At some point in the trajectory of one’s career — usually in a period of professional success, organizational unrest, weariness working for someone else, or some combination of all three — a question starts to gnaw at your brain: “Should I go out on my own and become a consultant?” In 2010, after 22 years of working for large, multi-national ad agencies and brand storytelling consultants, I decided to make the leap and start working for myself. Since doing so, there have been periods of professional euphoria and a few moments of existential despair, but always lots of learning gleaned from both.
Recently, more and more people have asked me to grab a coffee and share what I’ve learned as they consider making a similar move. During those discussions, I have found myself providing some consistent counsel that somewhat mimics the “Four P’s of Marketing” I learned back in college. To effectively market, position and brand yourself as a consultant, you need to focus and define the following:
When I was considering becoming a consultant, I worked with an Executive Coach to help me figure out what I was all about and envision my path forward. In one particularly cathartic session, she kept asking me about my purpose: my reason for being, what I believe in, why I do what I do. My knee-jerk answer was “Storytelling”, always expressed in a slightly incredulous, “Duh!” sort of way. But like any good coach, mine kept pushing me to dig deeper. “OK yes, storytelling…but why storytelling? To what end?” she prodded.
And somewhere between the fourth or fifth refrain of this discussion, in one of those clouds-parting therapy moments you see in the movies, it dawned me. At the core of what I do is my belief that people’s work should be more meaningful. More specifically, I want to help people — whether we’re providing organizational brand storytelling work or business storytelling training — bring more meaning, significance, and richer understanding to their work and their workforce. I believe storytelling is the most powerful and effective way to achieve that. Yes, I am an expert in storytelling; but in terms of my purpose, storytelling is more a means to an end than the end itself.
So ask yourself what your higher purpose is and be able to talk (even preach) about it when the opportunity presents itself. What’s the difference you want to make in the lives of your clients, their industry, or the world? What’s the ultimate vision that you’re working towards and can share with others? What do you value and hold dear?
POINT OF VIEW
Great brands don’t just have a product or service to sell, they have a point of view. Your brand as a consultant should do the same, and you need to explore and articulate what you think about the world you operate in. What’s your perspective on your field or discipline? Based on your experience, what do you believe are the criteria for success in your industry and the predictors of failure? What are you trying to change or fight against? For example, part of my point of view is my belief that a lot of the brand planning models used by ad agencies or branding firms, while well-structured and very concise, are ineffective in conveying the real, richer meaning of a brand for people. As a former user of such models (in my days working in ad agencies), they are now something I fight against.
Some would-be consultants worry that having a strong point of view will alienate potential clients, and this can certainly be true. But if it does, it is doing so for a reason, and you should be grateful for that. I would much rather have a potential client recognize before we start working together, that we believe different things, and then take me out of consideration as a result. That is far better than discovering those differences after we’ve engaged and have invested time and energy together. Never forget that, while your point of view may distance yourselves from some people, it will also attract those who believe what you believe and want to do business with you accordingly.
No one likes to hitch themselves to someone else’s wagon if they have no idea where that wagon is going. The same holds true for clients hiring you as a consultant, which is why having a clearly defined process is important. Clients want to know what they can expect in your approach, the various stages of it, what’s going to happen and how they’re going to be involved. A defined process helps them know where they are on the journey, enabling them to track their progress and see how their budget is being spent along the way.
How would you describe your process? What would you name it? What are the phases of it and the various activities, milestones, and/or deliverables? Your process doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. In fact, a clear and simple path is typically a better one, because a process that is overly complex can feel flashy and lacking in substance.
And lastly, there is product: the tangible, end-deliverable clients get at the end of your process. A key mistake I have seen burgeoning consultants make is thinking “Well I’m smart and experienced, so now others will just pay me to be smart and experienced for them.” Not true. Unless you’re Oprah or an ex-president, most clients are reluctant to pay you to just verbally opine on something, even though they know that a large part of what they’re paying for is your opinion. They want something to hold, to take away, and to show themselves and others what they got for their money.
Make sure you can clearly define what someone receives from working with you. Even if you’re giving advice, guidance, and counsel, package it up into something clients can take away and reference after your work is done. And make sure it’s not only well crafted but well-designed so the lasting impression you leave with them is a good one.
I would add to these four P’s one more: PERSON. Said simply, be the type of person others enjoy working with. In the eight years, I’ve been running my consultancy, I have come to appreciate the tangible value of simply being a gracious, friendly, and fun person to work with. You can be confident in your purpose without being arrogant. You may be clear in your point of view, but respectful when sharing it. You have a clearly defined process, but you are responsive and flexible when the situation calls for it. You take the work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
I like to think that I am, by nature, a nice person. And while I certainly am not nice in order to profit from it, I know (and have been told) that being nice has sometimes been one thing that tipped the scales in my favour. So, be the type of person you would want to work with, and make yourself (and your mother) proud.