Finding A Novel Differentiation Strategy For Your Consulting Services Is Imperative. Not Having A Visible Difference Makes It Tough For Clients To Choose You
Have you noticed that when it comes to differentiation of their services, most consultants can’t quite explain how they are different from competition in the same space?
The problem with most consulting services businesses is that they are still wearing old hats. They don’t look beyond pricing, branding elements, website design, or their consulting processes to showcase their difference.
The real difference consultants should talk about is the difference they can make to clients’ businesses. In identifying differentiated issues, and becoming specialists at solving particular types of problem or need, they can truly make themselves more relevant and valuable to a set of clients of similar need.
At Solohacks Academy, we believe it’s time for those in the consulting profession to start seeing where the challenging times are changing client needs. As a consultant, your difference may lie in the fine nuances of client problems.
1. Use micro-marketing techniques to narrow down consulting to a high-profit niche
Micro marketing isn’t a tactic suitable only for small businesses or solopreneur consultants. Huge global consultants, too, have now understood the value of it. The Internet now allows very granular audience segments.
To understand micro marketing better, let’s take an example, say, from the real estate industry. For starters, you would expect that any realty consultant would have a narrow enough niche. He may be targeting a particular suburb of his hometown. He cannot otherwise handle too many clients. But what if the consultant then decided to go even narrower? Say, into rental houses that are two-bed apartments within a certain price range.
Now, his own focus and specialization will grow with speed. He may see his target audience needs better than before. He may be able to distinguish the little nuances that affect 2-bed home-renting decisions. He may gain clarity on why some sales don’t materialize, while others do. In narrowing his outlook, he would gain depth. The focus of the marketer would become “one inch wide and one mile deep”.
The differentiation arguments such a consultant would use may show what an expert he is in two-bed apartments. He would become the “go-to” person for single people or small families. He would grow a reputation faster as an expert in “small apartment rentals”. That’s why micro marketing gets easier with time and produces results faster for consultants who make this their unique expertise.
2. Be among the rare consultants with expertise in a powerful emerging technology
One other great way to differentiate yourself from the competition is to stay way ahead of the curve. Keep scanning the horizon for emerging new technologies that may affect a lot of your target audiences in your niche. Be sure to look for trends and technologies that look like they are here to stay for quite a while.
In recent times, several consultants who got in early into Artificial Intelligence or Voice Search have been able to encash on the relative rarity of their expertise to advise droves of customers wanting to get into this space with their products and services.
How do you, as a consultant, grow enough knowledge into such an area of tremendous future opportunity? There are three things you have to do:
- First, identify the right technologies that appear to have long-term value. See where the big tech giants are putting their money and creating new products. See where the speakers at TED Talks are focusing on explaining new concepts to people. Most often your first and best sources of knowledge would be organizations that are sinking big money into exploiting such emerging opportunities. They must have done enough background research to know a line of opportunity with growth potential when they see one. Tag along.
- Second, read up as much as you can on the topic, including books, whitepapers, research data, and future projections. Most importantly, see how many different ways this new trend or technology may seep into businesses and consumers’ lives. The more transformation it can create in people’s lives, the more long-term its results are bound to be. If you have to teach people answers to questions like, “What is this new trend all about?” or, “How do I use it to produce new products or services for my business?” or, “How much short-and-long-term profitability is there in this new technology?”, you have to understand the business case thoroughly yourself. Early adopter clients of yours may be willing to take the risks, but they may depend on you to be able to advise them correctly so that these are all “calculated risks”.
- Third, if you truly want to become the go-to person for specialized expertise on an emerging technology you have to be ready to go out on a limb. You may have to offer your consulting free for a few clients willing to put money on using the technology – so that you can develop case studies as proof-of-principle. Or, if you can’t get clients to invest, you may have to create a few case studies of your own, via investing in the technology on your own. You could also try to partner with organizations that have already invested in the technology and built case studies, if they will allow you to see the details of what they have achieved. Try to assess if it is a replicable model you can evangelize.
