Will Bachman: Our guest today is David Fields who is the author of two books. The first, targeted at people who are hiring consultants is, The Executive’s Guide to Consultants: How to Find, Hire, and Get Great Results From Outside Experts. He just published The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients: Six Steps to Unlimited Clients and Financial Freedom. I had read this book cover to cover, a couple weeks ago and it is fantastic. It has a bunch of tips that I have already implemented in my own practice. You can read more about David at davidafields.com and I hope that you’ll get some real practical tips that you can put into practice, from today’s episode. Dave, I am thrilled to have you on the show and I’m a huge fan of your book and fascinated by your practice of being a consultant to consultants. Instead of me introducing you, maybe you could give us a quick bio.
David Fields: Okay. Thank you Will. This is like a mutual admiration fan club because I’m a huge fan of you and what you’re building with Umbrex and have been impressed by everything you’ve put together.
Will Bachman: That’s very kind of you.
David Fields: Okay. The very brief bio on me? Let’s see. I did the better part of a decade, in corporate. I was with GFK and my background was in marketing research and then went into brand management and into what was called trade marketing. About 20 years ago, I started in consulting with a boutique firm in Connecticut and because of how they work, I learned good habit from the start and avoided a lot of the bad habits that folks learn unfortunately, when they’re part of large companies. Rose through the ranks there, created my own little practice inside the practice and there came a time when there were six partners who were going to purchase the company back from a firm that had bought us. Two of the partners, myself and one other, decided we didn’t want to be part of that. We were going to spin off and form our own group, which is what we did.
I bought out my partner and then that morphed into something a little bit unusual. What I realized was, I love the business of consulting. I was constantly being distracted by everyone else’s genius. That would either kill my business or, I had to make that my business and so I chose the latter and created the Ascendant Consortium with the idea being, I would find these geniuses who were really unique in how they approach different problems. Breakthrough thinkers. That was the foundation for the Ascendant Consortium and because that I was in this unusual position of being a client and a consultant on every project, my client would hire and then I would hire consultants.
I got a really interesting perspective on how clients hire and what they’re looking for, what works, what doesn’t work, what creates a good project, how you create more value. That’s the Ascendant Consortium and up until a couple of years ago, that was my whole practice. Then, what happened a few years ago is, some of the consultants I was working with, started to ask me how I was winning these projects and almost as a lark, I took on a couple of consultants as … I said, “Yeah, sure. I’m happy to coach you on this,” and that lark has now turned into over 75% of my business. This sort of natural evolution. I fell into this. I can’t say it was a grand plan.
Will Bachman: Talk me through how you work with a independent consultant, let’s say or, a small boutique firm. How do you work with them? What are you advising them on?
David Fields: Obviously, it depends a little bit, where they are. What I’ve seen is, independent consultants and boutique firms face three very common problems. The first problem is, how do we generate more rain? How do we create more revenue and especially, if you’re a boutique firm, how do we get more people to generate rain? It’s a founder owner, which are very common in boutiques, they are good at creating business but once you get to a certain point, you need to spread that out and you can’t have the whole business dependent on the founder owner. Even if you’re a one person shop, there’s always a question of; how do I create a more reliable new business engine?
That’s one problem. The next problem that independents face is; how do we scale? How do I set up a business that allows me to grow and produce more value, capture more revenue, create more profit without working around the clock? Or, if I want to add people, how do I do that efficiently? That sort of ties in then, to the third common problem, which is not for solos but it’s for boutique firms is; how do I attract and retain outstanding talent? What I work with depends a little bit … When I work with a consultant, depends a little bit on where they are in the spectrum. When I’m working with a solo consultant, for example, they may not be interested in attracting and retaining talent but virtually every solo consultant wants to know; how do I bring in more revenue and, how do I reduce my labor intensity?
Will Bachman: Let’s talk about that some.
David Fields: Sure.
Will Bachman: That’s certainly the most common thing that I get asked and that I hear about is people saying, “Yeah, I can do the work but how do I generate work? What are ideas around that?” How do you work with an independent, solo practitioner on helping him or her do the business development side and increase the flow of project?
David Fields: Again, all of this depends on where someone is. I’m not a believer in having a; here’s my 12-step program and it’s week one, therefore you’re in step one. A few years ago when I first set up a program for independent consultants, I did that and I realized, you know what? Everybody needs something different, at a different time. What you need, is very different from what another consultant may need. In general, most consultants need to, of course, take a look at their offering, at their value proposition, at what I call a fishing line because, most consultants … Let’s say a solo consultant who wants to know, “How do I generate more business?” Their instinct is, “How do I get in front of more prospects?”
They think have a visibility problem but in fact, most consultants who think they have a visibility problem, have an impact problem. It’s not that they’re not seeing enough prospects, it’s that they’re not having any impact when they’re in front of those prospects. The first thing we need to do is ensure you’re talking about a subject that prospects want to hear. That you’re addressing a problem that’s provocative and they want to solve. Not something that you’re interested in solving. Something they want to have solved and they urgently want to solve now. When you talk to prospects about those types of problems well, guess what? It’s a heck of a lot easier to surface opportunities and win business. That’s often the first step is, just making sure there’s impact. There are other steps that are fairly common, I just know from having worked with a lot of consultants.
