Last year I helped a consultant land a $420,000 consulting contract. That's not a typo. It was an 11-month project for one consultant budgeted for $320,000 in consulting fees and another $100,000 for travel expenses.
Clearly this was a big win for the consultant. The client was pleased too since a global consulting firm working with his company quoted $660,000 for the same project. (See my related article, "Quote Your Rate with Confidence.")
A project this big doesn't just fall out of the sky. Why did the client contact me for help? The short answer: business development. The long answer: diligent business development that built a relationship over time. Rather than any one particular thing I did, it was simple actions over the course of five years. Those actions cultivated a trusting relationship with the client and, as a result, he was comfortable reaching out to me for help.
I've written about this before, that business development = relationship development, but let's walk through the steps I took to foster this lucrative contract. (If you don't want to learn from the story, just skip to the lessons learned at the end.)
March 2012: I asked a few consulting friends to introduce me to their corporate HR colleagues as a way to get my foot in the door. This was not to sell anything. It was so I could inform the potential client about my company's unique business model. Jennifer sent an email to Joe, who was an SVP at "Company A."
She didn't actually introduce me. She explained the business model and mentioned me, saying: "Let me know if you ever want to discuss it further, or I could put you in touch directly with Liz."
Nothing came of it.
April 2013: Joe reached out to Jennifer about some consulting work. She was already on a project so she introduced me to Joe. Joe and I have a conversation so I can understand his situation. I introduced him to three well-qualified consultants, but we didn't win the work. To use a baseball analogy, this was our first time "at bat." Joe and I connected on LinkedIn, more than a year after Jennifer's first introductory email.
July 2014: Joe changed jobs. I know this because I see it in my weekly email from LinkedIn with updates about my network — who has a new job, new connections, who's published articles, etc. I sent Joe a LinkedIn message saying congratulations and adding a short note:
If you need any consulting support, please think of us at ProKo Consulting! ;-)
All the best, -- Liz.
He replied: Will do Liz. Thanks!
January 2015: I sent Joe a short note via LinkedIn:
Hello Joe, I see you've been in your new job 6 months already. I certainly hope it's going well! I'm going to be in So Cal on January 29 and 30 and I'd love to come by and meet you in person for coffee, lunch or whatever fits your schedule. It would be nice to put a face with the name! All the best, -- Liz
He replied: Liz- I am happy to connect. Drop me an email to my office email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We can coordinate via email.
We weren't able to sync up our schedules, so we didn't meet.
July 2015: Joe changed jobs again, going back to a company where he worked years before. I send another note via LinkedIn:
Hi Joe, I read some of your other congratulations messages and it sounds like you've "come full circle" which I assume is a good thing! Of course, let me know if you ever need any consulting talent. ProKo's innovative model does a better job of mitigating risk than a staffing firm, and we represent only super-good people with at least 15 years of experience. OK, enough of the "plug". Congratulations and one of these days I still want to take you to lunch! Best regards, -- Liz
He replied: Liz- Thanks so much for the note. My apologies for my delay in responding. I will certainly reach out as I need support. It is great to hear from you. I hope all is well. Please stay in touch! My Best! Joe
July 2016: Joe gets another new job, this time as the head of HR for a large company. I sent another note via LinkedIn:
Joe didn't reply, probably because he's too busy. It didn't matter; what mattered is that I sent it.
March 2017: I got a message from Joe via LinkedIn:
Liz- you and I were introduced by Jennifer G. I have a need for an independent change management consultant in LA. I need someone to help me…”.
This was our second "at bat," but the project budget was cut so we didn't get the work.
October 2017: Joe reached out to see if I could refer any good candidates for an open full-time position at his company. Of course, I did. I was happy to help and "pay it forward," which is also a part of business development. (Related article, Tap into Consulting's Secret Club to Help Grow Your Business.)
November 2017: Joe called me about "a big hairy transformation project."" This was our third time at bat, and we hit a home run. Of course, more effort went into winning the work than I've summarized here, but being invited into the batter's box was the critical first step.
Lesson: Business development = relationship development. Nearly all consultants I know find their projects through colleagues and referrals. This is because people reach out to people they know and trust, especially when (a) they're going to spend tens of thousands of dollars or more, and (b) their reputation with their boss and coworkers will take a blow if the consultant they recommend doesn't work out.
Lesson: Be diligent about keeping in touch Keep your network warm in every sense of the word. Send congratulations for a new job, promotion, or work anniversary. Send birthday greetings.
Three tips to make it easier to be diligent.
Subscribe to LinkedIn's weekly update. Here's how: Click on your profile icon in the top right → go to Settings & Privacy, → Communications, → then find "Notifications on LinkedIn" and click “Change.”
Create a recurring meeting invitation on your calendar. Block 30 minutes on your calendar to do this every week, for example, first thing every Monday while you drink your first cup of caffeine. Review LinkedIn's weekly update email (above), and/or log into LinkedIn and click on Notifications in the top menu.
Use a birthday list. Every time I discover someone's birthday, I add it to my list. At the end of every month, I print out the list for the next month. Then I spend about 30 minutes to create personalized e-cards to be sent on the appropriate day. I put a check mark next to the person's name as I do it. I highlight the people I want to call (usually family and close friends). Then I pin the list above my desk so I remember to reach out to the people I highlighted.
Lesson: Building relationships take time, so building your consulting pipeline will too. Set your expectations accordingly (Side note: "pipeline" is a misnomer as an independent consultant. You'll probably never have a backlog of projects lined up and waiting. Clients need help when they need it, not when it's convenient for you.) If you're new to independent consulting, you may need to supplement your efforts with online platforms or agencies until your relationship cultivation begins to pay off. If you've been independent for a while, reread the point above about being diligent. ;-)
Above all, be personal, sincere, authentic. Don't sell. Remember, as consultants we're problem solvers, not salespeople.