Center for Executive Coaching

Tough Times Call for Massive Action: How to kick start your coaching, consulting, or business advisory practice

The purpose of this article is to help business professionals identify the essential strategies they need to implement in order to build momentum in their business quickly and without a major investment of money. This article applies to anyone starting their practice from scratch, as well as coaches, consultants, trainers, and business advisors who need a little push to get going again.

This article is based both on research about what works best for professionals, as well as my own experience. Early in my career, I ran a fledgling consulting practice. During this time, I made every mistake you can possibly make. As a result, the practice made me a living, but not really much of a life.

These are just some of my mistakes:

  1. I didn’t focus on a target market. Therefore, clients didn’t trust me because I didn’t know how to speak their language, had not programs tailored to their specific programs, and I had no credibility in their “community.”
  2. I couldn’t clearly state the solution I provided, or the benefits that my clients received by working with me. I knew I could help, but did a terrible job explaining exactly how. My marketing message was weak. When prospects heard that I helped improve performance, they wanted specifics, and I couldn’t provide them.
  3. I spent time and money on marketing campaigns that produced no results. My web site cost almost $3,800 to create. It was a wonderful design, and probably won my web designer an award. Unfortunately, it failed to capture any information about prospects, or even convey to prospects why my services were different from anybody else’s.
  4. I spent time on networking events and lead exchange groups without a clear idea of who I hoped to meet there, how to meet them, or how to get work or referrals from these events.
  5. I wasted money on advertising that produced little or no response or interest.
  6. I failed to collect testimonials that could give me instant credibility.
  7. I neglected the most valuable asset I had – the people I already knew. For whatever reason, I somehow assumed that my market was “out there,” instead of focusing on my existing contacts to help me.
  8. I took any project that came my way. I worked with all sorts of clients, in all types of industries. The cost of this scrambled approach was that I never developed an expertise in a specific area, and had to continuously hawk my services.

So, I know first-hand about needing to kick-start a practice, as well as proven ways NOT to get results.

Now, almost two decades later, I also know quite a bit about what does work.

Three Phases in Any Professional Services Firm

Before showing you these strategies, I’d like to introduce you to the three phases that any professional services firm experiences. That way, you will be able to assess your practice, and know what it means to have to kick-start revenues.

Everybody’s Favorite Phase: Acceleration

The best phase is called “Acceleration.” During this phase, you have to put very little effort into business development, because clients come to you. You have established trust and credibility in your marketplace, created automatic marketing systems, and developed a huge contact list. Your business development machine attracts all the clients you can handle. Your goal when you are in this phase is to keep investing in business development, as well as in the capacity of your practice/firm to deliver, in order to grow.

The Second Best Phase: Momentum

The second best phase is called “Momentum.” During this phase, things are fine. You have a good number of clients, and are making a decent living. You invest time and money in business development, and get results equal to the investment you make. In Acceleration, you might invest one unit into business development to get back five or ten units of results. In Momentum, you get back one unit of results for every unit you invest in business development. Your goal in this phase is to breakthrough to Acceleration.

The Most Difficult Phase: Kick Start

The most difficult phase to be in is the third phase, called “Kick Start.” This phase feels like pushing a rock up a hill. You have to invest five or ten units of effort in business development to get even one unit of result back. Your goal during this phase is to kick start your practice and get momentum. It takes intense focus and effort to do this, but is worth the effort to get back to the Momentum and then Acceleration phases.

You can be in the kick-start phase for a couple of reasons. Almost anyone starting out automatically begins in this phase, because they need to take lots of action to get results. Professionals who stop marketing soon find themselves in this phase, too. Finally, a severe economic downturn can force many consultants back into the kick-start phase.

Four Keys to Put in Place Now To Kick Start Your Practice

To kick start you practice, you need to have four simple things in place before you do anything. None of these cost any money, and they don’t take much time to create either.

One: Develop a Strategic Foundation Before You Do Anything

Don’t make the mistakes I had to learn the hard way. If you don’t have a solid strategic foundation in place for your professional practice, you will forever struggle to attract clients and projects. Make sure that you have clarified the following strategic issues:

Two: Create One Informational Product That You Can Use as Marketing Collateral

You don’t need any fancy brochures. In fact, when prospects ask for brochures, half the time they are doing that to get you out of their hair. For instance, “Okay, thanks for telling me about your services. Leave me your brochure and I’ll get back to you once I review it.”

However, you do need to create one informational product that you can use as marketing collateral. Focus on your prospects and their needs, and create a valuable report for them. I suggest a report or article that describes the problem(s) your target market faces, the costs of this problem, the solution, the benefits of that solution, and case studies showing how other organizations have succeeded with this solution.