There’s a certain amount of, let’s call it discipline, or diligence, around some of what I call the five marketing musts and if we can create a little bit more discipline and consistency in attacking those marketing musts, business starts to appear. It’s not overnight. I don’t think this is an overnight business but when you do the right things consistently, this actually, is not a terribly hard business. Business just flows in.
Will Bachman: What are those five marketing musts?
David Fields: The five marketing musts and, you don’t have to do all five of them but, you have to do at least two. The five marketing musts are: speaking, writing, trade associations, digital presence, and networking. They’re not mutually exclusive. They build on each other. Speaking, writing, networking, digital presence and trade associations. I gave you a different order. The one that’s nonnegotiable is networking. This is a relationship business, it’s a human business, it’s a people to people business and therefore, if you won’t pick up the phone, if you won’t talk with folks, walk down the hall, meet people, look into people, become interested in people, it’s going to be a really difficult business for you.
That doesn’t mean you have to be an extrovert because 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, if you’re willing to get out there on stage and speak or you’re willing to write consistently, or you’re willing to create a strong digital presence or you’re willing to become an active, involved member of a trade association, then you can generate business.
Will Bachman: For listeners, I can see David, that you’re talking through step three, from your book, which I should mention by name here because I love this book. I was one of the first people to review it on Amazon. It’s awesome. Five stars. Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients: Six Steps to Unlimited Clients and Financial Freedom. I have now read twice and taken pretty detailed notes on. Step three, you talked about those five-
David Fields: Yeah.
Will Bachman: Elements. For the networking piece, I went through and I actually did the exercise you suggest of, doing the ranking like the A through C and-
David Fields: Yeah. Segmentation. Right.
Will Bachman: Maybe you could talk about that a little bit and then give some advice. I did that exercise. I downloaded, actually from LinkedIn now, you can download your complete archive, which is-
David Fields: Yup.
Will Bachman: A cool tip. I downloaded my complete archive of contacts from LinkedIn, which was a nice, convenient list and then I did your scoring and then … Give me some advice on, once you’ve done that, how do you start reaching out to people ’cause that’s where I think I have a mental block of picking up the phone.
David Fields: Yeah. Of course. Yeah. Let’s address that. I’ll be really interested in talking with you about your experience doing that exercise because that segmentation exercise isn’t easy. It can be grueling. One of the reasons that the consultants I work with, I have them do that exercise is, of course, I want them to identify their network core. Which is what you do. Also, I know from experience that every consultant who goes through that has a number, “Oh, gosh. I can’t believe it, I forgot about Jim Smith. I haven’t talked to him in ages. I should give him a call.” Right? I’ll be interested if that occurred for you also.
Will Bachman: Yeah. Absolutely. I should probably say, you can probably better explain than me. Do you want to tell our listeners what the sort of, A, B, C, one, two, three scheme is?
David Fields: Sure. The segmentation’s on two dimensions. One is a relationship strength. Is this someone whom you know very well? My brother called this morning. I’d like to think I know my brother pretty well. He gets a high rating. The one, two, three is, what’s the level of influence on making a decision and actually bringing you in as a consultant? Is it a decision maker, someone who has power of the purse and can say, “Yes,” or is an influencer or none of the above? My brother called me this morning. Oddly enough or, perhaps not oddly, he recently joined a consulting firm. Not only do I have a strong relationship with him, he’s an influencer.
Unfortunately, he can’t bring me in himself but, he can have some influence. My sister, on the other hand, I have a very strong relationship with but, as a full-time yoga teacher, she doesn’t really have much in the way to offer so she doesn’t make that kind of network core. It’s a matter of, how strong a relationship do you have and can they actually bring you in? You’re looking for those people with whom you have strong relationships and they can open the purse and make a decision and bring you in as a consultant.
Will Bachman: In the core, as you laid it out is, the A1’s.
David Fields: Yep.
Will Bachman: People who are going to return your emails and a day and can make a decision. The A2’s; people who can make a decision and are somewhat close, they’ll maybe return your call. The B1’s, the people that are influencers and will return your text message or your call. In that influencer category, I’d also add folks that aren’t necessarily the most senior but, maybe they’re an analyst at a private equity firm or, they’re the kind of person who can suggest your name to a partner and saying, “Hey, here’s someone that we-
David Fields: Sure.
Will Bachman: “Might bring in.”
David Fields: Yeah. Look, every contact’s a good contact. I do believe in that because I believe in relationships. Every contact’s a good contact but, when you have limited time and you have limited energy for networking, then you have to do a little triage. You have to say, “Where should I spend my time?” That’s where identifying your network core; the A1’s, the A2’s, the B1’s, helps.
Will Bachman: I totally had that experience going through the list, you say, “Oh man, I haven’t talked to this person in a while.” So I come up with the list of the core network and some folks are easy to call? They’re close friends, I haven’t talked to for a while but, some … What’s some on actually picking up the phone and or emailing someone but, I think you recommend … Calls are sort of the best trade off between-
David Fields: Yep.
Will Bachman: Investment of time and impact. What’s some advice about, you know, pick up the call? What do you say? What are you calling about? “Hi, it’s been five years.”
David Fields: Give me an example of someone. If you’re not comfortable with the name, just disguise the name but, give me the sort of situation.
