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Daniel: So we’re here today to talk about how long does it take to get new clients, or if you have a couple of clients as an independent consultant, then how long to get more clients? And Steve, I think you have a story that’ll help us unpack this today.
Steve: I do. I’m an ex-airline guy. Not a pilot, but was involved in just about everything else on the ground, and that included some time at airports. Now the interesting thing at airports, for those of us who have been hooked into the business and loved it, is this orchestration of roles and the way everyone works together to get the flights going out and usher them in and so forth. That’s the context in which we as airport managers would hire people in or, for example, transfer in from other airports, and I wanted to talk about that decision. When we were doing it, it was very easy to establish, this is what the role is, customer service agent. You are going to be doing primarily boarding, and it was easier for the person who was putting in for the job to understand what the expectations were. So we had clarity on both sides, and therefore, even though it’s an important job, pretty fast decision. That’s the way we did it, because everything was all clear. Not only did the day-of operations go smoothly, but those kinds of transfer in and out decisions also were pretty smooth and fast.
Daniel: I actually find, yeah, that’s kind of a feature of having a regular W-2 job. You have a defined job description and everybody sort of knows what the role is, whether it’s butcher, baker, candlestick maker, pilot, ticket counter person, it’s like Legos. There’s a clearly defined job description so you can pull them out and drop them in, but Steve, when I went out into the independent consulting field, one of the first things I discovered was while I went out there to add value, and that process of adding value over and above what people could attain interacting with W-2 employees in a company, was more elaborate. It was more complex than what that company offered. My value was more difficult to explain, and so it was not so easy to treat me like a Lego, and just drop me into a spot. Oh, you need a new ticket clerk, I’m a ticket clerk. So I had to even invent job titles for myself or invent descriptions in elevator pitches that were as short as I could get them to try to convey that value and win clients. I think that may be part of what you’re touching on, is it’s really easy when, “Oh, you’re a pilot. I need a pilot.” It’s harder when you’re more like, I’m an HRIS systems consultant who specializes in X, Y and Z.
Steve: Yeah. That’s really what I’m trying to say. I gave almost an unfair example of the fastest decisions happen and our basis for comparison is in the regular world of work, traditional employment. Once we’re out in the wild as an independent consultant, there’s a little less clarity at least in the eyes of a prospective client. And so yeah, it only goes up from there in the way that you described. In my case, we all do several different things, and a couple of the things that I do, on the one hand, I’m a software implementation consultant, so there’s a particular software app that I work on in time and attendance for very large clients, but that is a role that several people in our community who need this work, it’s very clear to them, and so often even though it’s advanced consulting work, often clients, once they have a need, they understand what I can do and those decisions happen, again, very fast. But the bulk of my work as a solution architect and also when I do a workforce agility assessment, some people say “What? What is that?” And so that’s a much longer discussion, and it doesn’t happen in any timeframe that is similar to the story that I gave, which is a quick decision with a well-defined role.
So that’s the distinction I’m trying to draw is that depending on what your skills are and what you offer as an independent consultant, that will drive some of the timeframes that it takes to pass that information over and develop an understanding with your prospective clients.
Daniel: Well, it’s exacerbated by the complexity of what you have to offer and the actual sales cycle of the type of client you’re going after, whether it’s small business with a typical short sales cycle or enterprise with a longer one. I know what you mean, Steve, I bill myself as a corporate storyteller. That’s not something that you see recruiters going “Hey, we need a corporate storyteller, drop them into this slot.” Even when you might poke me in the ribs and say “You’ve got practice areas, Daniel, marketing and education,” I’m like yeah, but what I do doesn’t exist in the W-2 world. The way in which I build marketing teams or educational programs isn’t a standard W-2 job in the first place, it’s something you typically hire a company to do.
That’s what threw me, is when I went out on my own, companies are kind of on their own to craft their own branding and value propositions and positioning in a way that individuals very often aren’t. You can craft a resume and match it to a job description much easier than you can craft an entire presentation to fill a b-to-b need. It seems like when we go out and we leave the workforce and we become independent consultants, it’s like we’re still p-to-p, we’re person-to-person, but now we’re b-to-b. We’re talking like we’re a full-on business, even if it’s just us by ourselves as independents. That’s been the struggle for me, is to continually refine that because the closer I can get to clarity, the shorter the sales cycle, but I still have to struggle with whether or not the sales cycle of my prospective clients is months long already.
Steve: Yes. When I came out and started work as an independent consultant, I was always comparing myself to accountants and attorneys who it seemed like, if these people can find their clients, why can’t I find mine? And it’s this thing that we’re talking about today, because the answer for me was, well, because I wasn’t defining it clearly enough. We’ve talked about that before, and also the thing that I did wasn’t quite as simple to understand as maybe some other jobs. And I didn’t understand that point, that “Hey, Steve, you’re gonna have to invest a little bit in this conversation for people to get it.” But there’s another dimension that you and I have talked about also, which is not only is this question of where do you sit as a consultant on that continuum from pretty simple to describe, say a tax accountant or an attorney or some other thing, or something more elaborate, like you said, a corporate storyteller. There’s that, but then there’s also, at least for me, I consistently underestimated the amount of time it takes to develop those relationships, whether it’s for work that’s pretty easy to understand, and it’s a fast decision, or longer. In all cases, I found myself underestimating how much we need to be working those relationships.
