While there might not be a magic button to find clients for your consulting practice, there are some specific approaches and strategies you can adopt that will provide a systematic framework for targeting — and reaching — your ideal clients.
Adopt the mindset of a marketer
The first step when casting a net for new clients is to create a strategy for marketing your brand and services.
Start by asking yourself a few questions. Umbrex Managing Partner Will Bachman advises consultants to take an external view of themselves and their consulting practice in this process.
- Do I need a project?
- What do I know how to do?
- Who can give me a project?
“Put yourself in the clients’ shoes and be a marketer of yourself,” Bachman says.
Marketing your business should almost be treated as a separate role: there is you, the consultant who provides services to the client. Then, there is you that is the marketer of those services.
- What potential clients already know and respect me?
- What problems do those clients have?
- What problems will they pay me to solve?
- How will those clients search for a solution?
- How can I market my product (that is your consulting services that will solve their problems) to them?
The next step of your marketing strategy is to determine what services you will offer.
By identifying your ideal target client — and more importantly, who you already know in your network to approach first — you can work backwards to use that to help figure out the services you want to specialize in.
Author and consulting advisor David A. Fields says clients have different kinds of problems, so it’s important to understand what kind of problems your clients have that you have the expertise to solve.
- Pervasive problems: A lot of clients have them.
- Urgent problems: They need to solve it today.
- Expensive problems: These require a big investment to solve.
- Specific skills: These require a particular skill set to solve — do you have those necessary skills?
When narrowing down the focus of services you will provide, based on the needs and problems of your target audience, think about drilling down to a more niche specialty.
Representing yourself as a generalist is not usually the best practice. You’re most likely not going to be the person when someone thinks of when they need a specific solution to their project or problem.
Rather, having a niche or specialty provides a far stronger platform for independent consultants. It allows you to develop expertise around that specific topic or industry, and build your reputation as an expert on that specialty niche.
The five marketing musts
Fields identifies five marketing musts for independent consultants:
- Trade associations
- Digital presence
“You don’t have to do all five of them, but you have to do at least two,” Fields says. “They’re not mutually exclusive. They build on each other.”
The one that’s non-negotiable is networking.
“This is a relationship business, it’s a human business, it’s a people-to-people business,” he says. “Therefore, if you won’t pick up the phone, if you won’t talk with folks, walk down the hall, meet people, become interested in people, it’s going to be a really difficult business for you.”
Fields adds that this doesn’t mean you have to be an extrovert.
“I’m not. It does mean you have to be genuinely interested in people and willing to meet people, willing to reach out. If you’re willing to do that and then you combine that with at least one of the other marketing musts, then you can generate business.”
- Unleashed Episode 1 with David A. Fields: Winning Clients.
- Unleashed Episode 36 with Ahmad Munawar: Marketing for consultants.
- Unleashed Episode 418 with Robert Hardy: Finding your niche.
- Unleashed Episode 193 with Lee Frederiksen: Marketing professional services.
- Unleashed Episode 239 with Will Bachman: Marketing collateral.
- Unleashed Episode 239 with Seiya Vogt: Marketing techniques.
- Setting Up Your Consulting Practice video course section 8: Marketing.
- Your Comprehensive Guide to Marketing Tactics for Consulting Firms by David A. Fields.
Identify your ideal target client
For consultants just starting out, begin with the people who already know you — your core network.
You can’t (and shouldn’t) serve everyone, and starting with these people as your potential clients will help you identify needs in the market and define your service niche.
From there, you can later expand into other potential clients. Think about these “buckets” of prospects as coming from three different areas.
- Your most likely clients — your core network. These are people who already know you. They will most likely be your first clients in your first and second year.
- Those who know people who know you. These people will usually come from referrals from your core network and first clients.
- Everyone else. These people have the opportunity to become clients over time as you build a brand.
Your core network
This is where you want to focus first, and then work outwards. Later, those people from your core network may become clients, or make introductions and referrals once they know the services and solutions you offer.
Your marketing efforts will expand from there, over time, into the other people your core network and first clients know, and everyone else. This is a long-term process that continually evolves as you build and market your brand.
To identify your core network, Bachman suggests putting every person you know into a spreadsheet, and then classifying them by what your strength is in the relationship. Next, find out what is their level in business — are they the decision-maker, influencer, or everyone else?
