Know Your Niche

  By Liz Steblay, PICA Chief Advocate

Many people who embark on the independent professional path think they should define their services broadly so they will look like a good fit for many projects. The exact opposite is true.

Over the years I have interviewed, coached, and represented hundreds of independent management consultants. (In addition to my role with PICA, I’m also the managing officer of a talent agency that represents world-class independent consultants.) I’m convinced that the people who always seem to have work are those who “own” a particular niche or service area.

Let’s look at some examples.

I know a highly talented professional with over 20 years of experience with several Fortune 500 companies. Several years ago, my agency agreed to represent her. She believed in the jack-of-all-trades myth: she would get more work if she described her expertise in a variety of ways. Here is a snippet from her résumé at the time:

Professional Summary and Services

Senior consultant with professional experience in Organization Development and Change, Leadership and Organizational Communications and Coaching, as well as internal and external Corporate Communications, including global marketing initiatives.

This is not a service offering; this is a laundry list of skills. What is her “sweet spot”? What is she really good at? What company problems or challenges can she solve? It’s hard to tell. It was hard to recommend her to clients because we didn’t know the answers to these questions.

Conversely, we represent several consultants who are always in demand. They come to mind when a client describes a particular problem. Here are some excerpts from their résumés and profiles:

 

A "sweet spot" is where a combination of factors results in a maximum response for a given amount of effort. In tennis, a given swing will result in a more powerful hit if the ball strikes the racquet in the player's sweet spot.

  • Organizational change expert with 16 years of experience on global technology implementations for the Fortune 500. 
  • Transformation and turnaround leader specialized in building teams, measurement systems, and driving results at distressed and growth companies alike, with a focus on the middle market.
  • Senior leader with 20+ years in organization design, change management, and leadership alignment for global companies. 
  • Consultant to individuals, nonprofits, and corporations in the areas of strategic philanthropy, partnership development, grant making, and evaluation. 

Do these consultants have other key skills like program management, executive coaching, and creating cross-functional buy-in? Absolutely, but that’s not what makes them unique. I know exactly who to call when a client says any of these things:

  • “Our global system implementation is going to impact nearly everyone in the company.”
  • “We’re losing money and we’re not sure why.”
  • “We think we need to restructure to better serve our new market segments.”
  • “We need to rethink our annual giving program.”

The professionals who pinpoint their niche tend to get more work. It’s counter-intuitive but true.

You must know your niche. Be known for something. Your name should immediately come to mind when a certain situation or need is identified. I have never heard a client say, “We need someone to come in and do some organizational development.” Instead they say something like, “Wow, it’s going to be a real challenge to make this happen given the tenure of our staff and our strong culture.”

What problems do you solve? What situations do you know how to address?

By now you may be thinking, “OK, this makes sense, but how do I figure out what my particular niche is?”

That’s the hard part. Here are two ideas to get your started. 

Exercise #1: Look at Your History.

(This takes about 20 minutes. PICA members, download a worksheet here.)

First, list all the projects or assignments you’ve worked on in the last few years. If you were a full-time employee at a company, think about special projects or task forces that you were a part of, either as a team member or subject matter expert. Next, answer these questions for each project:

  • What was the project about? What problem was being solved? What solution was created or implemented?
  • What was the industry?
  • Who was the client? For example, Fortune 500 or middle market?
  • Who was impacted? An individual, team, departments, or the whole company?
  • Were you involved with the strategy, planning, implementation, or all of the above?
  • What expertise did you provide? What questions did you help to answer? How did you contribute?

After quickly listing all the information, look for trends. This will point you in the right direction. Then ask yourself, “On which of these projects or assignments did I feel like I was at my best? Why?”

Exercise #2: Get Input from Colleagues.

(Takes about 10 minutes now, plus 10 minutes later.)

To start, make a list of about 10 people who you’ve worked closely with on projects in the last few years. Then send them the following email to get their input and find out how they perceive you. Adapt the email to your situation. Once you have at least five results, look at all their responses and mark recurring themes.

Suggested subject line: Asking for your help (should take about 3 minutes)

Suggested text:

Hi Joe,

As you know I have decided to take the leap and become an independent consultant. I’m quite excited about this but my near-term challenge is to succinctly summarize my services and expertise. Since we worked together on the XYZ Initiative, I’d really appreciate it if you’d complete these two statements for me, thinking specifically about my work on that project.

  1. I think the project really benefitted from your contribution to the…
  2. I think you are particularly good at…

Thanks, Joe. If you could send me a reply by end of day Friday, that would be great.

Best regards,

These two exercises will help you identify your particular sweet spot. You can use this insight to then devise your “elevator pitch,” one or two sentences that succinctly describe your niche and type of clients you serve. (Try adding “I am a….” to the beginning of each of the four professional summaries above for some examples.)

Once you’ve crafted your elevator pitch, make sure to memorize and rehearse it. Then synthesize it into a “tag line” for your LinkedIn profile, email signature, business card, and résumé and/or bio.

Don’t fall prey to the jack-of-all-trades myth! When you have a specific area of expertise, it’s easier for people to remember you and refer you to their colleagues.

 

Tip: Write your elevator pitch on a sticky note and put it on the sun visor of your car. Then practice it out loud a few times a day until you no longer have to look at the note. It also helps to imagine yourself at an event where someone asks, "So what do you do?"

 

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