You will use this report as a way to reach your prospects.

Three: Come Up with a Short Hook

You need some sort of “hook” that compels prospects to contact you, or to agree to a meeting. If you did everything you needed to in Step One, you should have no trouble coming up with this hook.

All you need to do is come up with a short, one-sentence statement that states the problem you solve, and the benefit you provide. Examples include:

“I help HR executives eliminate the hassles involved in HR administration, and save thousands of dollars a week.”

“I help car dealerships use a powerful marketing tool that attracts 25 new customers a month.”

“I help physicians earn $45,000 more per year in their practice, eliminate the hassles of paper-based medical records, and become audit-proof.”

“I help CIOs accelerate the time it takes them to complete projects, and save their departments hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.”

Four: Be Resilient

Expect a lot of frustration when you work to kick-start your practice. This phase of business development requires lots of action and effort on your part, by definition. You will need to work hard. You will face plenty of rejection. You will probably question whether it is worth continuing.

Be resilient. Have faith that all of your hard work will bring you to a new phase in your business. Once you get to the Momentum phase, you can look back on these days as a character-building experience. Once you get into the Acceleration phase, you can look back on these days and laugh.

Five Strategies to Kick Start Your Practice

Now that you have the essential elements in place, let’s review five strategies to kick start your practice.

One: Create the Future From the Past and Present

The first strategy is to start with where you are, and where you have been. You already know plenty of people that either need your services, or that can refer you to people who might.

Start With Clients, Colleagues, and Former Employers

Current and past clients, colleagues, and former employers are your best source of additional work and referrals. Take a moment and list all of the people you have worked with before, or are working with now. Don’t limit your list to clients. Think about colleagues and managers who have moved on to other companies.

There are a couple of strategies to arrange a meeting with these people, depending on your relationship with them:

  1. For current clients, you can talk with them about referrals and additional business almost anytime you meet with them – and especially when you have provided value that they recognize.

    At the same time, consider possibilities for helping your clients with additional issues that they face. Develop ideas about the types of solutions you can offer to address your client’s key priorities. Then arrange a meeting with each client to test your ideas. Let the client know that you’ve enjoyed working with them, and ask them about what they have found valuable about your work. Then tell them that you’d appreciate the opportunity to continue to work with them, and have some ideas about how you might be able to improve results in some of the areas that they are addressing.
  2. For past clients in which you have a strong relationship, you can use the same strategy as above.

    Or, if the relationship has lapsed a bit, you might consider taking the client out to lunch to “check in.” Another approach for relationships that have lapsed is to send the former a copy of your new information product, and then follow up with a request to meet. You can be completely open and honest about your reason for meeting. For instance:

    “Hi Bob, we haven’t spoken for a while. I’m wondering if we might be able to meet. I’d like to follow up with you about how I might be able to help you [state your compelling benefit/hook here]. I’d also appreciate any feedback you had about the [information product] I sent you, which had some ideas about how to [state the benefits of that information product]. Do you have some time next week?”

At the meeting, your clients may or may not have additional work for you. Either way, be sure to also ask them for referrals to anyone who might have a need, or to people who they think would be good for you to know. Remember to help them focus their memory, per the ideas in the section on referrals in Chapter Four.

Arrange Meetings with “Connectors” You Already Know

We all know hundreds of people. We just don’t think we do – until we focus our memory. Many of these people are well connected, and can help your reach other connectors, as well as decision makers in your target market.

Take a moment to list influential people you know. For instance, go through the phone book and think about professionals you know in each listing category. Think about people you have met at recent social or community events. Include your family, friends and neighbors – as well as their friends. List the people you know from hobbies, recreation, and sports. Include alumni from your school – even if they are not in your target market. Reconnect with past friends.

Arrange a meeting with these people. To get a meeting with people you don’t know well, use the following script (Note: adapt it if you’ve been in practice for some time to say, “I continue with my professional practice, and wanted to update you…”):

“Hi Brenda,

I’ve recently started a professional practice. I help people in [target market], [the hook or result you get]. I was wondering if we could meet. I would be very grateful for your advice about this practice, and how I might be able to attract clients and projects. In exchange, I’d like to discuss ways I can help you succeed in your work, too.”

During the meeting, start by understanding what the other person is doing, and take notes about ways you can help them. If they need referrals, ask questions to help you know what kind of referral is ideal for them. Then, tell them about the type of referral you are looking for, and help them focus in on specific people that might have an interest in your services, or know people who might.

