Growth is one of the most challenging, daunting and oftentimes mystifying aspects of building a business, and sustainable business growth even more so. People get stuck at the start, in the middle and when they want to scale up.
With this in mind, let’s look at what we mean by growth in the context of building a consulting business or similar B2B service business, starting with the end goals at each stage, and how growth is typically measured.
The metrics for sustainable business growth may differ for specific industries and even the type of consulting or coaching you do, but here are some of the essential things you should look to measure.
|Increased client/customer base||New engagements and retention|
|Increased productivity||Operational efficiencies that increase capacity or speed|
|Increased revenue||Pricing or new /products|
|Increased market share||New business from competitors|
|Increased market positioning||Consumer perception of the brand|
|Increased adjacencies||Expansion into related markets|
So lots of ways that you could actually measure growth or think about growth and how it might be achieved. So first of all, let’s look at balancing profits and productivity.
Balancing Profits & Productivity
If you’re charging by the hour or daily, the number of clients you can work with in any given time period multiplied by your fee structure is, typically, what determines your profits. But there is a ceiling as you only have so many hours in the day, and days in the week.
Working longer hours or more days a week is ok for a bit, but not sustainable in the longer term. There are a few quick wins to earn yourself a bit more time back in the short term though.
Although there’s no one right approach to promoting or monetising your expertise as a consultant or coach, choosing a viable and profitable business model for how you market and deliver is critical. That’s the power of leverage in the digital arena.
What you don’t want is for your consulting work to feel like a job!
Developing a streamlined process for acquiring new clients, finding leveraged ways to serve clients, and using technology to automate key business processes, are all ways to enable growth to an extent. Because they free up a little more of your time otherwise spent on operational work rather than billable client work.
And if you could increase your productivity helping your clients – that is, how effectively, efficiently and economically you work to deliver the agreed outcome – you’d create a bit of leverage by having more capacity to serve more clients.
The issue though is that when our client flow is good, we’re usually too busy delivering projects to think about more leveraged strategies.
There’s no space in the brain let alone in the diary to spend time improving our efficiency or planning for future growth. We don’t feel we have time to hire and train people to take some of the pressure off us. And we often don’t dare increase our prices for fear it will all come tumbling down.
For many, it’s a case of surviving rather than thriving – keeping the proverbial head above water, working long hours, often doing more for less and feeling unfulfilled. Next level growth can feel like an unattainable goal.
To survive AND thrive, you most definitely need a plan for bringing in new clients consistently and creating sustainable new revenue. Leadership, marketing, managing a client pipeline and good communication are crucial parts of the consulting business. But developing the vision and brand message for your business from the get-go is critical.
Yet, so many consultants and small business owners don’t do this foundation work; they jump right in and start on the hamster wheel. It’s no wonder then that going solo running your own practice can create overwhelm and burnout.
If you’re not already working at the high end, there’s a counter-argument to taking on more clients as the first strategy for growth – you simply duplicate a limited profit system. Your best quick win is to work on leveraging YOU – increase your perceived value and charge higher fees.
Work on clarifying and building your authority status in a specific niche – your specialism or micro-niche – and invest in improving your positioning and visibility as the go-to expert for that one thing.
This goes beyond just a marketing ploy. It means developing your awareness and knowledge of what clients worry about and need most, which improves your brand messaging and market positioning.
As a thought leader or solutions provider in one particular area in your field, you can attract clients willing to pay higher fees.
And that means working on being a source of new ideas, innovating new service or product developments and building up your intellectual property.
Streamlining Processes & Systems
The second area you can look at is streamlining processes and systems.
The reason so many small businesses struggle to grow is they don’t have a strategic approach to attracting, enrolling and serving clients.
If this sounds like you, then you may be either buying leads or have a burst of marketing that generates some contacts and appointments; you may even have tried some new fandangled marketing method you heard about hoping for a silver bullet.
From this, maybe you gained a new client or a group of clients and then you work with them (usually one-to-one and face-to-face) until that contract is finished before beginning the (dreaded) process of looking for more new clients all over again. It’s a feast and famine cycle that feels incredibly stressful, emotionally and financially.
Ensuring you have a consistent flow of income can be a huge stress for self-employed consultants. Compared to the comfort and stability of a monthly salary from an employer, working for yourself can feel like rollercoaster ride.
The ups and downs certainly have your heart racing and adrenaline pumping, but more from anxiety than excitement. Perhaps you’re able to use some savings to fill in the down periods, but it’s not sustainable.
Competition is certainly partly to blame. The astounding growth rates in the consulting and coaching services industries globally means the competition for clients is challenging. Up against the big 4 consulting firms (or the big 10-100 in fact), it’s become harder and harder for solo professionals and small firms to advance their authority, land clients and create a sustainable income.
In an increasingly commoditised environment, the little players are losing out to the big names in terms of high-end revenue.
However, the reason many consulting businesses fail to earn consistent revenue is because they don’t know how to attract and nurture the right audience for the kind of services and programmes that they are most uniquely equipped to provide.
You’re really fishing in different waters than these big players, and you should aim to do something different in order to get noticed – you don’t need to prove you’re a big consulting firm, because your market is very different and the clients you want to attract are quite different.
Your ideal clients won’t want to hire the big machine, they want the intimacy and connection of knowing who exactly they will be partnering with and what exactly the plan of action will be.
For most solo professionals and small consulting firms, the problem is working out a viable growth strategy out of where they are right now. There’s often a mental obstacle of thinking that the only way to grow the business is to duplicate what they already do, which is hard if there’s no client flow system in place.