Will Bachman: Okay. Sure.
David Fields: Someone you feel like, “I should call them but, I’m a little uncomfortable for some reason.”
Will Bachman: Okay. Sure. Let’s say it’s a partner, a guy who was a partner at a big private equity firm. I got introduced to him. Very warm intro, I don’t know, six, seven years ago. Did some work with one of their portfolio companies. He’s now left and kind of Managing Director at some other PE firm. Haven’t talked to him in a while. He had, good opinion of me. Right? I think he respected me. We just haven’t been in contact for a while. How do you restart one of those?
David Fields: He’s a decision maker?
Will Bachman: Oh yeah.
David Fields: But your relationship is-
Will Bachman: Maybe a two, not a three.
David Fields: Cool.
Will Bachman: Yeah. Cool.
David Fields: I’m going to tell you my recommendation but first, it’d be really helpful and I think instructive for everyone to tell me, what your hesitation is. What makes it difficult to pick up the phone? Give me a first name so we’re not talking in the abstract and call this person.
Will Bachman: I’ll say it’s Andrew, let’s say. Partly it’s time. Right? Part of it is figuring out a time during the week where I’m going to just do this at all, all right? I don’t know. There’s maybe 200 names on the core list, which is probably too long.
David Fields: Yep.
Will Bachman: You know?
David Fields: Yep.
Will Bachman: It’s a big, long list. Part of it is … Even if you’re not 100% utilized, usually, there’s some projects on the table where you know like, I probably have something else overdue already, right or, I know I should be doing something. It’s almost tough to carve out the time and say, “Okay, I don’t know, four to five pm today, I’m going to do something that’s like, just pure investment and not based on some action item that’s on my list.” That’s tough. If I can get over that and just sit down, then it’s a little bit of just a weird thing. Calling up someone, you know? Are they going to think that I’m trying to get something out of them and be annoyed or just not have time. What do I say? “Hey, it’s been five years. How have you been? I see you’ve left that place and what are you doing now?”
David Fields: It feels uncomfortable.
Will Bachman: Oh, yeah.
David Fields: Thank you for sharing. Let’s address both of those. One issue is, “Gosh, how do I find the time? I have other demands,” and that’s the first issue. The second issue is, it feels awkward, it feels uncomfortable and isn’t there some expectation on either for me or for the person I’m calling, for Andrew? Okay. The first issue, if you are busy … A lot of us are very busy then, I would change your frame of reference slightly. You have a client that you’re perhaps not recognizing and that client is called, new business. New business, as a client, has demands. You have to service that client the same way, with the same attention and the same quality that you would service any other client. Because that client, new business, will actually pay you more over the years you are in this profession, than any other client.
If you treat that client badly, the client’s going to treat you badly. You have to take it seriously. You have to seriously say, “Okay, this … You know, new business is a client. A client that demands roughly, 20% of my time and I have to live up to my commitments to that client. I committed to new business, company,” or call it whatever you want but, “I committed to new business. Then I would make a handful of calls every week.” And, “Oh gosh, if I don’t do that, I’m not cheating myself, I’m cheating this client.” There’s a little bit of a call to professional perspective on this, in how you look at new business and all the activities related to it.
Will Bachman: Yeah. No. That’s a helpful perspective. Okay. I like that. Then, what do I say when the person picks up the phone?
David Fields: Okay. Now you say, “Okay, what am I gonna say to Andrew?” By the way, the hardest call to make, is that first call.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
David Fields: It’s just … Picking up the phone is brutal. I would probably call and, assuming I got Andrew, or I got a voicemail, I would say, “Andrew, this is Will.” In my case, “This is David. We haven’t talked in forever, which is totally my fault. Have been out of the loop and I would love to just catch up and find out what’s goin’ on. I know you moved to the PE firm to know you’re running this venture capital group and I would love to hear how you, you, made that transition. How you went from one place to the other.” There you go.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
David Fields: That’s it.
Will Bachman: All right.
David Fields: It’s right side out. It’s not about me, it’s about him.
Will Bachman: Yeah. David, I’m going to make that call today. How’s that?
David Fields: Outstanding.
Will Bachman: All right.
David Fields: Let me know how that goes.
Will Bachman: I will. I will. I will let you know.
David Fields: Now how did that … Did that make sense to you, how to …
Will Bachman: Yeah. It did. It did. It’s uncomfortable but, I like your point about treating it as an actual client and, you got a commitment every week to it. You just got to pick up the phone.
David Fields: Will, no one objects to someone being interested in them.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
David Fields: If you’re thinking, “This is actually a thinly disguised approach to get business,” then it is a problem. It’s a problem for them and it’s a problem for you and it is uncomfortable. If you are genuinely investing in the relationship and you want to know how he made it from the PE firm, to his current spot, then it’s not so uncomfortable. You’re interested in the person and that’s why you’re calling. That’s actually the hardest transition, I think, for a lot of people to make.
Is this true interest in other people. When you’re interested in other people, that nurtures your relationship. The business comes along by itself. I got a call yesterday, from someone who I hadn’t heard of in years, and years, and years, or heard from in years. Other than through email. Just to nurture the relationship. He says, “you know what?” He’s at a big Aluminum company, which I’ll go and name, he said, “You know what? I think I’ve got some projects for you.” You know, outstanding. That’s not why I had the conversation with him.
