Stuck for ideas on how to market your independent consultant practice to bring in new clients and projects? Here are 21 business development ideas, along with links to relevant episodes of our Unleashed podcast where applicable.
Editorial note: This article was originally published in January 2021 and was updated in April 2022.
1) Start a podcast and invite potential clients as guests
We recently released a detailed resource guide on how to start your own podcast, from the technical and equipment aspects to the topic and guest aspects. This resource also includes a 15-step checklist, and some examples of great podcasts by Umbrex members.
And in an episode of Unleashed, I presented four reasons why an independent professional might want to start a podcast, and 17 tips on how to get started.
2) Start a newsletter
We also have a terrific resource and 12-point checklist on starting a newsletter, which can be an incredibly effective marketing tool and business development idea.
We spoke with more than 20 independent consultants on how they started their own newsletter, and distilled what we learned into a 12-step checklist. This resource walks you through each step of how to start your own newsletter.
I also spoke with Josh Spector, founder of the For The Interested newsletter and an audience growth strategist and a digital marketing consultant, on Unleashed where he shared his expertise on newsletters.
(Bonus: you can also check out episode 451 on Business Newsletter Best Practices from Michael Katz).
3) Make outbound calls
It is so much more comfortable to send an email than picking up the phone and making a call — especially a cold call.
But David A. Fields, Umbrex member and author of The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients: 6 Steps to Unlimited Clients & Financial Freedom, says that picking up the phone is an incredibly effective means to reach out.
The process is much more comfortable if you have a plan for how you want the call to go, and that’s exactly what David offers in this episode.
4) Create a portfolio of sanitized work
When thinking of business development ideas, start with the basics — do you have a solid portfolio of your work to share with potential clients?
You probably wouldn’t hire a graphic designer or a wedding photographer without looking at their portfolio.
Independent consultants ought to have a portfolio as well – samples of sanitized work you can share with potential clients.
I’ve found that many independent consultants do not have a portfolio, however, and here are some thoughts on how to create one.
Renegade Consulting Collective (Umbrex member Chandler Arnold) has a great portfolio of their work as Case Studies, as shown to the right. Click on the image to view it on their website.
5) Create a project list
Jay Martin, with more than 25 years of management consulting experience (including time at Arthur D. Little and IBM Global Services and nearly 18 years as an independent consultant) was a guest on Unleashed.
Jay has done a better job than anyone I’ve met at maintaining an exhaustive list of all his projects — the document is 18 pages long and includes the details on well over a hundred projects.
In this episode, Jay discusses how he started building this list and the benefits of keeping such a document.
6) Update your LinkedIn profile
Tips on posting LinkedIn articles and posts, and recommendations on each element of your LinkedIn profile, including:
- Contact info
- Summary section
- Summary section attachments
- Experience section attachments
- Recommendations received and given
7) Set up a CRM system
In another Unleashed episode with David A. Fields, we discussed how to set up a CRM system for an individual consultant or boutique firm.
A bit more than a year ago, I attended a training session that David led on this topic, and I set up my CRM system exactly that way he describes on this show. I’ve found the simple setup that David suggests incredibly useful, and I highly recommend it.
While you can use his suggested setup with just about any program, I happen to use Pipedrive, which is the system that David uses and recommends to his clients.
8) Update your resume
I’ve looked at 5,000 resumes over the past four years – seen some good ones, and lot of resumes with room for improvement.
This episode is particularly geared at independent consultants, but 90% of it is relevant to any professional.
9) Ditch the Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, etc and get a professional email address
If you’re still using a generic email address, it’s time to upgrade to the professional version. Your email should be @yourwebsite — check with your hosting provider as they can set you up with one.
10) Reach out to clients where you LOST a proposal, just to check in
This is something that isn’t often thought of when it comes to business development ideas.
The idea is that in cases where you submitted a proposal (unless it was just an RFP open to the universe), you were in the consideration set. The client probably met with you. You spent time learning about the company.
Maybe they didn’t pick anyone to do the project at the time — they ended up prioritizing something else or didn’t have the funding. Or maybe they picked someone else, but now perhaps that other consultant is no longer available. Or maybe that other person didn’t perform as well as they had hoped.
So by following up, you can get back to top of mind. It’s possible they have something else new that is a better fit with your capabilities.
This doesn’t mean just calling to ask if they have new project needs, but rather making a relationship-building “touch base” contact point.
David Fields has a lot of great ideas and methods on how to do this (see #3 above).