After you have organized the individuals in your network, eliminate the people who don’t make sense to your vision or brand. The people left are your most likely buyers.
As you begin identifying potential ideal clients in your network, continually ask yourself these questions:
- Who are the clients you want to serve — your target audience?
- What problem can you solve for those clients?
“Selling a service that clients want to buy is a lot easier than convincing clients of what you want to sell,” Bachman says,
- Setting Up Your Consulting Practice video course section 9: Business development.
- How to Become a Recognized Expert in your Field with Dorie Clark.
- 21 Business Development Ideas by Will Bachman.
- Unleashed Episode 1 with David A. Fields: Winning clients.
- Unleashed Episode 357 with Will Bachman: Core network.
- Unleashed Episode 358 with Will Bachman: Target list.
- Unleashed Episode 438 with Rob Ristagno: Customer segmentation.
Craft your fishing line
After identifying the ideal clients you want to serve, the next step is to come up with what David A. Fields calls a “fishing line.”
A fishing line should be seven to 15 words and very specific. It should identify the target audience and exactly what you do — basically answering the two questions above. Who are the clients you want to serve, and what problems can you solve for them?
That short collection of words is your fishing line.
Here are some examples of good fishing lines from Umbrex members:
- “I work with decision-makers to generate free cash flow by harnessing talent, realigning supply chains, and go-to-market strategies.” Dr. Sandip Lalli
- “I serve Product Leaders of mid-market companies who want to discover what their customers want and assess innovation opportunities using the jobs-to-be-done approach.” Eric Eskey, Dark Horse Works
- “Leaders at middle market PE-owned healthcare and technology firms turn to me to help design and execute their growth priorities.” Brett Pentz, Magnetic North Strategies
- “I work with CEOs at professional services firms and social sector organizations on Human Capital.” Ilene Leff
- “I help corporations with go-to-market, strategic growth, transformations, and project management.” Raul Azevedo
- “I help financial services companies grow and transform, anchored in a customer perspective.” Katie Liebel, Managing Principal, CustomStrat Advisory
- “I manage pharmaceutical quality remediations.” George Palmer
- “I partner with business leaders to design and implement organizational change.” Ava Butler
- “I help CEOs and business leaders seeking to improve their Brand Alignment.” Nicholas Zeisler, Zeisler Consulting
The idea of the fishing line is getting clarity on your value proposition, because clients may not think they need a consultant to help them solve their problem, unless they already know you and your work.
“You need to be as focused as possible,” Bachman advises. “When someone asks you what you do, what do you say? Make it memorable. There is no way for someone to remember what you do if you name off several different things.”
You can get even more drilled-down with your fishing line by adding:
- Your geography/area you serve.
- Thinking about a specific problem the prospective client is struggling with.
- Clearly defining the skill you provide to clients.
You also want to center your fishing line around the client you are trying to serve. Avoiding “I” focused lines.
“It’s really important to keep in mind that a fishing line is not meant to get you a sale,” Fields clarifies. “I haven’t met too many consultants who can say something like, ‘I work with CIOs who are struggling, moving their business to the cloud.’ And the CIO says, ‘Oh, really? Could we sign a million dollar project with you?’ It just doesn’t happen.”
The main purpose of a fishing line is simply to start a conversation.
“When you are in conversation, you find out about opportunities. And from opportunities, you win projects,” Field says.
The other purpose of a fishing line is to help you be easy to remember and refer to. It’s much easier for people to remember you and what you do when you have a clear, concise, and memorable fishing line.
- Unleashed Episode 411 with David A. Fields: Crafting your fishing line.
- Umbrex event video with David A. Fields: Crafting a fishing line.
- Umbrex Blog: Crafting a Memorable Fishing Line.
- How to Convert a Stranger into a Prospect in 10 Steps by David A. Fields.
- A More Powerful Way to Communicate Your Consulting Firm’s Promise by David A. Fields.
Engage in meaningful personal interactions
There are different levels of human interactions, which can include both high and minimal investments:
- Liking or commenting on someone’s post on social media.
- Sending a text message.
- Sending an email.
- Making a phone call.
- Meeting in-person for coffee.
- Getting together for a meal.
- Conducting a virtual meeting.