Will Bachman: You said the networking, that meant obviously, that one is sort of the … You got to do that one. You mentioned a few other ones; writing, speaking, trade associations, digital presence. I’ve talked to some people who, maybe they do a blog and they say, “Okay, it’s never actually really resulted in business.” One perspective on that is, it’s not necessarily going to generate the business or get you the lead but that kind of thing can validate you once someone does become aware of you. Right? If somehow you do get introduced by a friend of a friend and then they check out your LinkedIn or your website or your blog and they say, “Wow, he’s been writing about, you know, pharma, you know, marketing launches, for five years. Clearly, you know, is, an expert.” They might find your blog and then call you based on that but you’ve been talking and advising lots of folks. I’d love to hear what kind of writing or what kind of speaking actually leads to projects as opposed to kind of going into outer space and never amounting to much.
David Fields: Writing is an interesting one to choose Will because it has a few benefits as a marketing tool, as a practice building tool. It is a long term strategy. It is not a fast path to cash. Of those five marketing musts, writing is probably the slowest. Writing has some other advantages. One of which is, it helps you understand your own subject matter better because, if you’re going to write and write clearly and create content that’s valuable, you have to make sense. You have to make sense to yourself and so, it forces you to think through your own knowledge and your own expertise. That’s a benefit right there. I agree with you.
I think that just having a body of work, whether it’s on your website or articles or published in the … What do they call it? The inter web. It helps with credibility. It shows you have some level of seriousness about what you’re doing, that there’s some rigor behind how you approach things. There are those benefits. Writing can create business, it just tends to be a slow path to business. There’s a lot of different vehicles you can use. You could choose to write vehicles and balance where you’re writing and what vehicles over your timeline and expectations.
Will Bachman: Yeah. For industry focused folks, or for functional folks, you recommend I think, thinking about writing for a trade journal or something.
David Fields: Absolutely.
Will Bachman: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that.
David Fields: Trade journals are absolutely where you want to write. You don’t want to write for Forbes or Fortune because, those audiences are too general. Even HBR. I mean, I’ve worked with quite a few consultants that have written for Harvard Business Review and it doesn’t actually lead to business necessarily. It may … Look, it’s nice to have on your resume and it’s nice to say you’ve written for Harvard Business Review so it’s a good cred. It doesn’t the business because, the people who are reading that are kind of just … It’s a general interest. When you pick up a trade magazine, if you’re writing for … I think you called it a pharmaceutical launch.
Will Bachman: Right.
David Fields: There’s probably a pharmaceutical launch magazine. Undoubtedly. There’s a few trade journals like that and if that’s your world, you can bet that the people who are reading those magazines have very specific problems that you can address and they’re reading those magazines because they read about issues that are relevant, specifically to them. Specifically to the challenges they’re facing. That’s where you get business, is by showing them you can solve their specific challenge. People don’t hire consultants for just general, you know? “Hey, come in and make my business better.” They hire consultants to solve specific problems or achieve specific aspirations. A trade journal, you’re talking to the right audience and you’re talking with them about a topic that they’re interested in. Yeah. Absolutely. Trade journals are the place to go.
Will Bachman: You have some points about how to ask for introductions, which is something I’m terrible at. That’s one of the things I’m vowing to get better at. Talk to me about how you tell people … recommend that we ask for introductions.
David Fields: Just in general? Let’s say you talk to Andrew.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
David Fields: I might not recommend this in your very first conversation back with Andrew after five years.
Will Bachman: Right.
David Fields: But maybe your second conversation with him. The classic way a lot of people are taught to ask for introductions, it sounds something like this, “Will, knowing people and meeting people is very important for my business. Who do you know who could use my services?” Right? It’s just horrible. It’s painful. It’s painful to say that. It’s painful to hear it. Nobody likes that and it never works. I shouldn’t say it never works, it’s got a low success rate.
Will Bachman: Yeah. It’s so awkward it could kill a weak relationship.
David Fields: Yeah.
Will Bachman: It’s like, “Ah, I don’t wanna see you again.”
David Fields: It is. It’s terrible. I mean, think about it, you’re asking someone to first of all, have a really good understanding of everyone they know. They would have to know someone else’s needs and problems. Do you really know a lot of … You know a lot of people but, do you know really, what they’re going through? What their challenges are? That would come to you off the top of your head? Of course not. Implicitly, you’re saying, “And I want you to recommend someone to me that I can go and sell to.”
Will Bachman: Right.
David Fields: They’re like, “Yeah. I don’t think so.” I approach it a completely different way. First of all, I’m not going in selling and, I’m not going to go in asking who you know that I can … who has a problem I can solve and that I can sell to. Instead, I would simply say, “Andrew, I love talking to you. I’m glad we reconnected. I bet, because you’re now walking in this world of venture capital, I bet you have talked to some really fascinating people in the past couple of months and I’m curious, who’s the most interesting person you’ve talked to in the past two months?” He’s going to say, “Well, Betty Jane Glen Worthy.” You say, “If she is that interesting and intriguing to you, I would love to meet her. Would you be willing to broker an introduction?”