Daniel: Yeah, so there are really three things in play. One is where your product or service is on the spectrum of complexity or newness, and that determines how long it’s gonna take for you to attract clients, and of course I hear the charge of “Make it as clear as possible, just make it clear.” And the examples people use are consumer products. “Well, a broom. You know what a broom does,” and it’s like, all right. That’s not a fair comparison to a software developer who specializes in HRIS systems, for example.
So I’m a little disappointed with some of the marketing and sales advice I’ve heard out there, Steve, that keeps hitting me over the head with clarity. But when you say, “all right, show me. Take my stuff and make it clear.” “Oh, that’s your job.” “Well, yeah, so thanks for the principles.” So it’s an ongoing struggle to make it clear, but to a certain degree, what we’re saying is you can’t really expect for an attorney, a developer, and a housekeeper to all have the same length of sales cycle. Any sales and marketing advice or program that really conflates those things and doesn’t deal with the true place you are in the spectrum misses the point. So the first step is sort of identify where you are in that spectrum.
The second is, of course, get as clear as you can possibly be, and we talked about that in a previous show, which is the pathway to clarity is what problem do you solve? How clear can you get about what problem you solve and how you solve it? There’s a limit to the clarity you can get to, but that limit is somewhere in that camp.
And the third is the one you just hit on, which is the time developing relationships. How long does it really take to develop those relationships, and the answer is usually “Start yesterday, because it takes longer than you think.” In a way, the answer is developing and cultivating relationships is gonna be a continual and always long-term thing that serves your sales cycle, whether you are the housekeeper or the software developer or the attorney, there is no substitute to developing relationships, so start as early as you think you might be wanting to have clients.
Steve: Yes, and this, you and I working out these ideas, solved some problems that I was having, which was I thought that some of the work that I wanted to do related to workforce agility and solution architecture should have been as easy to find clients as some of the other engagements I’ve done that were really specific related to employee time, enterprise time systems. So the miss was no, this other work actually is a little bit more difficult for people to understand, because I’m not being clear enough about it, and it’s a broader concept. It’s not a real specific problem. That then told me this is how much longer it’s going to take you to find those kind of clients. So I actually, of course am looking for both kinds of clients all the time, but I have different expectations now depending on which type of solution or offering I’m trying to put forward.
Daniel: We’ve all gone down this path of how do I cultivate those relationships that lead ultimately to those clients, how many relationships do I need to cultivate to get one client eventually? And so on. We end up sometimes joining networking groups, some of which have been really powerful for me, and good, but one of the things that a lot of that networking advice also skips is just this issue of your particular role, again, it’s not the same thing as a software consultant and a mortgage broker. In fact, when you need a mortgage broker, you usually need them pretty quickly and you don’t bother contacting them two or three months in advance. You either need them this month, or you don’t really need them is generally how it works. So in that kind of environment, turn that question around to you, Steve. I know you can’t put real numbers on it, it’s gonna vary by everybody, but what do you think? If your sales cycle takes an average of three to five months to land a gig once you start talking with that corporation and you’re going through their decision making process, how long ago have you developed the relationship? Or maybe another way to ask it is all right, if I need to get one client, do I need to develop 100 relationships over the course of a year to land one client that year? What advice can you give us?
Steve: Right. We’re talking about a couple of different dimensions. This is subjective, based on what I’ve experienced, so I think we’re up in terms of how many do you need to have active relationships with in order for one new engagement to fall out, and for me, I need to have a lot, like 25, 50 active relationships ongoing. These aren’t people who I just know, these are people who I need to develop ongoing discussions with, so it’s a lot. That’s what I meant by we often underestimate what it takes. Secondarily, how long does it take? If their problems are really broad and poorly defined and I’m not really sure which I’m gonna go for and how I might plug in, it’s gonna take a long time to do that dance, to work through the whole conversation. I’m not a person who will try to work for a client if I don’t truly believe in the value. I only want to do it if we can make their life better. But in cases where suddenly a client has a really clear problem and I’m really clear on yes, I can solve what you have, those go really fast. I’ve done $100,000 engagements in just three conversations that were about an hour each, and that ends up being multi-month engagements, but that’s because both parties really understood what they needed and we found each other.
Those are the two dimensions, but the main thing is the volume needs to be a lot bigger than most of us think, the volume of contacts.
Daniel: So we talked about how to develop relationships for the long term, to hopefully expedite the sales cycle, how to make sure you know where you fall on that spectrum on long versus short sales cycles based on the complexity of your particular role, and we’ve talked about as well the one way to get clear about it is what problem do you solve. We’ll cover more in future shows. Be sure and visit ClientPipe.com. That’s ClientPipe.com.