3. Focus on solving a customer problem that is highly complex and challenging
There are some areas of consulting most consultants would rather steer clear of – because they are messy projects with too many moving parts and a lot of transformative upheavals. In the end, when things don’t go according to plan, the consultant usually gets badmouthed. For example, a lot of consultants would hate to dive into “business mergers or takeovers” for large organizations, simply because of the complexity and internal conflicts, and the highly challenging nature of such projects.
The branding and values of both concerned organizations may need to change with the times, but that’s the least of their problems. Organizational identity change affects people who were selling a different brand and its values to customers – or maybe were too vested in the old brand they were selling, for they were good at it. Takeovers or mergers can be traumatic, because they also cause individual insecurities in addition to major organizational changes.
It takes a brave consultant to build his expertise around an area that most other consultants would shun. What if you became the extreme specialist in such areas where there would be maximum complexity and challenges caused by change, and what if you had a plan to make it easier for all levels of the client hierarchy? What if you had a proprietary method to make mincemeat of intra-organizational conflicts and turf wars? What if the CEO of the client company could count on you to bring all his team on one page, understanding the value and steps involved in a change process that needn’t be driving up people’s insecurities?
If, as a consultant, you are willing to handle really troublesome problems for clients, you may be able to charge the moon – simply because you’d have very little competition. But the important thing here is not to just land the project, but to actually deliver on it. You need patience as deep as the ocean bed, and enough steel in your spine to be able to handle people at their worst. There will be actively aggressive people or passively resistant people to deal with, a boss who is frequently in doubt with his own decision, and other stakeholders who may question the need for such tumult. Your 80% effort would be with people and expectation-management, and 20% effort would be in replacing the old systems with the new and training people to adopt the change. Are you game enough for it? If yes, you have a differentiator in your arsenal that won’t attract too much competition.
4. Create your own proprietary framework for all your consulting assignments
Many consultants follow more or less the same project processing steps as others. Some, however, make tweaks to the normal ways of handling assignments by creating their own proprietary frameworks. They name these frameworks to sound like huge value-additions, and generally justify why their frameworks produce better than average results for clients. Most of these proprietary frameworks may have grown from their own consulting processes used over the years, when they have discovered ways to quicken or increase results by using some clever hacks.
One good example of a proprietary framework comes from SmartIsights, a consulting firm that helps clients with planning and executing their digital marketing strategies. They claim to have “created the RACE Framework” to help digital marketers plan and manage their digital marketing strategy in a more structured way.
The acronym RACE here refers to their 4-step method of strategizing digital marketing planning – with a Reach, Act, Convert and Engage formula. As with any proprietary framework that you create, for your consulting to sound above-average, you have to be able to justify why your system works better for most clients.
Here SmartInsights offer an explanation as follows:
“RACE is a practical framework to help manage and improve results from your digital marketing. It covers always-on digital marketing activities across the customer lifecycle which are sometimes neglected in favor of campaign-based activities for launching new products and promotions.
Investing time and budget in planning always-on activities is vital for many businesses to connect with customers who are researching new products by searching or asking via social media.
Ultimately, it’s about using best practice analytics to get more commercial value from investments in digital marketing. We hope it will help simplify your approach to reviewing the performance of your online marketing and taking actions to improve ROI.”
SmartInsights also offer a host of templates to clients who want to follow their system of planning, and additionally, they also list the performance KPIs to measure to know how well their system has fared for a client.
5. See if you can specialize in delivering some extra, unexpected or very valuable results
Some consultants declare before-hand that they are going to deliver a set of results that a client can be guaranteed about. Some go beyond this and say, “These are our minimum deliverables, but we have an internal mandate to go beyond the standard and drive greater results than you’d expect. So be prepared that we may surprise you with more bang for the buck.”