Nine or ten times out of ten, Andrew’s going to say, “Yeah. Of course.” Why? Because he’s already in a positive mindset. He’s already thinking, “Wow, here’s a person I think is really interesting.” You have a positive vibe going on already and association. He’s talking about someone he admires and you say, “Yeah. Sure. Of course.” You complimented him. You’ve now connected into someone he likes and I’m not worried about Mary Jane Glen Worthy is a perspective client or not. Okay? Because I’m going to meet her and we’re going to create a relationship and she may know somebody interesting. What I know from experience is, first of all, interesting people are just fun to know. That’s where you learn. That’s where you grow as an individual. They’re also interesting people, movers and shakers. Fascinating thought leaders are more likely to hire consultants.
They turn out to be good people to know. How would just sort of asking, “Who, who have you talked to that’s been really fascinating, in the past couple of months?” How would that feel for you?
Will Bachman: I think that’s much easier. That feels much more natural. Like, “Well, if they’re interesting to you, they’re interesting to me,” and it’s not as if I’m trying to … I’m going to go sell to them.
David Fields: Right.
Will Bachman: Does it ever work? Have you ever seen people successful at reaching out, cold, to someone on LinkedIn? Does it ever work? Is there any strategy for doing that, that actually could work out?
David Fields: No. LinkedIn is a fascinating question. What I can tell you is, I don’t know of anyone who has won a six figure project from an outreach directly from LinkedIn. Now, you might meet people through LinkedIn, gradually build a relationship and then that leads to a substantial project. You can certainly win little stuff, five’s and ten’s. That kind of stuff. 10 grand or something, from someone through LinkedIn. Not substantial consulting. Not that I’ve seen. Not yet. I’m sure there’s a way to do it and I’m sure no one’s figured it out yet or if they have, I haven’t come across them.
Will Bachman: Well, certainly not just on a cold, first pass but, would it be something like … To your point about involving people in some of your writing. Like, if you reached out to someone first and just said, “Hey, you know, I’m doing some research. Writing a white paper and, would love to interview you based on, you know-
David Fields: Yup.
Will Bachman: “Your role as VP of, you know, Global Supply Chain Procurement. I’m res- researching how to buy widgets from, you know, Indonesia and, looks like you do that.” Get to know people that way perhaps?
David Fields: Yeah. That’s not using LinkedIn as a social network. That’s using LinkedIn as a research source to identify targets. In which case, the same rules apply that apply anywhere else. If you are willing to do outreach and say, “Hey, can I … In our … I’m writing an article, you look like you would be a great person to cite in this next article I’m writing. Would you be willing for me to interview you?” One way to identify people like that is through LinkedIn. Then you can identify them in lots of place. That’s a good way to meet people. That said, you can not then turn around and say, “Hey, thanks for the interview. Now, I’d love to sell you some business.”
Will Bachman: Right. Right. Right. Right.
David Fields: There’s a transition that has to happen and that transition has to be managed carefully.
Will Bachman: Let’s turn to the context discussion. One of the most powerful parts of your book, step five in fact, is the context discussion and that had never really been presented to me in the clarity that you do. I’ve actually tried it. I’m rusty, but I’ve tried it three or four times since I read your book, couple weeks ago. Could you walk through how that context discussion ought to work? Set it up?
David Fields: Sure.
Will Bachman: When would you do it? What are those six topics that we should cover?
David Fields: Yeah. The context discussion is pretty darn important. It does take practice til you become really facile with it. The underpinning is a very simple idea. It’s my belief that to become the obvious choice to a prospect, all that boils down to really one word, which is discovery. If you conduct discovery in a way that allows you to understand your prospect better than anyone else and perhaps better than your prospect himself, it then becomes easy to tailor your offering in a way that you are an obvious choice. You’re the only person that makes sense. It’s all about discovery. The context discussion is … It doesn’t necessarily just happen in one conversation. It can happen over a number of conversations with a number of people but the context discussion is a frame work for discovery. The time to enter into that is after two things have happened. One, and hopefully I’m being consistent with the book. Right? Of course, I have the book in front of me but hopefully I’m consistent in what I say.
Will Bachman: I’m following along. I’ll correct you if you make a mistake, David.
David Fields: I appreciate that. Two things have to have happened. One, you have to have established that you’re thinking right side up. You’re being customer first. You’re not just in this to sell. Second, a specific opportunity has to be identified meaning, your prospect has to have brought up a problem or an aspiration that you can actually help with and not something general, “Gee, we’d really like to, you know, improve our business.” Well that’s more kind of general conversation. Like I told you about this person who I talked to just yesterday who said, “You know, I may have some projects for you.” That’s great but that’s not time for a context discussion because he hasn’t mentioned anything specific.
If he says, “Well, where we’re really having challenges is, um, on one of our lines, we have some efficiency issues.” Okay, now that’s specific. Now I can say, “Well, would you like to have a conversation around how we might be able to work together to solve that?” If he says yes, now I’m going to have a context discussion. Okay? You enter into it once there’s that specific problem or aspiration. Then, I will typically set up a context discussion by just letting someone know what I’m doing and giving them a bit of a road map. I’ll say, “Will, um, here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to have a, a discussion with you.”