11) Comment on LinkedIn posts by potential clients
The goal with LinkedIn is not to sell with posts, but just to engage people in a conversation. And conversations are a two-way street — so you should be going onto other people’s posts and commenting and engaging.
Focusing on the people who are your ideal clients and you would like to work with is a good way to become known to them and start to establish a personal relationship.
12) Post 3-5 times per week on LinkedIn on the topic you want to be known for
Mark Williams, aka “Mr. LinkedIn,” is the host of one of my favorite podcasts, LinkedInFormed — I’ve listened to dozens of episodes, and much of what I know about LinkedIn I know from Mark.
In this episode, Mark provides tips on key aspects of the LinkedIn profile: the headline, the photo, the about section, and the experience section.
13) Organize a virtual event
Sree Sreenivasan has been the Chief Digital Officer at Columbia University, New York City, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is considered one of the most influential people in social media.
We cover many topics in this episode, including the work of Sree’s firm Digimentors, which produces world-class virtual events. Sree shares how to set up and produce virtual events.
14) Create, or update, your website
Unleashed guest Tsavo Neal has thought hard about how consultants can generate more client leads with their website.
Tsavo has written dozens and dozens of posts on this topic and you can find all his work on his website, tsavoneal.com, which is a valuable resource.
He’s got examples of best-practice consulting websites, dozens of specific ideas on how to raise your visibility, tips on how to convert website visitors into leads, and much more.
Tsavo shares many valuable insights on marketing professional services in this episode.
15) Create a course teaching some skill that a potential client might be looking for
For example: “How to organize an Integration Management Office.”
Paul Millerd, has developed several online courses with over 4,500 students on Udemy alone. He also writes a very popular weekly newsletter that I love, and he is incredibly generous with his time: on his website you can book time to have a “curiosity conversation” with Paul; he has spoken with hundreds of people around the world who have reached out to him in this way.
Paul leads listeners through “Creating an Online Course.”
16) Update your email signature to include your phone number (on the computer and phone)
A good email signature lets your recipients know, at a glance, both who you are and how to get in touch with you. Use this space to list (and link to) your website, and be sure to have your telephone number as well.
17) Create — or refine — your Fishing Line
In our very first episode of Unleashed, David A. Fields and I dove into some of his key pieces of advice for client development, including right-side-up thinking, defining your firm’s impact, building your visibility, how to have a context discussion, and tips on pricing.
David also shares a list of his recommended books.
18) Ask past clients for feedback
Soliciting the feedback of past clients is a way to both garner potential testimonials, as well as invite constructive critiques on ways you can improve.
On this episode, David A. Fields discusses best practices on what steps to take at the end of a long project to:
- Hand over deliverables.
- Ask for recommendations and referrals.
- Stay in touch with key individuals you’ve developed relationships with over the course of the project.
We cover all three topics, and I found particularly helpful David’s approach to asking for a recommendation.
19) Build relationships with other independent consultants serving your niche
20) Read The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients by David A. Fields
A frequent guest on our Unleashed podcast and speaker at Umbrex events, author and consultant David A. Fields published this insightful guide to understanding what clients really want — one that I consider a must-read for every consultant.
Independent consulting is a potentially lucrative enterprise—but the reality seldom matches the dream. Most solo consultants and boutique consulting firms are perpetually within six months of bankruptcy due to the sputtering unreliability of their new business engines.
The problem, according to international consulting expert David A. Fields, is twofold: 1) lack of a consistent, proven plan, and 2) fundamental misunderstanding about what clients want in a consultant. Fields, who has helped hundreds of consultants and boutique firms worldwide build profitable, sustainable practices, replaces the typical consultant’s mindset of emphasizing expertise and differentiated processes with a focus on building relationships, engendering trust, and solving clients’ existing problems.
In The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients, Fields synthesizes his decades of experience into a step-by-step approach to winning more projects from more clients at higher fees. From nuts-and-bolts business advice and tactics to a deeply insightful breakdown of the human side of a very human profession, Fields, named one of Advertising Age magazine’s “Marketing Top 100,” delivers a comprehensive guidebook that is at once highly approachable and satisfyingly detailed.
21) Email a past client
It’s sometimes amazing how much a simple touch-base email can put you in front of mind again for the client. Try sending a friendly “Would love to hear about your plans for the year” email to previous clients on a regular basis.
Do you have ideas I haven’t listed?
I would love to know your favorite or most successful business development practice. Please let me know your suggestion here.