calling us up to a contract?

The “first conversation” isn’t actually the first conversation, there is a contact before that, based on which you decide if you actually want to get into the conversation with that client or not.

After the first conversation, Martin comes up with a proposal, period. (Not “multiple conversations”). Goal of the first conversation is writing a proposal afterwards.

So, how does it work? After the first contact (phone/e-mail), Martin tries to identify what the client actually wants.

steph-note: the idea that “other people will call you” seems hard to get for the workshop people

Try to make a list of at least ten things of what the client might want/what the situation could be => preparation for this real “first conversation”. Important to make a conscious decision about entering (or not) the pre-sales conversation. In-person is really better. Difficult to find out who the actual buyer is on the phone.

Objectives:

  • start building a relationship / trust with the client
  • write a proposal

Not: “make a sale”

Need to find out:

  • why they’re contacting us
  • short/long-term project?
  • who are the people involved?
  • who would be the buyer/the client? (often two different people)
  • what will the relationship between you and the client be like? (interviews, analysis, talk, workshop, write proposal, collaborate with their web people, sit in a room with a piece of paper, how often would you meet…?)

=> ask a lot of questions, and listen (“shut up and listen”). Don’t think too much or jump to conclusions while the client is talking. Other mistake: bring those “ready-made” solutions to the client before the “sale is made”, because often, we get it wrong. He’ll wonder how you can offer a solution after listening to him for five minutes, and start asking you questions about it. Repeat what the client said, reformulate without interpreting, to make sure you understand what’s going on correctly.

You can have a list of questions ready before you go in, particularly if it’s a “client gives presentation” kind of meeting.

Sample questions:

  • who is here and why?
  • why did you ask me to come?
  • why now?
  • what is the problem, what are the symptoms?
  • what is working well in the organisation?
  • what can be changed, what cannot?
  • what would we have to do to make the problem worse?
  • why do you think you need a consultant for this problem?
  • what experiences have you had with consultants? (often none, sometimes yes, and it will impact the work you’ll be doing there)
  • how would you know that our project (consulting work) is a success? (measures of success)
  • how would you notice that the problem had disappeared?
  • what would we have to do to make the project fail spectacularly?

More about listening

Take lots of notes, without the laptop (it creates a barrier). Maybe take a second person with you just to take notes. Ask about the bits where the client gets imprecise (“we sort of have this service provider, and we sort of like his work”) — but not too intensively, can get manipulative (NLP etc). A conversation like this is not an interview. Not applying for a job.

Would be a bad sign (?not sure) if they don’t ask any questions about you, your business, your consultancy. If you’ve “questioned” the client right, then either trust is built, or he’ll ask questions. You shouldn’t have to stand up and present yourself etc. Careful with question: “have you done this before?” — of course not… Dangerous to talk about references on other projects you’ve done, it might worry the client about “secrecy” etc. If you speak about a project you’ve done, say that you’re allowed to speak about it. If you can’t, say you’ve done this or that but you can’t talk about it.

“What do you mean with that question?”

Careful with “big references”: “I’ve worked with Apple!” — “Oh, my wife has a mac and it sucks…” (can backfire).

Don’t answer questions that are not asked. (Makes you seem overly worried about what the client thinks of you.)

Rule some salespeople like: if you say something, but the client has reservations, never respond to this kind of feedback, unless it shows up three times. True, often this kind of remarks are not really serious, but just remarks. Maybe ask, if it looks insistent: “you sound skeptical about …, should we talk about it?”.

Need to check how serious the request is (cf. five necessary things mentioned above — wants to solve the problem). Are they pitching you the situation to make you compete with others?

“What’s the next step? How do you want to continue with this?” Also a good way of getting out of “expert talk”. Keep the process in hand. “Have we answered all the questions?” — “Now we’ve talked about the problem, what do you want to do?” (maybe talk about you, focus on a sub-problem, take a break…) Very often, at the middle of the conversation you end up with a very different problem than the one the client came to you with (first problem often a part of a larger problem, which this particular project will not address).

Stupid: end the conversation without having all the information you need to make the proposal (Martin has done it a hundred of times.) Really tough to write a proposal with incomplete information. Careful when client says “OK, very interesting, send us your proposal!”

The consultant decides when the conversation is finished. Even with a checklist with all the information (some clients don’t like that, some do). Playback the conversation, in a way.

