When the market gets tough and client work is drying up, do you push through or pivot to achieve success in a consulting business? As consultants we’re hired to help others, but who helps us address the key strategic questions of our own industry?

While “success” is a very individual thing for solo professionals and small consulting firms or agencies, the game plan is a formula anyone can develop.

2020 has certainly imposed challenges on all of us in many different ways and forced a huge digital disruption on management consulting industry. The labour-intensive billable hours model and high margin knowledge commodisation just doesn’t cut it anymore.

How are you managing? Has your client work diminished or died completely? If so, what are you doing about that? Are you considering looking for a job to keep you going? Or have you pivoted your business model or just waiting it out until better times? And how do you decide what is the best path for you or for your family?

If you have big goals, quitting is never an option.

Despite all this disruption, consulting (including management consulting) continues to grow. As I wrote about in my book, the interception of seven massive growth trends means it’s do or die to survive and thrive in today’s digital arena and competitive marketplace. Creating “assets” that are both saleable and scalable is a successful strategy to maintaining and growing your professional services offerings.

The choice to close up shop or work through is yours to make – but learning and perseverance hold many of the critical keys to success in a consulting business. Perhaps the answer lies less in pivoting and more in the fact that successful people push through challenges and obstacles by a combination of openness and innovation to find new ways of doing things.

I know you’ll think it’s an odd place to find insights into business success, but The Matrix Revolution movie has some amazingly profound lessons for us. Let me explain …

Be the hero in your own success story

Towards the end of the story, we see Neo (aka Thomas Anderson, the main protagonist played by Keanu Reeves) up against Agent Smith (his nemesis – it’s a good vs bad kind of thing).

If you know the scene, it’s quite dramatic isn’t it?! The two are fighting in torrential rain, and they’re fighting really hard, flying in the air and all sorts – all great fun.

Despite being the “hero”, Neo is getting the living daylights beaten out of him.

Neo is knocked down over and over again yet keeps getting back up and beckons another round each time with the ‘come get me’ hand signal. Now at one point, after this goes on and on, Agent Smith yells “WHY?” … “Why do you persist?” Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something?

Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up?

Neo: “Because I choose to.”

Well, I’d argue it’s just that same thing if you want success in a consulting business. In choosing self-employment over employment, we’ve essentially decided to be independent from “the matrix”, the industry machinery of working for corporate organisations or the big consulting firms. We start up as an independent professional service provider, because we CHOOSE to. And persevering in hard times is also a choice.

The best way I’ve found to get over a knock back or difficult situation is to see it as an opportunity.

That one shift in mindset gave me the courage to make a few significant and substantial shifts in my career and my business over the last 13 years.

Winston Churchill said: “A pessimist sees obstacles in every opportunity. An optimist sees opportunity in every obstacle”. It’s a mindset that helps you stay optimistic in a realistic and pragmatic rather than dogmatic way.

Building success with any business means deciding to see or create opportunities where most only see obstacles; to see the benefits where most only see risk. Don’t just retreat from entrepreneurship and look for a job, get back in tune with your own value and stick with it.

Make your choices personal

Just like those breaking free of the Matrix, we choose freedom. We desire to live life on our own terms, maybe even working from home.

Being your own boss means your time is yours to organise: be it working, time with the family, going off on exotic holidays, buying new things and so on.

However, all the non-consulting parts of business can feel overwhelming and at times you wonder if you’ll ever get the kind of freedom you want. You start to question yourself if you’re good enough for independent success in a consulting business. I’m no different.

My first few years as a freelance consultant were great. I had a steady flow of clients and interesting work – albeit rather eclectic in nature – but most of it came from reputation I’d built up in my sector and field of expertise. People already knew me, liked me and trusted me to get the job done.

My point is, although I never had to market or advertise for three years, that changed because the market shifted. My usual corporate non-profit sector clients were tightening belts, hiring external consultants less and doing more in-house – a false economy but economising all the same to my chagrin!

I could see the work dropping off and it was making me really jittery. I stuck my head in the sand for a good year or so to be honest, but I was still earning well so had some buffer room. The situation did not improve though, and as things fell away more and more, I got panicky and anxious.