“I’m gonna cover six topics and, when I cover those six topics, that will put us on the same page and that will allow me to, to determine whether it makes sense for us to even work together and to put together a good proposal if it does make sense and so, here are the six topics I’d like to cover. I wanna understand your situation a little bit better. I wanna know what the outcome is, you’re trying to get to and how we’ll know whether we’re there. That’s the third topic. How we’ll know. Fourth, I wanna just talk about any concerns you have, any risks you see to this project. Fifth, I wanna understand the value. Why even bother doing the project? And sixth, let’s talk about any parameters. So, those are this six topics I was thinkin’ about. Is that okay? Would that work for you?” I’m going to ask them for permission. Their answer, 100% of the time is, “Yeah. That sounds great.” Then I’m going to dive in to each of those topics. The situation, the desired outcome, the indicators of success, the procedure risks and concerns, the value, and the parameters.
The parameters, to be completely fair and transparent is somewhat of a foil to get to budget. I do want to know about all the different boundaries around the project, but I especially want to understand their budget concerns.
Will Bachman: Yeah. I like the way you phrase that question. Are there … In the book I think you said it like, “Yeah, in terms of budget, are there any kind of budget numbers that we should keep in mind? Any numbers that we can’t go over?”
David Fields: Right.
Will Bachman: I think is what you used it.
David Fields: Yeah. I used that. I don’t know if in the book, I talked about the heart attack question.
Will Bachman: Yeah. I think you did. Say that one. What’s the?
David Fields: I will often say, “At what number, if I- I come in at, will you have an absolute heart attack? Will you just like, keel over?” I use that to get an upper bound and to reset their own reference price and inject a little bit of levity. Any of these kinds of things, you have to use your own lamb so it’s comfortable for you. Heart attack is comfortable for me and everybody laughs. Inject a little bit of levity but also, if someone were thinking, “Gosh, I hope this project’s $100,000,” and I say, “Will, just let me know so that I don’t go crazy and I don’t kill yeah here, what number, if it comes in, will give you an absolute heart attack?” Then you’re going to go, “Ooph, wow. A heart attack? Well, I will tell you, if it came out at 250, we would have a major problem.” I would say, “Okay. Great.” Now, I have just raised your reference price from 100,000 to 250.
Will Bachman: What’s David’s rule of thumb on … You divide by what factor to get the number that they were kind of thinking it would be? If someone had in mind, it’s going to be 100k and they say a heart attack price is 250, is it fair to say well, you take their heart attack price, you divide by 2.5 and that’s the number to keep in mind?
David Fields: Oh. I don’t know a good rule of thumb for that. That’s a really good question. They’re also going to say, “I was kinda hoping this would be a hundred. At 250, I can tell you there’s no way we could do it.”
Will Bachman: Right.
David Fields: So now I know, I’m probably going to come in with an alternative that’s maybe a hundred, a hundred and five, maybe a buck and a quarter and maybe an alternative that’s 185 and I may even give them an alternative that’s three and a quarter. Knowing it’s above what they said but it also contains much more than they asked for and could set up the next project. That’s a whole other topic and I don’t even get deep into pricing strategies in this book. There are a lot of ways to play pricing. Thinking about where you want the clients to end up.
Will Bachman: In terms of the context discussions, do you have the context discussion and then, what do you do with the context discussion once you’ve asked these six questions?
David Fields: Okay. Once you’ve gone through the six topics and … I think either, in the book or in a download you can get through the book … I give you really, the core questions you need to ask, in each of those sections. Then, you summarize it. They’re going to go, “Okay, so can you give me a proposal?” You’re going to say, “No! Not yet. Let me pull this together,” and also, “Hopefully, we’ve already established that you’re the decision maker on this and if not, I need to have this conversation with the decision maker also.” Let’s say you’re the decision maker. I’m going to pull this together. I’m going to summarize it in what I call a context document. I’m going to send that to you. Tell me if I captured everything correctly. Let’s have a discussion. I can get this to you … Today’s Friday, I’ll have it on your desk by end of the day Monday.”
“Can we talk on Tuesday or Wednesday? Then you go through and you summarize it into a context document. You just summarize the six things. What I find is, most the time, it needs a tweaking. Not because you captured it wrong but because you’re forcing your clients to think through their own situations in more depth than they thought through it before, which is part of the reason that I’ve been able to create more valuable projects over the years is, I forced my clients to think about their own projects better. You do a little tweak and once you have agreement on that, on that context, then it’s really easy to create a proposal. You say, “Okay. Now we talked on Tuesday, if I get you a proposal, when will you be able to get back to me?” You say, “Well, probably not till next Thursday.” “Okay, I’ll have a proposal to you by next Tuesday. I’ll give you a couple days. You look it through and then we’ll connect on Thursday and you set a time,” and all that kind of jazz. That’s it. Does that make sense?
Will Bachman: Yeah. No. That’s great. That, to me, was a new thing. I have not done that before. I’ve just gone straight to initial discussion to proposal so I’m now trying that out. That sort of intermediate step of the context document. Just verifying. Got it. I will let you know if it works.
David Fields: It slows it down slightly.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
David Fields: If you have a client that’s saying, “Will, look. My checkbook’s here. I’m ready to sign.” Then, don’t do that. In most cases, that’s not where clients are, or prospects are. They have some level of doubt and concern and the extra step allows you to alleviate those concerns. It allows you to demonstrate. You’re deeply engaged in what they need, not in what you need. The close rate is much higher.