Half the battle with planning for growth is to figure out what’s really going on in your business and what’s holding you back. It’s not always just an operational or tactical issue, it’s often a mindset and strategy issue.
Understanding the problem within a holistic frame of “root cause” systems thinking is the best step to resolving it, because otherwise you’re just blindly throwing tactical darts at a large dartboard without a bulls-eye. And that’s a far cry from developing sustainable business growth.
But systems thinking doesn’t always acknowledge what’s going on underneath for you, on a personal level, knowing who you are and what you’re about, and whether you’re working in alignment with your purpose, preferred ways of working and moving towards your vision of success.
If you already sense that things have shifted in consulting and coaching, or if you’re struggling to find and secure high-end clients, it’s probably why the notion of leverage appeals. You know it’s not really just about marketing and getting more clients; in your gut, you know it’s about strategy.
I strongly believe leveraged strategies offer sustainable business growth that give you long-term viability. It takes advantage of several massive growth trends that are creating a new breed of business entrepreneur – the educational entrepreneur – and responds to the way that clients today wish to engage with and consume consulting or coaching services.
Riding the Digital Education Wave
Massive growth in digital publishing and online learning are driving many consultants and coaches to become these “educational entrepreneurs”. This is not a term consigned only to the education sector. It looks a little bit like this.
Rather than constantly reinventing your service to fit the unique needs of every new client, savvy consultants are creating packages around a core area of expertise that serves a specific and niche market.
When you focus your strategy on a combination of two, three or more global growth trends, it means you’re at the forefront, ahead of the crashing waves, and fishing in fresh waters.
A leveraged business is most easily achieved by consultants and coaches sticking to two main rules:
RULE #1 – Focus on one service area or result you deliver: such that you can find a way to standardise it and package it, so that you can market, sell and deliver it, digitally, even when you’re not in the office or on client site.
RULE #2 – Focus on one perfect customer or client avatar: such that you create a rich expression of who they are and what they need, making it easier to find more of them, engage with them, build a relationship with them and decide on the best way to be of service to them.
For example, on rule #1, when I focused on strategic marketing for business growth as my one service area, I found I was actually leveraging my expertise across multiple strands: business strategy, operational improvement and evaluation, as well as combining it with my passion for branding and marketing.
When I turned to focus on my ideal clients’ and what they need to move the needle so to speak – rule #2 – it really helped to create the right kinds of content to drive my marketing and deliver my programmes.
You can make the shift towards leveraged consulting by thinking about it in terms of levels you want to reach. At a basic level, it can just be about finding ways to free up time spent on repetitive operational tasks by creating a system and automating it.
For instance, you can use email marketing to deliver a sequence of welcoming and nurturing messages to follow up with a lead or to send a link to an online step-by-step guide for new clients.
Go one level up and you’ll find you can leverage your time spent on non-repetitive, more creative tasks too. Some examples that technology can help with:
Create content you can easily repurpose in different formats and share through different channels in a consistent and planned manner.
Produce a slide deck of clients most frequently asked pre- and post-enrolment questions to save going over the same information with each one.
Develop a structured checklist, course, quiz or action planner to make enrolment and onboarding more effective, engaging and efficient.
Use simple document templates to ease collaborative work for a new client project, such as to gather key information, schedule meetings etc.
Outsource tasks that don’t have to be done by you personally and could be done by media specialists (e.g. graphic design) who do the work better and faster than you ever could.
Hire a personal assistant or PA (who could actually be a virtual assistant or VA) to do bespoke admin or project management tasks.
At a more sophisticated level, leveraged consulting can be an entirely new business model where you leverage your expertise through branded, packaged products and programmes. This enables you to serve more people in more ways and achieve higher levels of influence, impact and income.
Leveraged consulting or coaching at this level builds your business beyond the limitations of physical location and customised services. When you think about marketing, selling and delivering your expertise online, a potentially global marketplace opens up of people hungry for the specific solution you can help them with.
The first gentle step might be to create a group version of your most popular service so you can service multiple clients at the same time. Running a programme like this leverages your effort and by serving more people, you can increase your income.
A more ambitious leap would be to create, package and sell a digital product that generates an entirely new source of “evergreen” revenue, or at least makes any paid advertising you do cost-neutral.
Taking Action on a Sustainable Growth Plan
With these simple shifts in your digital capability, the leveraged business model is a sustainable way of building your business whilst achieving the goals that you care about achieving for both your clients and yourself.
So, it’s all about taking action on a sustainable growth plan and two key things to do in your action plan is this:
1. You need to pin down what business growth means to you, what to measure in terms of performance and “success” in relation to your goals, and from there look at how your strategy might need to change in terms of moving beyond your current ceiling.
2. You need to correctly diagnose where any bottlenecks to growth lie in your key business processes. You can then determine why something’s not working as efficiently or effectively as it could be, so you can properly apply the best tactics to resolve the problem(s).
But remember to bear in mind that, rather than a tangible marketing issue or operational problem, it might just be a mental barrier or money block to working and earning in a different way.
Contrary to the whole load of work that you think business growth requires, to maximise your reach and revenue you actually need to use the golden rule of “less is more” – narrow your focus, streamline your process, package your system.
You want to work towards achieving more with less – leverage – in terms of what you offer, to whom you offer it, and how you deliver it.
If you want more ways to move the needle for greater leverage in your consulting, coaching or other professional services business, it’s all in my new book Leveraged Consulting in the Digital Age – available to buy on Amazon here.
I’d love to get your thoughts on what resonates the most for you and how I can help you implement a sustainable business growth plan.