It was a stressful time and I knew I needed to make changes. So I got into action.

What I did specifically was to refocus my niche, bringing together my skills and experience in a different way to showcase what I could offer to a whole new sector entirely. Scary stuff, but it worked, not right away but eventually, and it’s become my new story where I am the hero!

(If you want to hear more about my story and the trials and tribulations of achieving success in a consulting business … it’s all in my book, Leveraged Consulting in the Digital Age.)

Fit your expertise to what people need

Professional experts with a more technical offer can get all caught up in the demonstrable elements of their delivery and their accolades. While stories are a brilliant way of connecting with your audience, talking about yourself more than about your potential clients is a sure way to fail in the sale.

Think about how your messaging fits with the customer journey and user experience interacting with your brand. As a service provider, you need to connect with the emotive elements of your ideal client’s problems and pain points.

Match what your ideal client wants, what they’re worrying about and searching for help on to what you do and how it benefits them or solves a major issue they have.

I’d argue that continuous learning about your customers’ needs alongside quality management are what determine the on-going success of any consultant’s work. So just because you’re looking to innovate – do something new or different – there’s no need for you to throw out what you currently know and can do.

Unless you need to pivot due to changes in the market, your highest priority is to define clearly your individual expert brand and craft your core message. After this, you can build on it, adapt or refine it, whatever is necessary for you to stand out in a crowded and competitive marketplace.

Any work you do on aligning, targeting and positioning will be of massive benefit to how you market and deliver what you do and will put you in a much stronger position to innovate on strategy and develop contemporary delivery models.

When working on business improvement projects, many of my clients discover certain personal attributes, rather than operational processes, that are in fact what is holding them back. It can be:

  • your limiting self-beliefs, mind blocks or stress around money or failure;
  • your attitude to risk or their tendency towards perfectionism, procrastination; and/or
  • overthinking that leads to a struggle with making decisions.

These mental blocks make identifying and focusing on the most important things incredibly difficult. So it’s worth spending some time and money on a coach/mentor who can help you unpick and re-programme your thinking.

Ensure your choices are profitable

Of the many thousands (and millions globally) who set out to go it alone in the consulting business industry, only a small percentage actually have enough perseverance to push through the hard times.

I’ll tell you. It’s less than 10% – honestly. And that depends somewhat on what you mean by “profitable” and how you define success for yourself, non-financially as well as financially.

That’s not to say people don’t make money as a consultant or coach or another expert profession. Clearly, many of us do. But only a top slice of independent sole traders persevere long enough to make it to the big time – whether that’s:

  • a modest 6-figures a year ($100k+) that potentially replaces your previous employment salary
  • a multiple 5-figure monthly turnover that allows you a healthy disposable income (what would you do with £20-30k a month?)
  • the sacred million-dollar annual revenue.

The sad truth is most consultants and coaches actually struggle to earn more than £25k a year.

So what is it exactly that separates the top 10% from the rest of the industry? What are the best consultancy businesses doing to win business? How are top consultants achieving personal success?

Do you believe they are just lucky? Do you think they’re working in a more profitable niche or it’s because they’re more established than you are? Do you believe you’re not as good as they are? How about their success is because they possess some special skills or qualities perhaps?

One way to leverage your individual expertise is to process map a repeatable A to B success plan you can use (and sell) with every client. Building assets based on models and tools are indeed important for efficiency, scalability, and profitability. Yet the physical delivery of these staples of the trade remain chained to an entrenched business model.

I’ll come clean: there is some truth in these reasons. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of success in a consulting business. I’ve seen brand new consultants and coaches break into very competitive niches and make good money, fairly quickly too. So, there must be some other secret sauce, right?

Work on the ‘secret sauce’ of success

Well, first of all, the successful consultants/coaches believe strongly in what they’re doing. In challenging times, they keep the faith that they have something special to offer.

Certainly, the freedom fighters in the Matrix believed Neo was special – even though at first, he himself didn’t understand why people felt that about him. But he came to realise his sense of purpose was his strength and he persisted towards his goal of sustainable freedom from the matrix.