- Conducting an in-person meeting.
- Attending a group event.
- Hosting an event.
As Fields explains, a minimal investment with low impact is liking a social media post. Meeting for lunch has a high investment, with fairly high impact, but takes more time and needs more scheduling with another person.
Let’s look in more detail at two impactful interactions that can be particularly successful for independent consultants.
Make outbound phone calls
This is a step that many people feel uncomfortable with and skip. It can feel awkward to pick up the phone and call someone, and much more comfortable to send an email.
David A. Fields argues that making outbound calls is an incredibly effective means to reach out. It’s also much more comfortable if you have a plan for how you want the call to go.
In Episode 170 of Unleashed, Fields walks listeners through how to do outbound phone calls in a way that feels authentic, and offers a strong way to maintain relationships through a low-investment effort.
“A lot of consultants dread it. In all honesty, I don’t love making outreach calls,” he admits. “I make them because I know there’s a direct correlation between picking up the phone and the health of your pipeline.”
The first thing to keep in mind is that these calls are not cold calls, and they aren’t sales calls. They are relationship-building efforts.
Don’t call to check if there are any projects coming up. Make the call about the client — you’re simply checking in on them.
If it’s someone you’ve worked with before, you can always call to follow up on the project you worked on previously and see how things have been going since.
This is a great way to stay top of mind, and possibly generate some projects in the future — especially if you’re consistent about the process.
Fields says it’s often helpful for consultants to set aside a consistent block of time for making outbound calls. He makes his calls on Wednesday mornings, for example.
Tips for making outbound phone calls
Fields offers a few tips to make calling easier:
- Don’t feel you need a reason to call. If you always have a reason to call, it can feel too transactional. It’s okay to call and ask how they’re doing and what’s new.
- Don’t feel you need to add value. It’s a call to say hi and check-in.
- Try seven minutes before the hour. Or 8 am or 5 pm. People can have appointments or video meetings on the hour.
- “What’s new in your universe?” Use this or a similar statement to catch up with the person.
- Don’t try to sell. You’re just checking in with a friendly call.
- You don’t need to schedule the phone call. Scheduled calls are not bad, and might be preferable for a more formal call, but these types of check-in calls can be impromptu.
- Do leave a voicemail if the person doesn’t answer.
Bachman recommends making a list of five people for one outbound calling session. These are people who will recognize your name when you call. Maybe you’ve worked with them or a colleague in the past.
The first call will be the hardest, but after that it gets easier and more natural.
“It’s not about selling, but if the other person does raise the topic of some project they might have, then you don’t want to dive in right there,” Bachman advises.
Instead, when the topic comes up, say, “Would you be open to a separate conversation about that?”
He credits this approach to Fields, who calls it “The Turn.”
The Turn accomplishes two things:
- “Would you be open” is a statement people like. Generally, people want to appear as open, not closed.
- “To a separate conversation” acknowledges you would transition from this friendly conversation, to a professional business conversation. This gives the other person the agency and the opportunity to not have the conversation at that moment if they don’t want to.
Although the power of phone calls should not be underestimated, email outreach is also an important piece of the marketing strategy.
Fields says the most important part of any outreach, including email, is “Right-Side Up thinking” — he calls this the core of successful consulting.
“It’s the realization that consulting is about them—the clients—not you. That principle holds true in emails too.”
Even if you think your email is about you, it’s not. Consulting is always about the client.
“Make your emails Right-Side Up by thinking about what the client’s purpose is for your email,” Fields advises. “You know what your purpose is, but what is theirs? When your email is built around your client’s needs and wants, you’ll compose a valuable email that builds trust and rapport.”
A few ideas for what to say in an email:
- Something personal: How was your trip
- Something about the last project: Did that proposal get approved?
- A request for help: Question for you…
Host client events
Hosting client events is a great way to network, build rapport, and provide support to your clients.
Amanda Setili organizes thought leadership events for her clients twice a year, and finds them to be incredibly effective. She explains the key benefits she derives from hosting client events:
- Saves time. She was spending a lot of time calling clients, having meetings or lunch with them — a process that was very time consuming.
- Enhances her brand. Events are a good way to market your brand and establish yourself as an expert in your field.
- Develops content. By delving into what people were thinking and extracting thought leadership ideas, this gave her a rich content library.