Checklist:

  • project goals (how will we find out that we have achieved the project)
  • what is the value of this project to the organisation, steph-note: why are you doing this, what is your motivation for the project (this is where the fees come from!) — if we do this, we’ll be able to… or if we don’t, we won’t be able to…
  • how are we going to work together (relationship modalities, contact frequency…)

Different options in the proposal. Never one “take or leave” proposal. Different ways of working together, different prices. Sometimes different ways talked about in the conversation, sometimes not.

Almost never talks about fees in the conversation, besides informing that he does not bill at a daily rate, and that the proposal will include different options with different prices.

At the end of the conversation you should have a clear idea about how much you’re going to bill. Otherwise, ask the client about his budget (99% of times in Germany, they don’t, don’t know) or if there is any amount that his proposal should not exceed or go below. steph-note: basically, the project will depend on the money available.

In the proposal, explain why this or that option is valuable compared to others.

Now, Martin tends to only write a proposal for the first phase. Or the whole project, but with options to take only the first phase, etc. For complex projects, often the first proposal/phase will only be the analysis phase.

If it’s visible that the lowest proposal you can make is not going to fit in the client’s budget, announce that the lowest proposal is going to be X. (Between X and Y.)

Proposal: summing up of an agreement. Not a suggestion that he may want to do or not.

  • basic situation
  • goal
  • value to organisation
  • what is the consultant is going to do
  • responsabilities (mine=show up on time, be nice, do what is outlined above/yours=pay, give me info and access to people/our=inform each other about relevant info, mergers, restructuration, privacy, how conflicts will be managed)
  • timing (when start, when finish)
  • fees (“how did you come up with that?” — no good answer, very often) and expenses, how they are going to be paid
  • how do we get to a contract from here (sign on dotted line, send back to me)

About payment: full fee in advance (never work in a contract with payment at the end of the project… projects don’t have an “end” usually, they die). Usual in Germany: 50% upfront, and the other 50% 30 days after beginning of project.

In some companies it’s much easier to send money than get somebody to sign (paying is worth a signature — you can pay instead of signing, that’s OK).

Comment: the end of the project is not marked with the “punishment” of having to pay, for the client. At the beginning of a project, enthusiastic client, wants to spend the money, invest!

Proposal within 24 hours. Snail-mail them. Never go the project when he accepted to just send it by e-mail. In most cases, will not get something signed through the mail, and has to follow up with a call.

Summary:

  • what is a consultant
  • conditions to be doing consulting
  • marketing yourself
  • use of the internet
  • fees
  • sales process (questions etc) — 80% closure says Martin, though you’ll lose many people you thought would be clients; helps you filter out people you don’t want to work with.

What Martin is working on:

  • getting completely rid of daily rates (started a year ago, been nice and successful for the moment, paying back client if not happy, pricing seminars)
  • seminars like this workshop (2-3 days for folks in sales)
  • mentoring program

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23 Responses to Martin Roell: Getting Started in Consulting (LIFT’07)

  1. Marco says:

    Thanks, great post!

  2. Pingback: LIFT || A conference about technology in our society.

  3. antonio says:

    I didn’t attend this workshop so, big thanks for this interesting review!

  4. Pingback: Geneva Information » Stephanie summarized the talk of Martin on the Lift

  5. antonio says:

    I didn't attend this workshop so, big thanks for this interesting review!

  6. Pingback: Geneva Information » Quick quick, my lift.

  7. “Consulting is not about ‘selling your knowledge’”. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “Consulting is about selling people on your knowledge!”

  8. “Consulting is not about 'selling your knowledge'”. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “Consulting is about selling people on your knowledge!”

  9. Pingback: lisbonlab » Notas sobre a LIFT

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  11. The Podcast With No Name (Steph+Suw), Episode 2…


    Long, long overdue, here is Steph and Suw’s Podcast With No Name, episode 2, February 15th, 2007. Some rough shownotes, with some links. Hope you enjoy it, and let us know what you think. We’re down to 35 minutes! Show notes might suffer up…

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  14. Daniel says:

    Hello Stéphanie,

    Your notes ^do actually convey the basics of Martin Roell’s course very well. It was very useful for me since I am in the process of getting established.

    Yours,

    Daniel

  15. Pingback: “Pouvez-vous nous faire un site?” — rôle du consultant at Climb to the Stars (Stephanie Booth)

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