There are profound insights in this and when it comes to the secret ingredients in the success sauce, having a strong purpose, good planning and perseverance are good foundations for success in a consulting business. Another two key ingredients for success in a consulting business are positioning and pricing.

So let’s say there’s five ingredients in our secret sauce for turning things around when your consulting or coaching work is looking a bit thin. Let’s go over each one in a bit more depth.

KEY INGREDIENT #1 – PURPOSE

The first key ingredient in the secret sauce of success is purpose. Get clear on the purpose for doing what you do, and make sure it’s strongly in tune with the people you choose to serve. As Zig Ziglar famously said: “If you help enough people get what they want, you can get whatever you want.”

I’ve always believed that when you are clear on your purpose (aka your “why”), you’re 100% more likely to persist. In the iSuccess Business Academy, our mentoring programmes are keenly focused on helping you get back in tune with your purpose, as the absolute foundation for everything else in your business.

KEY INGREDIENT #2 – PLANNING

Getting your business into shape is also about setting out how you work as well as what you work on. Leveraging your expertise in ways that attract the right clients to you is important, but deciding on the right way to work with them is important for achieving the work-life balance, impact and fulfilment you desire.

Process optimisation is my zone of genius especially in relation to digital transformation. I’m seeing a lot more interest from businesses who want to ‘go digital’ and need a roadmap for strategic planning and implementing change.

KEY INGREDIENT #3 – PERSEVERANCE

‘Per’ meaning ‘through’ and ‘severance’ meaning ‘severity’ – in other words, persisting and working through severity. This is true in any industry, but especially so in consulting and coaching since many people do not treat their business as a business.

When the going gets tough, many solo professionals are not tough, and they don’t get going. Sadly, often they quit and go get a job because it’s more familiar and straightforward than learning business skills.

(By the way, if this is you, you’re not my ideal clients – I work with ambitious business owners who push through to success with a consulting business. Open-mindedness and commitment to achieve your goals are pre-requisites for those I choose to work with.)

Only the tough KEEP going – they persevere, they persist, they never give up, they are on a mission towards an important goal. Of course, you have to LEARN as you go along too, no point just repeating past failures – but the trick is to use your why to keep driving forward and pushing through the obstacles.

KEY INGREDIENTS #4 AND #5 – POSITIONING & PRICING

Many consultants I know are very aligned with doing the expert work, but struggle with the marketing, sales and PR side and/or the profitability side of the business.

My clients know and understand their skills and/or passion for helping people in their area of expertise, but they don’t always know how to engage, educate and enrol people or set their prices up to compete in the marketplace.

Becoming more visible to your potential clients is paramount. You can’t hide behind a desk writing emails and phoning, nowadays you need to get your brand presence seen and heard in the digital arena. The majority of people will search for help and do their research and due diligence online. Don’t you? Often we use our phones or tablets, though perhaps less in the Business to Business (B2B) space, so if you have a website make sure it’s mobile friendly.

Most of the successful business consultancies that I know start their marketing efforts off by building trust and being acknowledged as an authority in their fields.

As well as writing articles and books, I’ve attracted a lot of new business by giving lectures, participating in events, being part of business growth initiatives. Most experts who have success in a consulting business are regularly giving talks. It may be harder during the current restrictions on group events and conferences, but speaking engagements remain a key way to get in front of your ideal audience of potential clients.

On the other hand, there is also a lot of traffic and interest from digital engagements, such as writing books, blogging, podcasting and webinars (as a guest or host). One of the benefits is you generate a lot of goodwill, reviews and testimonials you can add to your marketing materials. 

These engagement approaches vary in how long it takes to get a new client. At an event or running an online seminar, you can do the talk, make an offer and people sign up with you on the day. For more content and publishing approaches, it’s a longer brew.

In hard times, the knee-jerk tendency if you’re not getting clients to say yes is to drop your prices. But this can often have the opposite effect of what you want or expect. Instead of more clients, you get less clients or less than ideal clients who shop on price not value.

Pivot for success in a consulting business

Even when you have all the key ingredients in place and your business is doing reasonably well, “shit happens” as they say. A change in the market or you lose a big client and half your income can drop off if your eggs are in only one basket. But it can be more subtle than that so it’s important to track your lead flow and conversions regularly to spot any downward trends.