- Builds a network of clients. She wanted to meet clients and form relationships with them before they were looking for new positions.
After Setili began hosting such events, she found they reap great rewards for her business. She became better known in the Atlanta area for what she does.
“People began talking about me and referring to me. So many people have said, ‘I really look forward to your events and appreciate you running them.'”
Tips for organizing client events:
- Pick a format for the event — will it be in-person or virtual?
- Begin with an “anchor” — a topic your clients or prospects will benefit from.
- Consider starting with a smaller attendee list, even a Zoom with three or four people.
- Pick a time. It won’t work for everyone, so don’t spend too much time going back and forth on the time.
- Reach out personally to each individual you would like to attend and invite them to join.
- You don’t need to be the presenter — you can approach a client who would be a good fit and offer for them to host, while you organize the event.
- The goal is to connect attendees with one another, not necessarily with you.
- Client events provide opportunities to interact — make sure mingling or question-and-answer time is built in.
- Listen and follow up afterwards individually with everyone afterwards.
- Unleashed Episode 57 with David Topus: Talking to strangers.
- Unleashed Episode 170 with David A. Fields: Effective Outbound Calls.
- Unleashed Episode 74 with Will Bachman: Influence techniques.
- Unleashed Episode 481 with Dorie Clark: The long game connection.
- Unleashed Episode 259 with David A. Fields: Show you care.
- Unleashed Episode 221 with David A. Fields: Converting leads.
- Unleashed Episode 195 with Ray Carbonell: Reputation building.
- Unleashed Episode 410 with Amanda Setili: Client events.
- Umbrex article: How to Plan Great Thought Leadership Events.
Create and distribute content
While personal interactions are great, their biggest drawback is time consumption — there’s only so much of you to go around.
Another way to remain top of mind that is much more scalable is by publishing content — preferably on a regular basis with a strategy.
This content can be a newsletter, social media, emails, podcasting, blogging, and more. By creating and publishing original content, you not only build authority on your topic and awareness of your services, but also gives you another reason to reach out to people.
“Sending out a regular newsletter, a podcast episode, or article are great ways to remind people of the stuff you do,” Bachman says.
If you can engage potential clients in the content creation, that’s even better. This can be done by posing questions they can comment on or inviting them as a guest on your podcast.
Even if no one reads or listens to it, simply by creating the content that prospect is now thinking of you as an expert on that topic.
Content doesn’t always have to be original, either. Curated content also serves a powerful purpose. If you don’t have new content, try publishing three links to what you thought were the best articles you saw that week in your industry.
Let’s take a look at some of the best content formats for an independent consultant.
One of the most effective ways to connect with your audience via content is producing a regular newsletter.
Your core content should always be included in your newsletter. If you publish a blog post, write an article somewhere else, or record a podcast, you send it out in an email.
LinkedIn and other social media posts are good, but they don’t reach everyone because of the algorithms on these platforms. In addition, you don’t own those platforms — whereas in contrast, you own your email list.
Reaching people via email provides a much higher chance of people reading it. At the very least, they’ll see your subject line in their inbox and it will be in the back of their mind.
Bachman says your newsletters don’t necessarily need to be long — in fact, shorter may be better.
“There’s no such thing as a newsletter that’s too short. No one has ever said they wished it was longer.”
He adds that people are more likely to open your emails if they know you tend to send shorter ones, because they know it won’t take a lot of time to read. Then, you could successfully send a weekly or even daily email to your list, depending on how it works for you.
- Frequency: Weekly is ideal, but send it monthly at a minimum.
- Consistency: Send your email newsletter on the same day of the week (or month), at the same time if possible, so your audience gets familiar with the schedule and comes to expect it.
- Length: Shorter is better.
- Content: It doesn’t need to be all original content you create; you can curate content. If you are a guest on a podcast or featured in an article, always send it out.
- Value: Think about the value your recipients will receive from the newsletter, and what would be of interest and worth to them.
A podcast is a great vehicle to let not only your audience learn about a topic, but yourself as well. It’s also a fantastic way to connect with an ideal potential client — you can invite them to be a guest on your podcast and interview them about their industry or area of expertise.