Will Bachman: Yeah. Let’s talk for a minute about fee structures.
David Fields: Okay.
Will Bachman: I think most folks that I know are doing just sort of typical time and materials, daily rate. Some folks will do maybe a fixed price projects if they have a pretty good sense of what it’s about. I know very few people who have done purely value based, at the end.
David Fields: Yeah.
Will Bachman: You have this interesting hybrid structure that you recommend as the best. Maybe you could walk through your two-by-two and talk about this hybrid structure that you found works.
David Fields: The two-by-two so … I tend to look at pricing from the consultant side. This is not actually how I recommend it from a client side but, from a consultant side, I’d say think about your fee structures on two dimensions. One is, are you basing your fees on time and materials as, you said, a lot of folks are. I had a women write me a note the other day and said, “Can you help me? I wanna practice where I make $127 an hour. 82 hours a month.” I swear to God, this is what she wrote to me. I wrote back and said, “What kind of an odd goal is that?” What kind of a … You know? It just struck me as so strange. Are you basing your fees like that? I want to do a certain number of hours at a certain rate or are you basing it on the value that you’re creating because that’s one axis and the other axis is, when is the fee determined? Is it determined before the project is completed or often, before it’s started? Or is it determined after?
If it’s before, then it’s fixed. You’ve said, “Here’s a fixed fee.” No matter whether you’re doing it on value or you’re doing it on some estimate of time and materials. If you’re doing it afterwards then, it’s variable. You say, “Here’s the actual, the actual value I created and therefore, here’s the actual fee.” Or, “Here’s the actual hours that were worked and therefore, here’s the fee.” Two-by-two. You’ve got your quadrant and if the vertical axis is time and materials down at the bottom and value at the top and the horizontal axis is before, over at the left and after over on the right, then in the bottom right quadrant, you have standard variable time materials. How it’ll work for you, it’s a certain number of hours. I’ve got workmen coming into my office here, on a time and materials basis, to do som work. That’s really typical.
It’s also, that’s how you hire workmen to do work in your office. When you are a consultant of the talent of all the people that are in your group, Will, and that you know and you’re bringing IP and thought leadership, I don’t think you need to be or should be paid that way most of the time because you’re not a commodity. Over in the bottom left, it’s the same thing. You’re just pricing it on a fixed basis. You’re still thinking, “Oh, I think I’ll spend two months on this and I wanna make $15,000 a month so, $30,000.” Right? You’re still doing it based on your input, not on the output.
Will Bachman: Right.
David Fields: Up at the top, you’re thinking to, “What’s the value I’m creating?” Pricing is tricky, especially when you go into value based pricing. If I’m producing $11 million dollars in profit for a company, in two months, why would I charge $30,000? Especially if it’s based on my particular IP. My thinking. If I say, “You know what? We’ve agreed. You told me, in our context discussion that, if we do this, it’s $11 million. Just the part I’m workin’ on is $11 million.” I say, “Fair enough. Here’s what I was thinkin’, for this work that I’m gonna do for you, I was thinking 180 grand,” because you know, through my feel of what he’s willing to pay, through our discussion of the heart attack price through, all of these kinds of things, I’ve got a sense that 180, he’ll probably go for. It’s got nothing to do with how many months, how many days. It has everything to do with what I think he will pay based on the value he’s receiving.
My margin on projects is a heck of a lot higher and importantly, my ability to do whatever is necessary to get that client to the end goal, is far higher if I’m being paid 180 than if I’m being paid 30. If I say 180 then that’s fixed, that’s the top left. If I say, “You know what? I’ll take 10% of whatever profit I create,” that’s a success fee. That’s completely variable. When we determine at the end, we actually did $11 million dollars, then I’ve got a $1.1 million fee. That’s pretty good. Most clients won’t do that. What I’ve found that the ideal fee structure is a hybrid on value base between a flat fee and some success fees. Where you go in and say, “Here’s what I’ll do. We can do it 150 or $180,000 or, I’ll do this project for $100,000 fixed. That’s the flat fee. And I will put $80,000 of it, almost half, at risk and if we are successful,” and we have to agree on what success looks like, “Then my bonus will be 150.” You only pay that if you’re achieving your $11 million of success.
That structure is extreme invaluable to everybody. The client ends up getting a better return. They’re only paying it if they’re achieving success and you as a consultant, are getting an outstanding margin. I love those projects. I have a lot of projects set up that way. Those are my favorite ’cause they’re just, crazy high margin.
Will Bachman: Yeah. I want to make sure I got those numbers right. In those two options, remind me. Option A is a fixed fee of what?
David Fields: I was just making these numbers up so be careful with how far you go with them.
Will Bachman: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
David Fields: In the example I gave I think I said, fixed value based fee of 180.
Will Bachman: Okay.
David Fields: And I said, “I’ll put the 80 at risk.” I typically don’t put more than 50% at risk. I don’t think that’s a good model to put more than that at risk. Then, if you’re going to put 80 at risk, asking for 160 or 150 or 200, take your pick, as your bonus, it’s pretty reasonable.
Will Bachman: You would be offering a fixed fee of 180K or, you can say, “We’ll do a fee of, let’s say, 100,000 but then, if it’s successful and meets its targets, you’d pay me 100 plus 150 or 250?”