You may get more qualitative intel though. Perhaps what clients are asking for starts to shift (which may bring opportunities rather than problems). This is important feedback to reposition your offers and stay on trend to what your market wants and needs.

In certain situations, in fact, you may decide to PIVOT your whole business model to accommodate significant market shifts or new growth areas.

The devastating changes in our lives and businesses caused by the coronavirus pandemic have forced many of us to innovate, to bring forward more long-term plans for digital transformation. But there are precedents you can learn from and implement quickly if you position yourself accordingly in the marketplace.

The word “pivot” has become increasingly popular term for success in a consulting business in the last few months. Both large and small businesses have struggled to survive – many corporate firms have huge overheads and if billable work dries up, they don’t always have big reserves to draw on.

It’s not just a problem for retail businesses, who obviously are in deep waters as customers cannot go out to the shops. Those who already have e-commerce sites and offer digital products (independently or via big distribution sites like Amazon) may find their business increases as people look online for their products (even if they didn’t before).

What I’m seeing and hearing in service businesses is that many clients are holding off on tenders and waiting until the dust settles to renew contracts. This has put a lot of professional services into huge problems if they do not have a digital alternative to how they work with clients.

(If you get a chance, look at “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson – it’s a short little book and Youtube movie – a very enlightening story of four little characters and how they respond to change. Based on metaphors about success, what makes us happy, comfort zones, entitlement, challenge, and so forth, it’s hilarious when you recognise bits of your own attitudes and behaviours in one or more of the characters!)

From insights to implementation

Hopefully, this article has given you a few insights in how you can build on the success formula of consultants and coaches whose business consistently perform well despite changes in the marketplace. More in my book Leveraged Consulting in the Digital Age, available now on Amazon.

Positive mindset in business is a character trait, but having a strategy is critical. This is built on you being clear on your goals and working towards them every day. It should permeate both your inner game and the outer game for long-term success.

The key ingredients discussed in this article can be distilled into two complementary formulas.

mental success = mission + goals + learning + perseverance

market success = purpose + profitability + positioning

Remember, you have a choice – take the red pill or the blue pill (sorry, another Matrix reference). Will you stay in your comfort zone (a slave in the matrix)? Or will you (be like Neo and) choose to fight on, reposition or pivot your focus and core offer?

If you’re ready to explore new ways of leveraging your expertise for success in a consulting business in the digital world, let me help you find the roadmap that will lead to the long-term success you’ve defined for yourself?

Are you fully committed to creating a profitable, sustainable, thriving business and achieving your lifestyle goals? If the answer is yes, then I can help.

In the iSuccess Business Academy, we start with you – our foundations modules help you align your purpose, profitability and positioning. If you need to get your message and offer in shape and out into the world, this is a must. If you’re not attracting clients on demand and working with people you can get great results for quickly and easily, it’s for you too.

When you have clients flowing into your business and are working with them in ways that suit you personally and gets them results, you can move to optimise your key business processes.  Learning how to leverage systems and teams is the next step to being able to scale and grow working smarter not harder.

Those looking for sustainable success in a consulting business need to recognise the limitations of existing business models in our industry and stay open to exploring opportunities. Those who tap into digital technologies and online (or blended) delivery models will have the best chance of surviving and thriving in changing and turbulent times.

Do you like these insights and would like a chat about how you personally can achieve success in a consulting business? You can join the Wait List for when I open up the iSuccess Business Academy to new members. But I’m currently offering free short exploratory sessions so we can get to know each other and tackle a few immediate pain points.

Click the button below to book an appointment that works with your timezone and schedule.

Note: If we both feel we can work together, you have the option to book onto a 60-minute digital consult without the usual application process since we already got the ball rolling.

It’s a private one-to-one session with me (or a specialist business adviser if I feel they are better suited to your industry or niche).

It offers you huge value because you’re getting individual support, tailored guidance plus the planning tools you need to create a personal roadmap for success.

You’ll be amazed how much we can get done in an hour!

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