This helps build a solid relationship with the guest, and can amplify your reach if they share the episode, making their audience aware of you. This builds those second and third tiers mentioned in step two: people your contacts know, and everyone else.
If you don’t have a podcast, consider being a podcast guest. Reach out to relevant podcasts and offer to discuss your topic of expertise. Have a lead magnet you can give people who see or listen to the podcast.
If it’s not a freebie, give out a discount code for that audience. It gets people on your email list and gives listeners a reason to reach out to you.
Publishing regular articles on your website’s blog is one of the easiest ways to build your platform and bring more visitors to your site (and therefore, to you).
Like with newsletters, your blog doesn’t always have to consist of original content, but can also include repurposed and curated content from other sources. In fact, sharing thought leadership from people you would love to have as clients lets them know you value their knowledge and puts you in front of them.
It also gives you a reason to reach out to them, letting them know you shared their great content. Just like podcast guests, if someone is mentioned in your blog they are likely to share it on social media or in their own newsletter or website.
Other formats for publishing content
The three formats above are the most effective ways to publish content — newsletters, podcasts, and blogging — but there are other tools you can use as well.
Keep in mind you don’t need to use all of these (and probably shouldn’t). Think about what makes the most sense for you and develop a strategy that incorporates those content platforms.
- Linkedin posts
- Trade journal articles
- Magazine articles
- Youtube channel
- Being a press source (Being interviewed and quoted in journalistic content; subscribe to Help A Reporter Out by Cision to find opportunities for this)
- Radio shows
- White papers (This isn’t as highly recommended; most people don’t read them but they do add credibility)
- Writing a book (Probably not a viable option until you have built a large audience of at least 10,000 subscribers)
- Umbrex Resource: How to create a newsletter.
- Umbrex Resource: How to start a podcast.
- Getting booked on podcasts: Incontreta Consulting.
- How to Become a Recognized Expert in your Field with Dorie Clark.
- The Five Types of Content Every Consultant Needs with Jake Jorgovan.
- Unleashed Episode 39 with Kenny Jahng: Content marketing.
- Unleashed Episode 208 with Jake Jorgovan: Content marketing.
- Unleashed Episode 344 with Will Bachman: Why create content.
- Unleashed Episode 44 with Jennifer Levine Hartz: Starting a newsletter.
- Unleashed Episode 459 with Josh Spector: Newsletter growth.
- Unleashed Episode 10 with Will Bachman: Why and how to start a podcast.
- Unleashed Episode 209 with Tom Schwab: Podcast booking.
- Unleashed Episode 67 with Scott Skibell: Video marketing.
- Unleashed Episode 205 with Annie Scranton: Public relations.
- Unleashed Episode 127 with Ciaran Bossom: Digital marketing.
- Unleashed Episode 116 with Robin Colucci: Strategy for your book.
- Unleashed Episode 175 with Will Bachman: Reposting content.
- Unleashed Episode 205 with Annie Scranton: Public Relations.
Foster the five criteria that bring leads to you
Now that you have identified your target clients and crafted a fishing line and outreach plan, you want to make sure you stay top of mind for those prospective clients.
After all, there might be more than one professional that meets the requirements for a project. If so, who is the prospective client going to call?
If you are in their realm of awareness more than another consultant, you up the chances that it will be you.
“You want to be the first they call. You need to stay top of mind,” Bachman says.
To attract leads to you and keep yourself in prospects’ minds, thank about working backwards. There are a few habits you can build that will help bring leads to you.
We use the mnemonic CLARC to remember the five criteria you must satisfy in order to be in a position to get a lead:
- Credible. Create content on your topic or area of expertise to demonstrate credibility and knowledge on the problems your prospect needs help with.
- Likable. Treat people decently, be friendly and open.
- Available. Clients need to know that you are available for their questions, needs, and project opportunities. They don’t need to know every detail about your availability, but make sure your online profiles and websites are updated. You might consider putting your calendar link to book time with you in your email signature as well.
- Reliable. Do what you say and communicate to people. You should always demonstrate that people can depend on you to meet deadlines.
- Contactable. Make it easy for people to contact you — and respond promptly when they do. Make sure your phone number is in your email signature. Update your profile on alumni websites, social media sites, and make your LinkedIn profile public so anyone can send you a message. Add a contact form on your website. Be as contactable as possible.