Set a goal to have 100 meetings over three months with these people. That’s only about one meeting a day.

If you get a referral to a connector, contact the person to set up a meeting to discuss how you can help each other succeed. Mention your referral source’s name, so that they are warmed up to your request.

As you get referrals to potential clients, send a letter or email to the prospect noting the name of the person who referred you, including your hook, a copy of your information product, and a request to meet briefly:

“Dear Bill,

Brenda Evans suggested that we might meet. I help people [your hook], and focus on [your target market]. I don’t know if it makes sense for us to talk or not, and am contacting you on Brenda’s suggestion.

Please take a look at the enclosed [information product], which can help you [benefits of your information product]. My clients have found this to be very useful when they deal with [the problem you address].

Could I suggest that we have a five-minute call to talk about your issues and see if it is worthwhile to speak further? I’ll follow up with you in the next day or so to arrange a call.”

Even if the prospective client has no need for your services, be sure to ask them for names of other people who might, for well-connected people in the industry, and for people they know who might offer complementary services (e.g. the name of their lawyer, accountant, etc.). One of your goals should be to replace every closed door with at least two new open doors.

Finally, be sure to follow up with the source of the referral and let them know the outcome. Thank them with a handwritten note and maybe a nice gift.

Arrange Meetings with Prospects that You Already Know

You should follow a similar procedure for prospects in your target market that you already know. Offer them your information product (or send it to them), and suggest a meeting to discuss their issues in more detail with them. When you meet, also ask them for ideas about others who might be able to help.

Conclude prospect meetings with a handwritten thank you note and, if you have one, another information product that they will find useful.

Two: Reach Out to Ideal Prospects

Your second strategy is to reach out to ideal prospects that you want to work with, but don’t yet know. These are prospects that you know about from researching your target market. They are visible, and are quoted often in trade magazines.

Send them a letter or email with your information product. A sample letter follows:

“Dear Bill,

I’ve recently started a firm that helps people in [your target market]  [your hook]. Please take a look at the enclosed [information product, e.g. article or executive brief], which [benefits of your information product]. My clients have found this to be very useful when they deal with [the problem you address].

I don’t know if you would benefit from these solutions or not, and wonder if it would make sense for us to speak for five minutes to find out if it makes sense for us to meet.

Could I suggest that we have a five-minute call to talk about your issues and see if it is worthwhile to speak further? Either way, I’d be extremely grateful for your impressions of the enclosed [information product]. I’ll follow up with you in the next day or so to arrange a call.”

Sincerely,

[your name]
[your web site]
[your contact info]”

As always, whatever the outcome of the letter, ask them for referrals to other prospects and connectors as well. You can soften your request by simply asking for names of others who might appreciate the information that you sent.

If the prospect does seem interested in your services, don’t get greedy. Your goal right now is to kick start your practice, not get rich. Listen closely to his or her issues, and be flexible in order to get a foot in the door. Since the prospect barely knows you, suggest a safe, risk-free way to solve his or her problem – perhaps by starting with a low-cost scoping study, diagnostic, or solution to a relatively simple problem. You might even trade discounted fees from a highly visible prospect in exchange for testimonials and referrals.

Three: Get Visible

The third strategy is to find quick, low-cost ways to get visible. The best way to do this is by finding speaking venues – whether you speak at events where your target market attends, or whether you create and promote your own event to your list of contacts.

Speaking is the quickest way to get clients, even if you reach fewer people than by writing articles and press releases. That’s because speaking is intimate. People who hear you speak feel like they know you already. They are willing to come up to you after a speaking event and ask questions, or even invite you to contact them.

When you speak, make sure your content is relevant to your audience, practice ahead of time, and capture the participants’ contact information! Then, follow up with each prospect to offer more valuable education and ideas, and meet with them to discuss their issues.

Four: Use Research as a “Trojan Horse” to Meet Potential Clients

Conducting research is a great strategy to quickly get in front of potential clients. Really, research is a “Trojan Horse” – a gift to your prospects with a hidden agenda inside.

Your research study should focus on asking prospects about key issues in their organization that you know how to solve. Frame your questions in such a way that they will get your prospects thinking about their problems, and what those problems are costing them. For instance, you might design a survey about the top five [legal, accounting, technology, real estate, fitness, etc.] issues facing your target market. Or, you might conduct a survey to assess how quickly your market is adopting trends that are changing the industry.

