Five-Step Plan to Kick-Start Your Consulting Career
Many IT professionals decide to develop a consulting business—some by choice, and others by necessity. For most IT professionals, the hardest part of building a business is getting clients. Unfortunately, no one ever taught them how to market their services in a highly competitive environment.
Many aspiring IT consultants market their business the wrong way. This leads to the following problems:
- The struggle of attracting new clients.
- Confusion about how to differentiate their work from the huge number of competitors.
- Discomfort making a “pitch” to prospects.
- Disappointment that they are not getting the type or size of projects they want.
- Chasing prospects that never become clients.
- Difficulty competing on price.
- Having clients, and then having none.
Due to the frustration involved in attracting clients, many would-be consultants give up. They take lower-paying jobs in order to avoid the indignity of chasing clients.
There is a better way to kick-start a consulting career. This article describes a five-step process for taking the leap successfully. It is based on establishing trust and credibility in a target market. Once you establish yourself as an expert, you no longer have to make cold calls, compete on price or rely on gimmicky sales techniques.
Get Inside the Head of Your Prospect
Before defining the five steps, you must first get inside the head of a typical client.
Most candidates for IT services—or any professional service for that matter—don’t want to call an outsider for help. They feel the same way we feel when we go to the doctor: We’ll only go if we are in pain, and sometimes we’ll wait until the pain gets really bad before we make the appointment.
Most candidates for IT consulting services are thinking:
- I feel ignorant and vulnerable because I need help, and this makes me uncomfortable.
- I am letting an outsider learn about problems in my business or my life, and this makes me wary.
- This will be expensive, and I’m not sure it’s worth the price.
- Why can’t these people talk my language?
- IT people are not exactly known for their service or professionalism. (For examples, see Dilbert comics.)
- Newspaper articles show that 75 percent of IT projects are late or over budget, and 90 percent don’t achieve their goals.
Given this context, it’s no wonder that traditional marketing and sales practices don’t work for IT consultants. By understanding the root causes underlying the prospect’s concerns and issues, you have the key to attracting more clients than you can handle. The key is trust. Prospects become clients only after they trust you in the following ways:
- They know you well enough to be familiar with you and what you do.
- They perceive you to be an expert in your field.
- They believe you have a solid understanding of their needs and can help them get the specific result they want.
- They like you enough to want to work with you.
Choose a Focused Target Market
The first mistake that many IT consultants make is that they don’t focus. They assume they can take on any project that comes their way. This gives them the comfortable illusion of having an unlimited number of prospects, as well as the excitement and variety of scrambling to serve clients from many different industries. This lack of focus costs them dearly. They have to spend lots of money on shotgun tactics to reach their audience, and response to these tactics is poor.
You will get many more clients, at higher fees, if you establish yourself as an expert in a focused target market (e.g., financial services, nonprofits, physicians). There are a number of reasons. First, you can reach people in a niche market more effectively. That’s because people in the same industry go to the same conferences, visit the same Web sites and read the same trade magazines. So, instead of taking a shotgun approach to your marketing, you can focus your marketing dollars and reach the majority of your market. Second, word about you will spread more quickly if you focus. People in the same market talk to each other. Third, your prospects will view you as an expert because you understand their unique needs and speak their language. This will give you a leg up over competitors that don’t focus. Finally, you will develop deeper solutions, and your prospects will pay more for those. Also, you can re-use these solutions and don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel with every project. So you can make more money with less effort.
The best target market to choose is a specific industry. There are literally thousands of industries, and many are not served well by IT professionals. Go through your local Yellow Pages and look at all the industries that have room for competent IT professionals. You will be amazed at how many there are.
A good target market should meet these criteria:
- You can reach them. Lists should be available; they should belong to one or more trade associations; they should subscribe to trade publications; and they should attend conferences.
- They have money to spend on IT.
- The niche should be large enough that you don’t need a huge percentage of clients from that market.
- There should be some competitors because you don’t want to have to be the one who blazes the trail. At the same time, the target market should not be saturated with IT professionals offering the same services that you provide.
- You should have some sort of story as to why you can serve that market. Perhaps you have worked with clients in that market before, have worked as an employee in that industry or can tell a story about having been a customer.
- You are willing to do the work required to understand your target market’s key IT issues and to develop a complete and comprehensive solution to solve them.
When most people think about niche markets, they think about the obvious, huge ones: health care, financial services and government. I know plenty of IT professionals who are making an excellent living serving lesser-known industries, such as auto dealerships, fitness clubs, dental practices, architects, pool contractors and landscape services.
Develop a Compelling Marketing Message
When you make the leap to become a consultant, it is crucial that you communicate what you do in a way that gets prospects interested. Most IT consultants go about this the wrong way. They talk about the services they offer and boast about their education and certifications. By doing this, they make themselves sound exactly the same as every other IT consultant offering the same services.
To make the leap, you need a compelling marketing message. A strong marketing message has these five elements:
- Start with your prospects’ most pressing IT problems and elaborate on the financial and emotional cost of those problems. For instance, if you design Web sites, an opening sentence might be, “Is your site draining your bank account instead of bringing you new business?” If you administer networks, you might open with, “Are you spending too much time solving IT hassles, and not enough time building your business?” By starting with a problem, you immediately show prospects that you understand their issues.
- Describe the results you get. Show your prospects that there is a way out. Tell them about the specific, measurable results you get. Prospects want to know that you can help them make more money and be more productive. They also want to know that you can help them feel better by giving them security, freedom, fame and status, and by helping them avoid pain and uncertainty. Be as specific as possible, and create a sense of opportunity and possibility that your prospects can’t resist. For instance, “Get all the clients you can