David Fields: Yep.
Will Bachman: Okay.
David Fields: 250 total. What you will find doing this in all likelihood is, about two thirds of your clients will say, “Wow. That’s really interesting Will. I’ll pay the 180.” About one third will say, “Wow. What a fascinating fee structure. Sure. If you’re that confident in it, let’s do the 100 and uh, I’ll pay you the bonus when we’re successful.”
Will Bachman: Got it. That creates values both ways right? Especially if you … Setting the fixed fee of 180 anchors it as that would be the reasonable price.
David Fields: Yeah.
Will Bachman: Especially if you make the lower number or something that you could live with, right? Be able to pay your bills.
David Fields: Ideally, you don’t lose money on that lower number but it should hurt. It really should.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
David Fields: Or else, frankly on this project … The example I gave where it would have been 30 on a time and materials basis but 180 on a value basis, that’s unusual. That spread is a little larger than typical.
Will Bachman: Right. Right.
David Fields: Yeah. On a value based project where you’re doing a hybrid structure, the flat fee portion of it, yeah. You should be able to live with. Not happily but you’ll live with it because you don’t want to many of those where you’re not living up to your commitment. The reason this works is because we’re good at what we do. We deliver on our promises. The advantage of a value based structure is, you have the room to deliver on your promise.
Will Bachman: Got it. David, you can tell I’m a big fan of your book. What are the one or two books that you haven’t written that you think every consultant ought to read?
David Fields: You mean the books I’m going to write next?
Will Bachman: Yeah.
David Fields: Okay. Other books consultants should read. If you haven’t read the Trusted Advisor by David Maister and Charlie Green and someone else, I don’t recall, I think that’s important. Those are good books. The Go-Giver by Bob Burg is … Bob and I have a lot of common philosophies. He’s also this sort of right side up thinking. Thinking of others first is, as you can imagine with a title like the name, The Go-Giver. It’s a good book. It’s a fable. It’s an easy read. I think the best books on marketing and consulting, you need to know how to market yourself. My favorites are Influence by Robert Cialdini. It’s a classic book.
Will Bachman: Yeah. Sure.
David Fields: Chip and Dan Heath’s book it’s either Why Things Stick or Made to Stick. What’s funny is, I can’t remember which, even though the book is … Everybody knows the book.
Will Bachman: That’s the one with the-
David Fields: Great book.
Will Bachman: Yeah. It’s the one with the duct tape on the cover I think.
David Fields: Exactly.
Will Bachman: Yeah. Yeah.
David Fields: You know the cover. Brilliant cover.
Will Bachman: Great cover.
David Fields: They’re very, very good writers. I think that’s interesting. I mean, I go on and on ’cause I read veraciously. Those are good books to read. If you just happen to think how people act is interesting and want to be more sophisticated then in how you market, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.
Will Bachman: Sure. Love that.
David Fields: He has some really interesting observations on pricing and pricing comparisons which is applicable ’cause in the contracts we present where there’s always alternatives, you’re always giving three prices. How you arrange those three prices … I’ve written about that, not in this book but else where. There is some influence from Dan Ariely’s work. That’ll get people started.
Will Bachman: I’m going to go then, read Go-Giver on your recommendation. I love the Trusted Advisor. I read that book probably once a year to-
David Fields: Wow.
Will Bachman: Remind myself. Yeah. That’s on my bookshelf. I like that one so much I went out and bought all the books by David Maister and he has … The Trusted Advisor is sort of his one for individual consultants. The individual level. He has a great book, First Among Equals, I think, for if you’re running a practice firm.
David Fields: Yep. First Among Equals, Running the Professional Service Firm.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
David Fields: To me, it’s slightly outdated. David’s an interesting guy and he’s very retired now. He’s super seriously retired because I’ve tried to get him out of retirement a couple times. He’s just graceful about it. The Running Professional Services Firm is a little bit old school but well work reading. Strategy and the Fat Smoker.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
David Fields: Is pretty good. I told him … We were chatting and I said, “I’m probably the only person who completely understood your title. I thought it was somebody smokes fat.” I was like, “What’s a fat smoker?” But that’s not what he meant at all.
Will Bachman: You’re probably the only one.
David Fields: Yeah. Exactly. If you know David, he is heavy and I should have realized that’s what he was talking about.
Will Bachman: David, I see we’re at the top of the hour here and I could definitely go on and on. I should let you go. I hope we can do a round two sometime. I want to ask you, you have a chance to put something up on a billboard for every consultant to see, what’s your message you’re going to put up there?
David Fields: It’s not about you, it’s about them.
Will Bachman: Love it. Okay. Good note to end on. It’s not about you, it’s about them. David, it was great talking to you. Thanks a lot for being on the podcast.
David Fields: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Will.
Will Bachman: Fantastic. Bye. Thanks for listening to this episode of Unleashed, the podcast that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. I’d love to get your feedback and hear the questions that you’d like to see us answer on this show. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.. That’s U-M-B-R-E-X.com. If you found anything on the show helpful, it would be a real gift if you would let a friend know about the show and take a minute to leave a review on iTunes. It really helps. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top tier independent management consultants. Our audio engineer is Dave Nelson and I’m your host, Will Bachman. Thanks for listening.