Now a claim like this can become a huge and compelling differentiation, for sure. But do you really have what it takes to deliver beyond expectations? Can the results you bring to the client’s table really offer some unexpected extra or some very valuable results? You have to be able to plan your own consulting strategy in a way that you make it your personal internal commitment to always exceed client expectations.
One consultant I know always decided to add one extra dimension to his consulting project that he never talked about to the client initially. He would mention all the other deliverables except this one. He would then bring out the surprise element at the end of the project – and show how he had gone beyond the boundaries of the project to give the client an additional and highly-covetable extra. No doubt, this ploy helped him retain clients, because clients saw that this consultant always goes an extra mile.
Another great example of this is a consultant who teaches blogging practices to get maximum organic traffic to clients’ websites. But beyond just this process, he also adds in a whole social media strategy that he never mentions on his project proposal. The clients not only get his mentoring on blogging, but also a bonus social media strategy that could act as a force-multiplier to the blogging. The clients of this consultant have nothing to complain about. If anything, they become die-hard fans of the consultant and advocate his services to all their friends.
Sometimes, it pays to create your differential through the extra add-ons you offer that stay unstated as part of a project contract. Spring them on as a surprise and you’ll find your clients complain less about your work, as their eyes shine with the wonder that they have got something so much more valuable than what they thoughts they would. You become more differentiated – because in a world of consultants that under-deliver, you always surprise with over-delivery.
6. Offer innovative solutions to customer problems instead of the tried-and-tested
If clients were wanting cookie-cutter solutions to their problems, they would look at blog articles, or ebooks, or case studies of other entrepreneurs – they wouldn’t need a consultant. The whole idea of hiring a consultant is for “customized solutions” tailored to clients’ specific problems. No two organizations are exactly alike. While they can look at one another for inspirations, finding solutions to problems that fit their budgets, their constraints, and their organizational culture calls for a solution that isn’t a one-size-fits-all.
Being an innovation-driven consultant isn’t just a way of creating a differential for your services, but also a way of encouraging your clients to think out of the box. They’ll thank you immensely for encouraging them to do some lateral thinking, taking them out of their usual rutted mental patterns into new vistas of creative exploration for solutions.
If you want to be an innovative consultant, and urgent your clients to be creative too, there are three mindset changes to make:
- First, don’t believe (and don’t let clients believe) that innovativeness is a inborn trait. It is a cultivated trait. It comes from cultivating the ability to ponder abstractly, having insatiable curiosity, being ready to embrace risk, and being dissatisfied with the status quo.
- Second, create an environment always conducive to innovations. This means all meetings – online or offline – should begin with a question like, “OK, so we’re here to try and solve XYZ problem. Now, how can we find a solution that is not the tried-and-tested one but a creative one?” That should set the tone of the gathering to a level expecting innovative ideas.
- Third, most people don’t understand the innovation process and it’s your opportunity to teach them this. Show them that when you are ideating creatively, you just jot down ideas as they occur, and you don’t assess their value and shortlist them. The brain muscles needed for evaluation of an idea are different from the brain muscles needed for generating lots of ideas. Moreover, people shouldn’t ever take their ideas to be their own – and get all miffed if their idea didn’t pass muster. Show people that there will be one team leader who decides on the final idea, and while he is the assigned decision-maker, he gets others to contribute ideas but not be decision-makers themselves. It’s very critical that people understand what you mean exactly by “being innovative” and how the process works.
7. Ask the client for his project goals, then encourage his vision to be more audacious
One of the most refreshing differences a consultant can have is to be able to ask the client to raise his goals up several notches. Normally, an ordinary consultant would tell a client, “Let’s be realistic with our goals, we can only climb up step by step. There’s no point in setting such high ambitions that we always fall short and then suffer poor morale.” You don’t need a consultant to tell a client to pare down goals, just because the consultant also finds his comfort zone if the client is “realistic”.
