A conversation with David A. Fields, Managing Director, Ascendant Consulting
Today’s topic: Are consultants ignoring the best way to win new clients?
Clients don’t hire consultants for their problem-solving expertise, says author, speaker and consultant David A. Fields. So why do they hire them? You’ll find the answer in my interview with David below. A founder and managing director of a successful consulting practice, The Ascendant Consortium, David also advises boutique and solo consulting firms on how to win more projects from more clients at higher fees. David is also the author of two books, “The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients: 6 Steps to Unlimited Clients & Financial Freedom,” and “The Executive’s Guide to Consultants.”
Jonathan Verney: David, you say that clients don’t hire consultants for their problem-solving expertise. Yet that’s what consultants do for a living. Could you explain this apparent paradox to me?
David Fields: Clients are looking for problem-solving expertise, but the surprise is consultants don’t need to be the best at what they do. Clients aren’t looking for the best. They want solid. They want reliable. Above all, they want their problem solved. Because when they hire someone, they’re vulnerable. They’ve come to the point where they’ve realized “I can’t do it myself.” It takes guts to hire a consultant because they have to justify their decision to others—whether it’s their boss or their colleagues or their spouse. There’s a lot of insecurity in the corporate world because it’s so competitive. Before a corporate client will hire a consultant, the consultant has to create the feeling that “you’ll help me, you won’t hurt me, and you’ll put my best interests first.”
Verney: So the consultant who comes across as the most helpful often becomes the front runner?
Fields: Consultants who listen closely to the client’s challenges and talk about the client’s situation and speak the client’s language jump right onto the fast track and often end up winning the race, even against the big guys. Clients don’t care about you, they care about themselves. They don’t care how wonderful you are. They want to know how helpful you can be to them.
Verney: Being helpful is also what thought leadership is all about. The phrase gets thrown around a bit, which is unfortunate, but it’s an important subject and it isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. How do you define thought leadership?
Fields: It’s about capturing ideas in a way that other people can make sense of and apply in some way to their own lives. You don’t have to develop something new to be a thought leader. What you need to do is express your ideas in ways that are interesting or meaningful or helpful to your intended audience.
Verney: How important is thought leadership to building a consultant’s reputation and their “brand”?
Fields: It’s very important. Consultants who put the time and effort into developing the right kind of thought leadership—the helpful, non-promotional kind—position themselves as supportive, trustworthy confidants. And that’s a big part of what clients want. When a consultant writes a well-reasoned article or gives a speech or writes a book, it lends credibility to his practice. But it produces something else. It creates an element of trust. As the saying goes, clients need to know, like and trust someone before they’re going to hire them. It’s a process. But in my experience, you can shorten the process considerably if you’re a thought leader.
Verney: How do you get recognized as a thought leader?
Fields: Start from the client’s perspective. Talk their language. Be provocative if possible. Have an opinion or two, but make sure your opinions are well thought out. Above all, you need to work at being good at it. It’s a skill consultants can and should develop. Also, you have to network, you can’t just write. You’ve got to connect to the connectors. You have to build a platform or else borrow one.
Verney: How do you “borrow” a platform?
Fields: Join industry associations, speak at conferences, write guest posts on industry blogs—in other words, tap into an existing platform that someone else has built. And then keep at it. Contribute. Be helpful.
Verney: What do you feel are the keys to thought leadership?
Fields: Writing and speaking. And Right-Side Up thinking—focusing on the client’s world and not your own.
Verney: You talk extensively about Right-Side Up thinking in your new book, The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients. Can you elaborate on what it means and how it benefits consultants who want to grow their practices?
Fields: Most consultants worry about what their prospects think about them. It should be the opposite. They should be worried about what their prospects are thinking about themselves. Focus on the prospect’s issues and goals and aspirations, not your own. Consulting is not about you, it’s about them. Your message must always be about them because that’s who fascinates them the most—that’s what interests them. Do that and you’ll jump ahead of most of your peers.
Verney: Would you say the lack of Right Side Up thinking is a big blind spot for many of your consultant-clients?
Fields: It’s the biggest. Consultants believe what they think is important and meaningful is also important to their prospects. It’s not. That’s upside down thinking. It may seem obvious, but believe me, I’ve witnessed it over and over again when I’m on the client side and vetting a prospective consultant-hire. (Note: David’s Ascendant Consortium acts as a general contractor for consultants, so he hires consultants to work for his corporate clients.) It’s remarkable how few consultants actually use Right-Side Up thinking when they’re meeting with prospective clients. Instead, they talk about their approach, their expertise, their background and their capabilities. But clients don’t care about you. They care about solving their problem.
Verney: How can independent consultants compete and win against the consulting giants?
Fields: I see them winning every day. Sure, some prospects will never consider a boutique or a solo consultant. But there’s a large pool that will. If you’re leading a boutique or solo practice and you’re in the running against the heavyweights you have an immediate advantage: you’re not caught in a system. A midlevel consultant at a large firm, for example, is working for someone higher up in the firm. That’s his boss. The client isn’t his boss, and that’s a problem. But, as an independent, you get to deliver and solve the client’s problem to the exclusion of everything else because your focus is entirely on your client and no one else. Clients instinctively feel that you’re going to give them a deeper look at what they need; that you totally understand them; that you won’t make them look bad. And these are critical steps in developing trust.
Verney: Last question—and for this one, I’d like you to put on your Peerless Prognosticator hat. Where do you think the consulting profession is headed over the next decade?
Fields: The gig economy is here to stay. Instead of salary or regular wages, employees are opting out of the system and getting paid as freelancers or independent contractors for the “gigs” they perform. There are some downsides as well as upsides to this trend, depending on your perspective.
Verney: Can you give me some examples of the gig economy?
Fields: Car services such as Uber and food delivery courier services such as Postmates are two examples. What’s helping the gig economy thrive is the flattening of information and the instantaneous availability of resources online from around the globe. I think aggregators are going to play a huge role in the economy. For example, we can group-solve challenges now by putting together thousands of bright minds through crowd-consulting.
Verney: Will this put traditional consultants out of business?
Fields: No. If anything it will increase the demand. The business world is becoming more complex every day and there will always problems to solve!
Verney: David, thank you very much for your insights and your time.
Fields: You’re welcome. My pleasure.
If you’re looking to carve out a reputation as a business thought leader, an excellent way to begin is to write an article or book that showcases your journey or your expertise. To learn more about the process, please visit my website.