Since your main goal is to kick-start your practice, make sure you choose prospects that you want to become clients. Offer your information product as an enticement to participate. Meet live with willing participants, so that they can get to know you. Try to get into an open-ended discussion with them about their top issues and concerns, and how they are addressing them.

Don’t sell anything during this study, unless the prospect specifically asks for more information.

Once you compile your research results, send it to all participants. Then call them to follow up and discuss the results with them. You might even hold a seminar to discuss the results, and promote it both to participants and others in your industry. Finally, promote your findings with press releases to every relevant publication and web site you can reach!

Every time I have used this strategy, I have gotten more work as a result.

Five: Ride Somebody Else’s Wave

The fifth and final strategy is to ride somebody else’s wave. There are quite a few professionals out there who already have more clients than they can handle. Many of these clients are a prime fit with your target market and capabilities. If you position your practice correctly, you might be able to generate significant amounts of work for yourself.

There will be a cost to you to get this work. You will have to help the other person get an over-ride for marketing the engagement on your behalf. For instance, if the engagement is worth $100,000, you might keep $65,000-$90,000 for delivering the results, and provide the other person with the balance for marketing the project.

If this strategy appeals to you, you should look for the following types of people:

  1. Gatekeepers to your target market. These are people who are in the middle of everything related to your target market – such as bankers, lawyers, accountants, and financial planners. Many of these people don’t need anyone to help build their business. However, they might want to round out their services with somebody who can offer your capabilities to their clients. Depending on your negotiating skills, you might be able to structure a deal to partner together to serve the needs of your target market. I know one marketing consultant who gets about half of his clients from an investment banker that sends projects his way in exchange for additional stock from the client. In addition to his stock, the investment banker is also assured that his clients have marketing capabilities that will help them succeed in their market and raise the value of his equity.
  2. Full service professionals in your market. If you have a unique and specific set of capabilities for a specific target market, you might be able to partner with large firms in your market and carve out a niche practice with them. Many national firms frequently partner with smaller organizations to assist in niche projects. In fact, they often buy these small firms after establishing a relationship with them — at quite a premium for the founder.
  3. Professionals in your field of expertise and focused on your target market, but who provide complimentary services. They have access to your market, want to satisfy their clients, and might refer work your way when the need arises. They will want to keep control of the client, but you will receive income, experience, case studies, testimonials, and perhaps referrals. For instance, an information technology expert who supports computers in a specific market could team up with a software developer who develops applications for that same market.
  4. Professionals that do exactly what you do, except for other target markets. These people know your solution, and can refer business to you when they find prospects in your market – especially if you approach them first offering to do the same for them.
  5. Professionals that do exactly what you do, and haven’t focused on a specific target market. These professionals might realize that you can provide a better solution in your niche, and refer work to you in exchange for an override.

You can reach all of these people in a variety of ways: introductions from your connectors, sitting on boards, emailing to ask for advice or a meeting, and asking clients for names of “gatekeepers.” People who make themselves visible in your target market’s trade magazines are also good candidates to contact.

Conclusion: One More Foot

The five strategies noted above are the fastest, lowest cost ways to kick-start your practice. They have worked well for me, other consultants, and my clients in professional service firms. There are of course many others ways to generate leads; however, the five strategies above are the most effective to use when you want immediate results.

However, there is no silver bullet to get momentum and acceleration with your practice. It takes time, persistence, faith, and resilience in the face of frustration and rejection.

Perhaps most importantly, it takes action. The best way to take action is one step at a time. About a month ago, I went with a group to climb a ropes course at our local YMCA. The course was three stories high, filled with telephone poles at angles, rock climbing walls, rope ladders, cables, platforms, and all sorts of swinging obstacles.

When my turn came up, I thought I would have no trouble making it to the top. Well, about half way up I started huffing and puffing like I was twice my age and weight. The strength in my arms and legs gave out. I simply rested on my support ropes, wondering how I could get out of this mess. Then, the coach on the ground called out, “Don’t give up. Go one more foot up. Just one more foot!”

So, after resting a bit more, I went one more foot. The coach kept calling “One more foot. Don’t quit without going one more foot up.” I listened, and kept moving up the course, one foot at a time, and resting in between. About ten feet before the top, I found renewed strength and commitment, and pushed myself up and over the overhang of the top platform.

I will always remember that YMCA coach yelling, “One more foot!” It’s a great slogan for anyone struggling – whether on a ropes course or in a professional practice. If you keep taking one small step at a time, eventually you can succeed.

Therefore, take a minute and think about one thing you can do right now to kick-start your practice. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, just something that will get you one foot further along. Then, after you take that action, think of another. And another….

One more foot!

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