It takes special guts for a consultant to tell a client, “Think of a goal and then 10X it. I am here to help you set bigger goals than you think you can achieve. My job is to show you where your potential for big success lies.”
What does it take to be a different and audacious type of consultant? Think of it this way – what do you lose if the client fails, you will have at least let the client reach his own modest goals. But on the flip side, if the client learns to set audacious goals, thanks to his consultant egging him on to think big, the means to those goals are also likely to be out of the ordinary. The client will be open to more innovative ideas for progress from the consultant.
The difference between asking your client to be “realistic” or “audacious” in setting goals for a consulting project is really less about goals and more about expectation-management. Naturally, bigger goals will call for greater readiness for setbacks and bounce-backs. If a consultant has prepared a client mentally to anticipate setbacks and to learn how to stop, evaluate, innovate, and then hurdle over them, both client and consultant can go ahead fearlessly. The secret to success for the consultant who encourages big-thinking from clients is the mental preparation of the client. Never give clients the feeling that you will handle the project smoothly without wrinkles. Always convey the feeling that many hurdles will inevitably arise on the path to progress, but you – and the client – must develop the confidence and muscles to stop, evaluate, innovate, and overcome the roadblocks.
Standout consultants will show clients why it’s actually unrealistic to set small goals and expect smooth routes to these goals. Whether goals are small or large there will be problems to solve along the way. So why not think big instead of small, because the way to solve en route problems is the same – whether the goal is small or big.
8. Act, dress, behave and work in a way that’s differently professional from competition
One consultant I know is amazingly different just by the style of work he chooses to follow. When he makes his first presentation to a client he is usually suited and booted – but when he sets up his first meeting, he remembers to email people that “dress is casual”. He then proceeds to set up a venue that takes the air out of the stuffy client teams. He suggests a pow-wow at a beach house he has rented for the meeting … or in a park-side cafe … or on a friend’s island for which the team has to reach by ferry service.
Having thus shown a funky side of himself, he begins serious meetings with a game-like entry that loosens everybody up and gets all team members participating for the sheer fun of it. The game, needless to say, has a bearing on the problem they are all gathered together to solve. They all then discuss the business problem at hand, and add their two-bits towards the solution. Lots of informal post-it notes get scribbled on and stuck on the floors and tabletops, and as people arrange their thoughts, they also arrange the post-its into a semblance of a workable solution and its sequence.
When a good decision is reached, a hamper is opened, and everybody in attendance consumes the bubbly or other delectable edibles. It all ends with a feeling that a whole day’s serious work has gone by in the guise of play, with everybody being in the mood to join in without reserve, and where the atmosphere has been most “unlike an office”.
Does this work? The consultant tells me it works like the blazes. In fact, he discovered early in his career that if you take a business team out of an office they become totally different people, forget their intra-differences, and begin to enjoy work. Bosses who sounded initially thrown by such methodologies of the consultant later became the greatest votaries of the whole idea. And in the final analysis, the results they all got in problem-solution usually transcended the obvious.
Maybe you, as a consultant, don’t have it in you to carry things so far. Maybe you don’t have access to commission strange venues where people have to reach with a spirit of adventure. But the kernel of this idea is to be less of the staid consultant you are expected to be and to differentiate yourself by how you act, dress, behave or work in a way that’s differently professional. What results you get are more important than the means by which you get them. Isn’t that worth thinking about?
9. Do more research than the competition does and offer better insights and analysis
Every now and again, a consultant has to crunch a truckload of data for a client and help mine insights that the client can use. Needless to say, the difference between one consultant and another will be very visible in how a consultant sees patterns in data, isolates some valuable insights, and analyses the data to get the most out of it.
For starters, you can easily tell if a consultant’s data research has been shallow or obtained from poor sources. You can also tell if it is relevant to a client’s problem, and whether looking at the data points will lead to a solution. But even when consultants have seriously dived into vast amounts of top-grade data, only some have a knack for making it all simple but super-effective for use by a client.
There are three pointers to how consultants can differentiate themselves from what they do with data research:
- Great consultants don’t look at data per see, they look for data that can answer questions they ask of it. For example, a consultant may say to himself, after seeing some survey results, “How many of the people surveyed in this data meet the criteria of being savvy enough about content marketing for us to be able to attract them to our advanced content marketing course?” With this question in mind, when he looks at data, he can help identify the answers that may come up. He can then looks for clues in data that further support his question and help answer it better. By using his question as a data filter, he can analyze the data for both its utility and its potential to throw up a good solution. Data is useless unless there is a reason why it’s being looked at.
- Great consultants also look at data from the cost-benefit point of view. When, for example, a consultant is looking at data surveys for solutions to a client’s problem, he has to see how a certain set of data can support a solution that offers the least-cost and maximum-benefit to clients. Raw data can show patterns of possible solutions. But further analysis may be needed on cost-efficiency of alternate solutions. That too is part of the consultant’s data-crunching exercise. Economy angles and ROI angles should be very much part of data research – and if that is a strong suit, it could be a great differentiation for a consultant.
- Another area where consultants can truly differentiate themselves from the competition is when they look at market trends data. A smart consultant should be able to tell a client which routes to progress to follow to encash on the trend at just the right time. He should be able to ask a client to let go of passing fads, and find lasting trends to grab at. This could mean the consultant must have the ability to use data to model several pathways to progress. The consultant must also be able to model the lifecycle of a trend and know where the client sits in relation to the whole market growth, and whether he may be too early or too late to exploit the trend. Clients would pay good money for such a consultant who can spot opportunities for them in a world where technology and trends are changing so rapidly that it’s hard to know where and when to put the money.
10. Use different formats of mentoring to get your ideas across to clients and their teams
I once overheard a bit of water-cooler gossip in an office that made my ears perk up. I was one of their consultants, but fortunately they were talking about another one. I heard one of the men groan as he said,”Oh God do we have that PPT presentation consultant again? I’ve just had it with his slide deck monologues.” Up until that point, it never struck me that client teams can get awfully bored with consultants who had an unvaried style of making their messages heard.
So I decided never to be one of those predictable consultants whose style became such a bugbear to clients. I started varying my presentation formats, and allowed people to get my messages via various forms of teaching. This “variety-in-teaching” approach really worked. Here are just a few ideas I tried out:
- I decided to create video shorts and interspersed them whenever I was making an emphatic point after giving a justification of an argument. The video-based interlude, with music background and the look of a cine-trailer, did wonders.
- On another occasion, I sent out emails to solicit queries on a topic I would be covering in a week’s time for the client team, and then we made it a full-hour Q & A session. That worked very well too.
- Another trick I tried is to have a brainstorming session where people switched their job titles and became “someone else in the team” as they contributed ideas. You’d be surprised how many people were better at giving ideas when they were not their usual selves but imagined themselves to be some other Joe from another department./li>
- In a fourth presentation occasion, when I had no choice but to make a slide presentation, I asked people to come up one by one and explain my slides to the others. This not only gave me insights into what they saw in my slides that I didn’t, but they all got a new respect for slide presentations too, when they realized how tough it is to explain the points on a slide elaborately to someone else.
The moral of the story is that you can be a differentiated consultant – and it doesn’t always take a great branding difference, or a maverick thinking style. It is easier to be really different if you put yourself in client’s shoes and see where boredom with a consultant and his usual style begins. Break the stereotype in small ways, and you’ll be more pleasantly accepted by the client and his team. Chop and change the formats of presentation you use, surprise people with the unexpected, and most importantly, never let your presentations become a monologue. Involve people in the whole process, so they know what it’s like to be in your shoes, just as you think about how it feels to be in their shoes.
So What Are Your Thoughts? Do Share!
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